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Note: Norb and Bob wrote this short history for our book, GE Retirees Tell Tales, which was publiced in 2006. Bob has passed on in the meantime. Norb is still going strong and wrote an addendem in a series of e-mails which are included below.

A Short History of the GE Salem Plant
Norb Weckstein & Bob Gasparoli

The plant was to be the new home of the GE Industrial Control Department which had been spread out in several buildings in Schenectady, NY. This was in the early days, when control consisted of electromagnetic relays, contactors, brake s, some vacuum tube operated devices, and simple regulators using rotating power amplifiers (remember the Amplidynes?) for controlling electrical motors. Over the past fifty years, these functions have been largely superceded by computer-directed automation and solid state power switching devices.

We don't know when construction was started, but we did get weekly progress
reports in Schenectady in 1955.   We were amazed that the plant sat on top of underground caverns and that they had to be filled by pouring in concrete. I, Norb ,   moved to Roanoke at the beginning of October, 1955, and worked in the Sunnyside (Awning) Building .   We started to move into the plant at the end of 1955.

Before the plant construction was completed , GE started operation in mid-1955 in the Waynick and Sunnyside buildings in downtown Roanoke. They were   used as places to train drafting and other personnel, and for the initial transfer of some functions from Schenectady (mostly folks who were not in daily contact with the factory people still operating in Schenectady, such as application engineers, etc.).   Paul DeLawter was in charge of the drafting training.   Joe Dill, who was a unit manager and a native Roanoker, was the general overseer.

 Part of the plant property was donated to the county for a fire station. N&W built a spur directly into the plant.   A special water line from Roanoke was installed.   Later, another water line from Salem was installed, giving the plant an option.

The original plans for the plant provided separate toilet facilities for the black and white employees, but our first Plant Manager, Bert Mahoney, would not permit it, so the facilities were consolidated. Later, when Jim Olin took over as Plant Manager, he accelerated the hiring of black employees; jobs at GE were considered as plum jobs, so their community thought very highly of Jim. Olin later became our US Congressman. He served for ten years.

Mahoney came to us from a job in the Switchgear Department in Philadelphia.   He was a frugal no-nonsense straight-shooter. In the original plan, there was a canopy from the front door to the curb where people would be dropped off to enter the plant; Bert said that was a waste of money, so he deleted it.

On what is now the East parking lot stood the Brook Club which was a sort of motel and lunch room.   (The plant had its own cafeteria.)  We don't remember the details of the motel aspect of the Brook Club, but it did have a large ballroom, where the initial GEAA dances were held. Contributing to the one-big-family aspect of the plant, the GE Employees Association was formed, and the company financed the building of two softball diamonds in the fields in back of the plant. Plant-wide softball leagues were set up, and for more recreation a tennis ladder and bowling leagues were established.   In the early years, the Company also sponsored an all expense paid annual outing for GE families at what was then Lakeside Amusement park – it is gone now, having been replaced by a shopping center.

On the East side of the main plant was the laboratory building, which is now office space.   The plant was pretty much in full swing in 1956 ,and GE was second to N&W, the largest employer in the valley. We had a plant newspaper, The GE Reporter, one to four pages, available in the lunchroom at noon every day .It was edited by Ed Langley. Ed later transferred to the GE Schenectady headquarters. One of the highlights of the boom years in the Salem Plant was the visit by the host of the GE Theater television program, an actor named Ronald Reagan.   We were one of the first plants that he visited.   We read that Ed later got the posh assignment of arranging Reagan's other national plant visits and of accompanying him on those visits, but we can't confirm that -- someone else may know about this.   Ronald Reagan ’s   visit to our plant was sometime between '56 and '59.   He was a GE vice president in charge of a Sunday evening TV program, GE Theatre.   He visited each subsection and caused quite a "twitter" among the female employees.   During the question and answer period, the discussion turned to his movie King's Row and his famous line, when he discovered his legs had been amputated. , "Where's the rest of me?”

Around 1968, Drive Systems Operation in Schenectady merged with part of Industry Control to be split off from Industry Control to form the Drive Systems Business Section. This was managed by Jim Baker, who moved here from the Waynesboro operation.   As the Drives business grew, Drive Systems became a full Department. Jim Olin became the general manager of that Department, and Jim Baker took over the remainder of the Industry Control Department.   In the joint Cost Improvement monthly plant meetings, they were immortalized as the Jim-n-I Twins.     Baker later transferred to the Lighting Division in Cleveland where he became Division Vice President, and then later a Group VP.               When Baker left, Industry Control continued under the leadership of Bill Mackey.   Both departments were housed in the same facility, but some time later Industry Control was split into two other locations.   The Starters part, consisting of Motor Control Centers and Limitamp™, moved to Mebane, NC and became part of the Distribution Assembly Department led by the Plainville, CT, operation.   The electronic related parts, including the associated lab people, moved to Charlottesville, VA, with Mackey as manager.   Drive Systems was still in a growing phase and needed some base income, so Olin asked as a favor from his old friend Group Executive Jim Baker that the resistor business be transferred from Industry Control to Drive Systems.   Baker obliged, and that cash cow was assigned to Drive Systems.     In 1970, the Processing Line and Paper guys were the first groups to come down from Schenectady after the merger.   In 1972, Iron & Steelmaking followed, and in 1974, a massive move took place:    Rolling Mill and some of the fellows from the New York IGESales Office took up residence in the Roanoke Valley.   The move was complete. In the next three decades, the plant operated under the leadership of Jim Olin, Joel Tenzer, Tom Brock, Russ Shade, Tom Franks, Mike Williams, Bob Oelschlager, and Steve Smith.   In 2000, the metal, material handling, and paper parts of Drive Systems formed a joint-venture with Toshiba and Mitsubishi-Electric (TMEIC GE).    With that, Drive Systems Department, as we knew it, ceased to exist.   What was left joinedGE Energy, a core business since 1892.   James Maughan is the present general manager.


Addendem: ( e-mail dated 9/7/2011 to Gerry Bijwaard)

Our discussion at lunch got me thinking. I was trying to remember the progression of managers we have seen coming through here. The following is what I think I remember. Unfortunately almost all of the guys who we would be able to discuss this are gone, but maybe folks like Jim Grimes, Gene Hoge and Warren Kindt might have better info.

It all started when Carl Salmonson was appointed to take over the moving of the Control Department out of Schenectady. Carl was Ralph Cordiner's trouble shooter, and rarely stayed more than a couple of years at any site. His previous assignment was straightening out Canadian GE, where he had planned to retire.

Off topic for a minute, the progression of CEO's during my tenure at GE was 1945 Philip Reed, 1958 Ralph Cordiner, 1962 Gerald Phillipe (who died of a heart attack), 1967 Fred Borch, 1972 Reg Jones, 1981 Jack Welch, 2001 Jeff Immelt.

Here it gets foggy. My best thoughts are that Carl split the Control Department into General Purpose (GP) Control in Bloomington, IL, which made devices like pushbuttons, limit switches etc. He put Control Dept Marketing Manager Joe Bailey as GM there. He put Specialty Control, which made the electronic controls, in Waynesboro, VA under Control Dept Engineering Manager Doc (Lou) Rader, and he put Industrial Control in Salem, and moved Bert Mahoney from Philadelphia to be the GM. Carl stayed in Schenectady, and I think retired back to Canada. (Rader at some later date set up the Division Manager Office in Charlottesville, which included both Waynesboro and the two Salem Departments.)

Mahoney was succeeded as GM in Salem by Jim Olin, who had been in Schenectady. Bert got a pre-retirement sinecure as President of GE Italy, from his friend Ralph Cordiner. (I told you how Ralph, unannounced, dropped in for a casual visit at the plant, after attending a meeting of some of the nations top CEO's at the Greenbrier.)

Jim Olin brought in Jim Baker, who had been a Marketing Mgr in Waynesboro, to be Manager of a newly created Drive Systems Business Section. When Drive Systems became a Department, Olin took it over, and Baker moved to be manager of the rest of the Industrial Control Department.

Baker moved up to Division, which then included Switchgear in Philadelphia. Bill Mackey took over as Industrial Control GM. (I don't know where he came from.)

At that time, Steel Mill auxiliaries had two types of controllers. The heavy duty drives like screwdowns and mill tables had Adjustable Voltage (AV) drives using amplidynes and later amplistats to provide regulated voltage levels to the motors. The lighter duty drives like runout tables had Constant Potential (CP) drives which used contactors and resistor banks to adjust the voltage fed to the motors in a few discrete steps. Olin needed some steady dollar sales items (cash cows) to support his risky items, so he asked Baker, who was now his boss, as a favor to an old friend to transfer the resistor business from Industry Control to Drive Systems, and Baker did that for him. (When the AV drives became power transistor controlled, they were much better, and cheaper to build than the old CP drives, so the resistor business died.) (Baker later took over the Lighting Business (Group level) and actually became the number four guy in the GE Exec Office.)

Under Bill Mackey  Industrial Control was split into operations in Mebane and Charlottesville. Part of GP control was also moved out of Bloomington to merge into the Mebane operation. Mackey moved to C'Ville with that operation, but was later canned, reportedly because his plant design had the managers in a balcony above the engineers who were seated in an open bull-pen below. Gene Krumnacher from Industrial Control Marketing, was the first manager in Mebane after heading the transfer and planning of the facility. He too flamed out after a short tenure.

When Jim Olin moved up to C'ville Division Headquarters, Joel Tenzer took over Drive Systems. And when Welch got mad and "retired" Tenzer, Tom Brock, who had worked here previously, was brought back from Speed Variator in Erie, to take over, and gave us what we have now. (Olin got crossways with the boss that Welch put over him, so he decided to retire, and later became our US Congressman.)

It's interesting that Mahoney, Baker, Olin, and Tenzer all chose Roanoke as their retirement home. When Olin got sick, he relocated to Charottesville where his kids had stayed. Roanoke must be a nice place to live. Len Spicer moved back here after he retired in Mebane, and Dean Aboudara moved back here after careers at BART in San Fransisco and a GE staff job in DC, and there is also Jesse Lawrence..

Incidentally, we had one other big mover who came out of the Salem operation. Glenn Heiner, who was in sales, moved up the ladder and was appointed by Welch to take over Jack's old business. He was VP and group executive in the Plastics Business. He came back here once and gave us a presentation on that business. I knew Glenn from way back when he was a goof-off, but I was very impressed with his skill and knowledge at that presentation. With the de-emphasis on that group, Glenn moved on to I believe become CEO of Owens Corning.

And of course we know about Jim Bradford who left the job as unit manager of Steel Mill Auxilliary drives to become Engineering Mgr at  J&L, and later VP  at US Steel.

All of the above is of course subject to review, comment, and correction from the other guys who lived through the same era.


(e-mail, dated 9/9/2011, rep) I believe that you are right about Olin being at Stratford Park initially, but I'm not clear on that. When I worked there, the office on Brandon Avenue at Stratford Park was for John Baranaga's empire, before they got moved to the plant. I think there were some Field Engineering offices there too.

Other later thoughts: Ed Fox is another old timer, who could comment. Jean White was the receptionist who told Cordiner that that he had a nice family name. Tom Brock is another GM who stayed in Roanoke after his retirement; his first job in Salem was in Reed Thompson's operation. Glen Heiner worked for "Big" George Fisher in General Industry Marketing. Monte Atwell is another guy who worked here and who is rising in the GE hierarchy.

Perhaps it would be good for you send it to Grimes, Hoge, Kindt, and Fox to get their thoughts and comments. It would be a way of documenting for the retirees lunch group what happened here, before the rest of us disappear.

In a message dated 9/7/2011 10:42:53 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Norb, I did a quick read.  Very revealing to me.  One thing: when Olin became a VP, didn't he have an office in Stratford Park on Brandon Ave? 

Bill Mackey was the guy whose name I couldn't remember.

Another revision: (e-mail to Gerry Bijwaard on 9/7/2011)

As I said, everything is subject to review and revision:

However, I am positive that Baker was brought in as Manager of the Drive Systems Business Section, which was part of the Industrial Control Department managed by Olin. Whether Olin brought him in or someone higher up made that decision, I don't know. It is a moot point.

Baker led that Section for a while (months?), and when the decision was made by the higher ups to make it a full department, they gave Drive Systems to Olin, and gave Industry he Control to Baker. I worked directly for Olin (under Bill Alvarez) as Mgr of "Special Products" engineering which was a unit/subsection before the split, and for Baker after the split. (I had weekly review meetings with them.) Alvarez had been engrng mgr for the total business, but ended up under Baker in Industry Control.

I think that Virge became the engrng mgr under Olin in the new Drive Systems Dept, moving up from Gas Turbine subsection, but I'm not sure. As I recall, There was some controversy as to whether Bill Miller should have been put into that job. 

I am foggy on the Charlottesville issue. Olin was made a VP while still manager of Drive Systems in Salem. I think they moved him to the C'ville headquarters for a higher level position, but I could easily have been wrong on that. I based that thought on the fact that his kids are living there and not here.

The tradition of making the Drive Systems Manager a VP was also extended to Tenzer. I don't know if Brock also got that title.


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