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Even as he works two jobs, ex-Chrysler worker still has faith in American Dream

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Jerry Naunheim Jr. | For the St. Louis Beacon
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Former Chrysler autoworker Chris Paplanus at the site where the plant stood in Fenton.

Note: This story was originally published by the St. Louis Beacon in 2011.

The site of the former Chrysler plant in Fenton has been nearly emptied, the iconic water tower and vehicle assembly factories razed by liquidators over the past two years, as they prepare these 295 acres for development.

The site even has a new name now -- the Fenton 44 Center -- suitable for "a manufacturing plant, business park, corporate headquarters, retail development, medical facility, educational campus or religious institution," according to NAI DESCO, the real estate company that has listed the property.

But the Ballwin Metro West Rotary salvaged at least one memorable artifact that has been reinstalled outside the Circle of Concern food pantry in nearby Valley Park: one of the plant's three giant flagpoles.

Since October, an American flag has waved proudly once more from the white 40-foot pole, while a granite marker at its base acknowledges the past.

"This flagpole previously stood before the Chrysler plant in Fenton," reads the inscription. "Here it honors those who have served their community and their country."

The flagpole is a way to honor the half-century of accomplishments of local autoworkers at the Fenton plant, said Glenn Koenen, executive director of Circle of Concern.

Sadly, the pantry now assists about two dozen former Chrysler workers and their families.

"The Chrysler workers had a tremendous work ethic," Koenen said. "They had good work histories, but some only had a high school education. And they're in their 40s and 50s, and that's making it harder for them to find good full-time jobs."

Koenen said that some who seek help have found work as independent contractors, or in retail stores, or auto repair, but the jobs don't pay what Chrysler did.

"And they were used to that stable middle-class lifestyle that a Chrysler paycheck gave them," he said.

Middle Class and out of Groceries

Last winter, Chris Paplanus, 54, who was one of more than 3,000 St. Louis autoworkers still working at Fenton in 2008 when the shutdowns began, found himself doing something he never thought he would do: He went to the Salvation Army food pantry in O'Fallon, Mo., for help.

Paplanus, who took an early retirement package from Chrysler, was between jobs and had run out of resources, he said. 

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Credit Jerry Neunheim Jr. | For the St. Louis Beacon
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Jerry Neunheim Jr. | For the St. Louis Beacon
Chris Paplanus volunteers at the food pantry, where he sought assistance after his layoff from Chrysler.

"Going to the food pantry and asking for help was very difficult," he said. "It goes against everything that I believe -- everything that my parents taught me."

In return, he began volunteering at the pantry.

"If I'm going to ask for help, I'd like to be able to earn it," he said. "Since I wasn't working at the time, I went in every day. I think it's something that you should do. It keeps you grounded. Things can always be better, and things can always be worse. But it's also really good for your heart. It's really good to know that you're making a little of a difference."

Now employed full time, Paplanus still helps at the pantry at least once a month, though he stressed that his contribution is minor compared to how hard the other volunteers there work.

Paplanus, who has since found work at Wainright Industries in St. Peters and supplements his income with umpiring, says he is still surviving as a middle-class American, but it is difficult.

"I feel that the middle class is shrinking, and I think that's tragic," he said. "The United States is probably the only country in the world that has a larger middle class than an upper or lower. That's what this country was founded on. It wasn't founded on 'Let's all get rich.' It wasn't founded on 'We're going to barely survive.' It was founded on 'We're all going to do well.' "

The jobs are across the border

In the big economic picture, Fenton's closing was just one more hit to U.S. manufacturing. That sector of the economy had been quietly shrinking for decades, due to a host of reasons, including advances in mechanization and outsourcing in the new global economy, economists say.

The U.S. lost 5 million manufacturing jobs -- about one-third of manufacturing employment -- between 2000 and 2010, according to a recent report on manufacturing jobs by the Brookings Institution. And auto industry jobs were among the cream of the crop, in terms of pay and benefits.

In its June report "Resurgence of the American Auto Industry," the Obama administration announced that two years after the federal government had bailed out Chysler and GM, the auto giants were back on their feet.

"General Motors is expanding production and adding jobs, while Chrysler recently repaid its outstanding loans to the U.S. Treasury -- six years ahead of schedule," the report stated. "Since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, the auto industry has created 115,000 jobs, its strongest period of job growth since the late 1990s.''

The White House noted that Chrysler had repaid $10.6 billion to the government, including $8.5 billion loaned by the Obama administration in April 2009. The report also highlighted Kokomo, Ind., and Sterling Heights, Mich., as examples of Midwestern communities positively affected by Chrysler's turnaround.

After restructuring and forming a new alliance with Fiat, Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in June 2009 and almost immediately resumed production at seven North American plants, including two in Canada and one in Mexico.

But Fenton was out of luck. Chrysler vehicles manufactured at the plant that had operated since 1959 are now assembled across the U.S. borders: Dodge Caravans in Windsor, Canada, and Dodge Rams in Saltillo, Mexico.

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Credit Jerry Neunheim | For the St. Louis Beacon
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"We still ask to this day, 'If the American government is bailing out an American company, how can they say we'll give you this money and go ahead and outsource?' How can they do that?" Paplanus said. "If we're bailing them out, why are they (taking) our jobs across the border? Until they leveled the north plant, there were still people saying maybe they'll bring something back. They're not going to."

Paplanus said it has taken the former workers a long time to come to grips with that finality, partly because of the cyclical nature of auto production.

"It's always been in the auto industry, you could be laid off at any minute," he said. "There were times when you could make a lot of money, and there were times you could sit and wait and worry that they might drop a shift."

Paplanus said hopes had been raised because Chrysler had been updating and refitting the plants for the future.

"Everyone there worked just as hard just until the last minute," he said. "They took great pride in what they were doing. And I don't think it's because if we do a good job then they'll open the plant again."

'There is always something you can do'

Despite some tough times since leaving Chrysler, Paplanus said he believes he will make things work because "there is always something you can do."

"The options I'm hoping for are not as wide open as I would like them to be right now. But you make your own way, and I think in the future I'll be more along that path," he said.

Paplanus, who has a master's degree in business administration earned while working at Chrysler, takes umbrage at the term "survival jobs" -- coined to describe low-paying jobs that skilled workers take until they can find something better.

Some might describe his current job at Wainwright as a survival job, he said, because it pays $9 an hour, about one-third of what he made at Chrysler.

"It's unfair to look at it that way," he said. "If you look at it as, 'I'll do this for now,' you're cheating yourself because you're saying 'I'm better than this. Somebody's going to come and hire me to do something I'm really good at.' That's not true. You have to reinvent yourself."

Paplanus said he has not only learned new skills at Wainwright but also a lesson in humility from his co-workers who work hard for their pay.

Despite his current financial circumstances, Paplanus said he still considers himself a middle-class American.

"And I'll always say that because I don't think it's all tied to earnings. I think it's tied to survival, and I'm surviving as a middle-class person," he said.

Paplanus said he continues to hear from recruiters and recently passed an employment test to work at GM. He is intrigued by the news that Emerald Automotive plans to build a plant in Hazelwood to manufacture energy-efficient delivery vans. He is interested in applying to work there.

"You can't listen to people who say, 'Well, they're not hiring' or 'You're going to lose your house' or 'You can't afford to do this or do that.' You just have to try and find another way," he said.

Paplanus is going through a personal transition, as well. He said that he and his wife of 15 years are going through a divorce that he attributes to many factors, including his job loss at Chrysler.

"Before the plant closed, people realized that there's a percentage of people who are going to lose their houses," he said. "There's a percentage of people who are going to go through divorces. There's a percentage of people who are going to go through a deep depression. There's a percentage of people who won't be able to find a job because they don't have the experience to go out and find a job, especially in a terrible economy where you have to sell yourself. And there's going to be a percentage of people who have heart attacks and die. I know people from each of those percentages."

Note: Funding for Jerry Naunheim's photography came from the Enterprise Journalism Fund of the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Follow Mary on Twitter: @MaryDLeonard

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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