Al Cooper was carmaker's longest-serving Mich. Worker.
Barbara Wieland Lansing State Journal August 23, 2006
Al Cooper is someone you should know - Photo by Rod Sanford - Lansing State Journal
By Al Cooper's reckoning, he is a lazy and ambitionless man.
Few people seem to agree. After all, it's not easy to think of an 82-year-old employee who's been at the same company for 60 years as a layabout.
But earlier this year, Cooper surprised his coworkers. He gave notice to his employer, General Motors Corp., that he planned to retire.
When Cooper said his good-byes Aug. 1, he was the longest-serving GM employee in Lansing - and in all of Michigan. Cooper said he stayed so long because he liked his job and the people he worked with.
"I never worked on the line and I had the easiest job there was," said Cooper, who turned 83 on Aug. 12.
For most of his tenure, Cooper replaced forklift batteries at GM's Lansing Metal Center.
"If I had been working on the assembly line, I know I would have been gone 30 years ago," Cooper said.
Cooper was as reluctant to go as he was to start work at GM.
After spending three years stationed in Hawaii during World War II, Cooper returned to his family's home in Lansing. GM was recruiting former soldiers to work, but Cooper was hesitant to give up the $25 a week stipend the military paid to unemployed veterans.
But the lofty wages at the automaker - $1.22 an hour - helped change his mind.
"That was good money," Cooper said. "You could buy bread for 17 cents."
His first job was working in the Oldsmobile paint shop, a job Cooper didn't want to keep.
He quickly found his way to the so-called yard gang, a maintenance crew that worked overtime.
Cooper, who married his wife, Erma, in 1947, needed extra cash. They had six children.
Al and Erma met at a skating rink through their sisters.
"He had a great sense of humor, and was very warm, very sincere," Erma said.
Al laughed, remembering their early days.
"I told her early on in our relationship that, if I can date you for a year, I can be with you forever," he said.
As years wore on, Cooper took part in momentous events in GM's Lansing history. He helped build the engine plant that made the Rocket 88.
When the plant opened, Cooper got to meet Charles Kettering, GM's famed engineer.
In 1964, Cooper transferred to the building known as GM's Jet Plant. The factory had been making jet airplane engines, but converted to auto production.
The plant, in Lansing Township on Saginaw Highway, was situated on what was then the edge of the city. It's now the Lansing Metal Center.
"We had deer run through the plant once or twice," Cooper said.
By the time the 30-and-out retirement rule was put in place, Cooper had been at GM for 24 years.
The rule allows GM workers to retire with a pension after working 30 years.
But when Cooper hit that benchmark, he decided to stay.
"I said: 'I'm going to stick around. I'm not doing that much anyway,' " Cooper said.
Erma would often ask when he would retire. He'd tell her that maybe next year he would.
Meanwhile, Cooper's staying power became legendary. By the time United Auto Workers Local 652 Vice Chairman Mike Green started representing Cooper as a committeeman, Cooper had been on the job 45 years.
"One thing I'll never forget about him is his smile," Green said. "You say, 'Hey Al!' and you'll get this million-dollar smile."
Cooper's friendly demeanor made an impression on many.
"Everybody knows him," Green said. "He's part of GM's Lansing heritage."
Cooper said he would have left GM sooner if work had been unpleasant. It wasn't.
"I can't think of a bad day I had there," Cooper said. "I can't think of a bad supervisor I had."
Eventually, the 60-year mark emerged as a goal. It didn't hurt that GM offered $35,000 retirement bonuses this year.
"That was extra bones on top of it," Cooper said.
By the time he left GM, Cooper had become a legend among the Lansing workers. Coworkers named his work area "Cooperville."
The affection was mutual. Cooper enjoyed giving his younger coworkers encouragement and advice.
"Speak a kind word to people," he said. "Give them a helping hand. These things don't cost a thing. Give someone a hug and you get one back - and it hasn't cost you a thing."
When it was time to go, Cooper didn't want a fuss. He said he came to GM without a party and he'd leave without one.
That doesn't mean he won't miss the people he worked with.
"I haven't missed my work a lot, but I have missed my friends," he said.
And Lansing's GM workers will miss him, too, said Ken Wainright, Lansing Metal Center's plant manager.
"Al was one of those employees that you enjoy working with - always pleasant, always willing to do what needed to be done," he said. "He was part of the fabric of the plant and we'll miss him."