Salt mine supervisor retires after nearly 49 years underground
By John Green
The Hutchinson News, Kan.
Three months shy of his employment anniversary, Jim Harris "woke up one day and thought, 'It's time for me to leave.' "
Harris, 71, retired Friday after 48 years and nine months working in Kansas salt mines, including 40 years in supervisory positions.
It was a job that when he started he wasn't sure he'd be able to do -- or want to keep.
But determined, and adaptive, he held on, surviving untold industry change, many bosses and several mergers. He went from working for a family-owned company to, eventually, a small part of a multinational corporation.
"It felt like time to go," said Harris, who leaves as a shipping supervisor. "And I'm ready. I enjoy what I'm doing and enjoyed every job I've had, which makes it tough to leave. But I'd hate for them to have to carry me out on a stretcher."
The company and its employees honored Harris all last week, with different activities each day of the week.
"He's a very humble individual," said his immediate boss, Jason Gibson, mill leader. "We're doing a weeklong activity at the plant and he doesn't know what to think about it. He's one of those people who always put other people in front of him."
Small-town guy
Growing up in a small town in Nebraska, Harris landed in California after serving in the Navy.
"There were too many people in California to suit me," Harris said.
An uncle who worked at then-Barton Salt in Hutchinson suggested he come here, that "there were lots of jobs."
"I sold everything and moved to Hutch," Harris recalled. "I applied at three or four places, and the salt plant paid more than any job I could get my hands on -- a dollar-something an hour."
At age 23, weighing only 136 pounds, he started at Carey Salt "throwing 100-pound bags all day."
"Back then everything was hand-stacked," Harris said. "We loaded boxcars and trucks by hand. The 'good old days,' I'd say, were not all good. You really had to work. I didn't think I'd make it."
"Back in those days, they essentially tried to kill you off, to see what you were made of. If you were new, they worked you twice as hard as everyone else, to see if you were up to the task."
He had to force himself out of bed every morning to return to work, Harris said.
His co-workers, many of them aging World War II veterans, advised him what to do -- and what not to.
"If a foreman came around and told you he needed someone to work a double shift, you smiled and said 'OK,' because if you didn't you wouldn't be around long. I was about ready to cry, but I'd say, 'Fine.' "
His first supervisor seemed to be a nice guy, "but he didn't talk to me much the first 60 days," Harris recalled. "But when that 59th day came around, he came up and said, 'It looks like you're going to make it.' Nowadays, we don't do things like that."
Quality leader
From stacking bags on the shipping dock, he became a supervisor in shipping. Over the years he moved through various supervisory positions, from maintaining the line to bagging salt, forming it into blocks or filling round containers.
"Jim was the kind of person you could go to with any situation you had, and he'd help you resolve it," said Kim Kirmer, direct materials coordinator, who worked with Harris for more than 34 years. "Even if it was not within the scope of his position, he'd take care of it. If I needed help, he was my go-to person. Nothing was impossible for him. He'd figure out a solution."
Jack Kliewer, operational excellence leader, was one of those whom Harris supervised and trained.
"He led me around by the hand and said, 'Here's how we do this, here's what to look at, here's how to address this situation,' " Kliewer said. "He was always very good to employees. Imagine 40-some years and all the departments he ran. He always treated employees fairly, but he was demanding, too. As a supervisor he knows the standards and made people work to meet those standards all the time."
"Jim knew exactly what to do and what it took to get things done," Gibson said. "It made everyone's jobs easier. He'll be very hard to replace."
Seeing change
"When I started in '65, the Careys still owned it," Harris said. "It wasn't unusual to see Jay Carey or his dad wandering around the plant."
The business changed hands multiple times over the years, and in 1999 the Carey plant shut down, its operations consolidated in Lyons. Harris was one of the few employees retained and relocated to what is now North American Salt, which is owned by Compass Minerals, headquartered in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
"I was one of the lucky few who got to transfer," Harris said. "When I left over there I was the pressing supervisor. When I came over here I ran the mill in half the plant. They'd move me around when there was something to fix."
Over the years, he moved around the plant, from pressing foreman to overseeing bagging and block operations, to production foreman.
"It's been an interesting time," Harris said. "I've seen a lot of changes, a lot of improvement."
"Change is change, and there's not a lot you can do about it," said Harris, outlining a philosophy that's seen him through. "Go with it, and make the best of it you can. My experience has been most change ends up being good. If it was bad change, it usually gets fixed down the line. When I resist it, I regret it."
His goal when he moved into a new department, Harris said, was "to make things better for everyone."
"If you take care of folks who are doing a job for you, they'll take care of you and they'll take care of the company," Harris said.
Go-to guy
He was good at dealing with stress and frustration, and his employers recognized that, moving him into departments "that weren't run right or had a lot of things to fix," Harris said.
"Usually it came down to one of two things: people or equipment," he said. "If the equipment doesn't run right, the people aren't happy. If you take care of things, it will be better."
"Jim had an uncanny way of being able to read people," Kirmer said. "He knew how to deal with different personalities."
He was honored that the company retained him when it shuttered the Hutchinson plant, Harris said, and when he was picked to help ring the stock market's opening bell when Compass Minerals went public in 2003.
In retirement, Harris plans to mostly work around home with his wife of 23 years, who herself worked for Carey Salt for 22 years.
"I have a lot of hobbies," said Harris, a first-degree karate black belt. "I'm the kind of guy that can't sit around. But I have plenty to do. My main goal is to make my wife happy. She's a wonderful woman who supported me and understood when I had to stay late at work. She worked for Carey Salt for 22 years."
And was one of those laid off when the plant closed.
The couple has five children, spread across the country, although their youngest daughter works for a hospice in Hutchinson and another daughter lives in Wichita.
All attended Friday's retirement ceremony.
(c)2014 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)