Co-oping in the 1950s at GMI

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I had applied to General Motors Institute (GMI) in Mechanical Engineering when I graduated from Battle Creek, MI, Central High School. I felt so strongly about where I wanted to go that it was the only school I had applied to. I loved tinkering and drawing. GMI was and still is a co-op University. Then you had to pick a GM division of your liking and get accepted to both the University and the working division. I had chosen Oldsmobile in Lansing, MI or as second choice the Lansing Fisher Body plant for my co-op working Division. You worked four weeks and went to school for four weeks, three times a semester alternating back and forth.

Oldsmobile accepted me. I had traveled to Lansing several times during the spring and summer to take care of those dreaded tests and physical exams. The chrome seat in the Hospital exam room was colder than blazes. We had a kindly older man, Stan Sessions, who was the GMI student coordinator. He along with Guy Hudson worked in the apprentice training Department of Personnel. Both of these people helped new students get acclimated to the plant.

Hudson had taken all the new students on a variety of plant tours to try to help us find places. These were not the run of the mill general plant tours; they were into every nook and cranny in the plant. Oldsmobile was the largest place I had ever seen. It was something to behold for a young High School grad. The main factory was about ¾ of a mile long and ½ a mile wide with several million square feet of space. The tours got us into, below, through, over or around every conveyor and department in the plant. It took us three days for the touring. Olds had three plants in the Lansing area. We got into all of them.


The old plant as it appeared in 1950 - looking east.

So, on Sept. 28, 1953 I started at the Main Plant in the inspection department in the axle plant. Because I didn’t live in Lansing, I had to find housing. Fortunately, Sessions had a list of homes willing to rent rooms to students. So I ended up at 313 William St. just a block and a half from the Olds Administration Building. There were four other students with me there. We had the whole second floor of the house. The house was owned by June Hess and occupied by her and her son, Paul, who used the basement and main floor. Having not been away from home for any length of time this was a brand new experience for me. Typical problems were where to park my car, where to eat and how to get my clothes cleaned.

The axle inspection department was on the opposite end of the plant about a ½ mile away. Every morning I would trot off to the plant for a 6:30 am start, stopping at Sal’s restaurant for breakfast, two eggs over hard, bacon and toast. Sal’s was a typical greasy spoon place with a cook and one waitress, three booths, four tables and about eight counter seats. Eventually everyone knew everybody else and you didn’t really have to order anything, just arrive and wave at the cook and off he would go. There were three eating places around the various plant gates. I tended to use Sal’s.

The axle plant made front suspension components, knuckles, knuckle supports, control arms; rear axle parts, axle shafts, banjo housings, brake drums and assembled rear axles complete. The differential came from Pontiac. The inspection job I had was in the knuckle and knuckle support department and the rear axle shaft department. All of these areas used a lot of coolant for machining. So there was a lot of liquid on the floor. The machine operators wore heavy rubber gloves and aprons. Your shoes got all wet from coolant and you looked like a grease monkey as the day went on. Guy Hudson had gotten all of us safety glasses and, if we wanted, safety shoes. I had both.

I went around to each machine operator on a regular basis, got a part and checked it on a variety of gages at each operation. The operator didn’t do any checking except visual or during set up. You made the rounds several times each day and got to know the machine operators. This was a bit scary since a lot of these guys and they were all guys, no women, were pretty tough old characters. Over the years I would run into the men in the plant and we were always friends. It had been a good experience for a high school kid. I ate in the Cafeteria for lunch every day since there was no practical way to take a lunch or go out. You only had a half hour and it took almost that long to walk to a local restaurant.


Knuckle machining area.

One of my freshman friends, Larry Schwartzman, lived in Lansing. We were both in the axle plant that first session. One day we decided to take a little rest break. So we went into an unused welding booth, sat on the floor and talked about what was going on. It was dark in there. Pretty soon Larry’s boss stuck his head in the booth looking for Larry. In the dark he couldn’t see us, but we decided we had better hustle back to work.

Mrs. Hess didn’t like all the oil that we tracked in at the house. So we had to leave our dirty shoes at the door. Our clothes weren’t much better either. After a week they would sort of stand up in the corner by themselves. I always took them back home to Battle Creek on the weekends to get them washed. Most of the boys at the house would get into one car and eat supper together. We all tried to make it on a dollar each night. Room was $6 a week. I was making $1.75/hour which I thought was a fortune.

Initially I parked my ’51 Chevy business coupe in the plant visitor’s parking lot. This proved to be unsatisfactory since the gate was only unlocked from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm and you couldn’t get your car out. Some of the boys kept their cars in back of Pete’s bar around the corner from our rooming house. So I moved my car there and for a buck a week it was available. The dollar a week was a lot for a student and I found another home around the corner that would let me use a space in front of their small barn for nothing.


The old plant as it looked in 1955 - looking West.

During high school, four of us all got radio amateur licenses. I had a station made up of mostly home made equipment except for a Hallicrafters S-72 receiver. So to keep in touch I took the rig along with me. This is much like using a cell phone today. At the rooming house I strung an antenna out the window to a tree in the back yard. I kept the "gear" under the bed so it would be somewhat out of sight. Well Mrs. Hess was in making the beds one day and found the rig. I had some fancy explaining to do since she thought I was going to blow up the house or burn it down. I did have to be a little careful when I used it so I didn’t make TV interference. My room mates thought this was pretty funny.

So at the end of four weeks, you wrote a coordination report on what subject you and your boss agreed to and you got graded on the document, usually 6-12 pages in length. Then it was off to Flint and school for four weeks. Another new experience!

James R. Walkinshaw

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