Lula and Rex Cosby. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Stafford: After 20 years, Springfield woman has prayers answered

In an interview last June after she was honored by the Springfield Foundation’s African-American Community Family of Funds, Springfield Realtor Lula Cosby told News-Sun columnist Tom Stafford she’d considered writing her life’s story down but hadn’t because it seemed too much like Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She doubted that anyone would be interested.

Today’s article is the final of a four-part series on Cosby, a series that began in the Mississippi of the 1930s, followed the path of the Great Migration to Chicago, and this week concludes as Lula faces two challenges and, after nearly 20 years, has her prayers answered.

To Lula Cosby, the announcement that Drackett Corp. would be closing its Chicago plant in 1982 was a blow. She had had great success there over the previous eight years, not only on the job, but in rebuilding her life with her two sons after her husband’s homicide. Having overcome those obstacles, however, she wasn’t immobilized by the plant’s closing and soon had a business plan.

Part 1: Cosby received grandma’s tough medicine during childhood

Part 2: Springfield woman overcame tough childhood

Part 3: Springfield woman overcame workplace barriers

“I (had done) a fundraiser for (Chicago Mayor) Harold Washington. I was in the club scene at night doing a lot of stuff like that.” Her idea was to use all the contacts she had to open a theatrical welcoming service, one that would both provide income and give her older son, Raphael, a chance to show off his vocal and other talents. (She previously had landed her youngest son, Gordon, a role in “The Blues Brothers” movie.)

Cosby was focused on that when Drackett called. The company needed someone to train contract workers in Kentucky and Mississippi for the work being transferred from Chicago. Other managers had turned down the offer, some, no doubt, because the notion of training their own replacements seemed like adding insult to the injury of losing their jobs. Cosby’s attitude was different: “If they’re going to pay me, I still have two children to feed.”

Since there were no written instructions for many of the jobs, she created them — with the help of the Chicago workers. “I made a handbook, diagrams, and a troubleshooting guide for the machinery.”

Then, two weeks before the final shut down, the corporate human resources director asked if she’d be interested in going to Kentucky and Mississippi to do the hands-on instruction. “I’m doing this for two, maybe three weeks, and I come back and they ask me ‘Would you be interested in staying with the company?’ I wasn’t expecting this at all.”

She was offered a department supervisors’ job in Franklin, Ky., but after a visit said no. The town was too small for her. Soon came a counter-offer: “Well, how about California?”

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“I was engaged to a guy at the time. And the next week they flew me and him and my sons to California. I loved the area.” La Mirada is just south of Los Angeles, not far from Long Beach and Huntington Beach.

The house she had remodeled in Chicago by refinishing the wood floors and adding a garage had appreciated from $20,000 to $87,000, in eight years. She sold it, Drackett packed up her belongings, and her family relocated to a handsome home in Cerritos, Calif., though her fiancé stayed behind.

A year later, she received a call at the La Mirada plant from Drackett’s Urbana, Ohio, plant, after workers had narrowly lost a vote to unionize. The Urbana leadership wanted to know what Cosby had done to cause the workers at La Mirada to decertify an already established union.

“It was not my plan” to have the California plant decertified, Cosby said. She had merely set out to solve a quality assurance bottleneck that had hobbled production. Reasoning that the employees themselves knew of and could address most of the issues of concern, “we gave them the authority to make certain adjustments” that before had been in the hands of the quality assurance department alone. Bottlenecks disappeared and production improved.

Her pitch to the California workers had been this: “If you’re willing to take this responsibility, we’re going to have more product at the end of the year. I am part of the wage review team. So if we’re making more product better product, it’s going to give me leverage” to argue for better wages on the basis of improved production levels and quality.

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“We did that from one line to the other line. The next thing I knew, the employees voted to decertify their union because they felt more a part of the company.”

Cosby accepted the offer to move to Urbana as plant superintendent, sold her house in two weeks, and went to work on making changes on the second and third shifts, where the most dissatisfaction resided.

Cosby started her effort to win employees over by throwing a Halloween Party, inviting the workers to dress up in costumes and offering to tack 15-30 minutes on to their half hour lunch breaks if they could keep the lines running and meet production goals.

At a shop that had only sandwich machines, she also decided to hold a potluck lunch and put up prizes for the best costumes. “It was just a good time,” she recalled. This morphed into monthly potlucks and special days, then competitions in which second and third shift lines started posting record production runs that had previously belonged to the first shift.

At the end of four years, when Cosby was receiving bonuses based on the plant’s increased production, the plant’s human resources director was being transferred to the Cincinnati corporate office and recommended that Cosby apply for her job.

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Because it required a master’s degree and eight years of experience and Cosby lacked even an associate’s degree, she hesitated. The transferring director told her, “Believe it or not, you’ve been doing my job for the last four years.”

“The only thing I needed was the HR background,” she said, which Bristol Myers-Squibb, a $600 million company, took care of through its management training program. “And any type of seminar that would enhance my skills, they would encourage me to attend.”

Cosby found herself responsible for a three-shift operation with more than 500 hourly employees, 45 supervisors and 12 department managers. So that they, too, would have proper training, she contracted with Ohio Hi-Point Joint Vocational School to teach free computer and GED classes on site to all.

As the result of an employee survey, a cafeteria to serve all three shifts was built and eventually a fitness center, and training continued to give workers on the line more authority and responsibility over production.

It all ended in 1992, on her 18th anniversary with the company, when the last plants owned by Bristol-Myers were sold to S.C. Johnson in the midst of a merger. Cosby and other managers had to officially terminate all 557 workers and walk them through their benefits packages. For Cosby, there was just one bright moment: “I took a bus load of 40 lucky employees who were hired by S.C. Johnson to headquarters in Racine, Wis.”

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But the Lula Cosby who found herself at another crossroads was a person who knew what her future held.

“I waited from 1974 to 1992 for God to answer my prayer,” she said. “And my prayer was: Send me someone who will love me and will be faithful to me. I don’t want to die old and alone.”

“Every man that came in my life, (God) would show me, this is not the one, this is not the one,” until “the first day I walked into Shamrock Bowling Alley in hopes of joining a team in the Saturday Night Mixed League.

“I had been (in Urbana) almost a year just working, working, working,” she said. Looking for more African-American companionship, she had been directed to the Shamrock. “I walked in not knowing anyone. I just wanted to bowl.”

“While waiting my turn during the ‘shadow ball warm up,’ I turned to my left and saw this gorgeous man,” she said. “I was engaged and found out later he was married, so I never said anything to him.”

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“Well, two years, three years later, he and his wife went their separate ways, and when I ran into him one day, he asked if we could get together for a cup of coffee.” She wanted to wait, “but I told him to call me. And he did.” For the six weeks after that, Lawrence Rex Cosby “would either call me or come by after work, every day.”

“Six weeks after our first date, he asked me to marry him.” After that, she told the man she had been seeing in Chicago that she had found somebody.

“This had to be done right,” she explained, “so we get in the car, we drive to Louisville for the weekend, he meets my grandmother, she gives him the once over, and everybody down there falls in love with him.”

Still cautious from the experience of her first failed marriage, she told him: “We have been in this whirlwind relationship. So let’s take a year before we get married, because I don’t want to find out later that I don’t like you.”

As things worked out, she did like him. Married six months before the plant closure, the Lula Cosby made another transition and became a Realtor with a slogan that fits her: “There is only one of me, but I work like a team.”

Anchored in Springfield, she began to volunteer extensively in the community. She became the first African-American president of the Springfield Board or Realtors. She became a founding member Clark County Culture Fest Committee; a 34-year member at St. John Missionary Baptist Church; and served as a trustee of OIC of America and Project Woman, and on the Springfield Board of Human Relations Board.

At present she is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, Loyal Ladies of the Golden Circle, a 12-year trustee with the Springfield Foundation, a member of its African-American Community Fund and a 30-year member of the Springfield Chapter of The Links, Inc.

As important to her, she is in her 26th year of marriage with a man she says “has truly been my rock” and is overjoyed by his relationship with her sons. “They are the best of friends. And they acknowledge him as their father.” Together Lula and Rex Cosby have five children (one deceased), 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

When she received her community service award at last June’s banquet of the Springfield Foundation’s African American Family of Funds, it was her husband’s remarks, video recorded in advance, that struck her most deeply.

“I don’t know where I’d be without you and no one deserves this award more than you do,” he told her. “I just want you to know that I love you, and I will continue to support you as long as I have breath in this body.”

Then Lula Cosby, who as a girl had heard her grandmother Henrietta Wells tell her he could do anything she wanted to, listened to her husband tell her she had succeeded.

“Congratulations,” Rex Cosby said, “and keep doin’ what you’re doin.’”

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