METHUEN, Mass. -- For those who see the world as increasingly selfish, for those who say believing in goodwill toward man will just break your heart: Look to this depressed old mill town, where a factory fire two weeks ago left 2,400 workers fearing a bitter Christmas -- until their boss showed them real holiday spirit.
His name is Aaron Feuerstein, a wiry, gray-haired man who studied philosophy in college, jogs every morning, eats in the mill cafeteria and believes in keeping promises.
In Methuen, Mr. Feuerstein, 70, a devout member of his Brookline synagogue, is a Christmas hero.
The mill burned down, but workers still got their $275 Christmas bonus. Production stopped, but employees have Mr. Feuerstein's pledge that he'll rebuild. The old factory is gone, but the people who worked at Malden Mills can count on a paycheck for at least 30 days, maybe longer.
"What do I think of Aaron Feuerstein? There are no words," said Norman Bousquert, 53, a mill worker. "The guy's great."
Mike Milnes, a co-worker, nodded. "He's like Santa Claus."
This good cheer from men who will be out of work over Christmas, but who believe their boss is a man of his word.
Things had been going well at Malden Mills, the producer of the popular thermal fabric Polartec and the biggest employer in Methuen, about 40 miles north of Boston, near the New Hampshire border, and in nearby Lawrence. Sales were expected to be more than $400 million this year, up from about $200 million in 1990. Workers made an average of $12.50 an hour plus benefits, while the average in the textile industry is less than $9.50.
But on the night of Dec. 11, an explosion, apparently in a boiler, set off a spectacular fire that shut down the mill's production.
About 400 mill workers ran into the cold. Firefighters rushed in from 41 towns. But the fire, fed by high winds, tore through the 100-year-old brick buildings with their dry wooden timbers and oil-soaked floors.
The face of the clock in one tower glowed a hot red as flames shot from it. Thirty-three workers were injured. The five-story buildings collapsed. And hundreds of Malden Mills workers thought their livelihoods had collapsed as well.
"That night, when we came out of that mill, we thought, 'That's it. It's gone,' " said Mr. Milnes, who stood with his co-workers in the wind and the cold .
The gloom spread throughout Methuen and Lawrence. If Malden Mills closed, what would the employees -- many of them South American and Portuguese immigrants -- do for income?
"It was very depressing," said Rogerio M. Luis of Lawrence. "I thought, 'I got bills to pay. My kids aren't going to have presents under the tree.' "
A Christmas bonus and more
But that was before Mr. Feuerstein had his say. Two days after the fire, he announced that Malden Mills would rebuild, with many workers to be called back in 90 days.
The promised Christmas bonuses arrived, along with traditional $50 gift certificates.
And a few days after that, as employees whooped and cheered, Mr. Feuerstein stood in a high school auditorium and said all workers would be paid their full salaries for at least 30 days. New machines would be set up in warehouse space and production would be at 90 percent of what it was before the fire within 90 days. In the spring, when the ground thaws, work will begin on a new plant, Mr. Feuerstein said, on the site of the old.
"I don't know him personally," Mr. Luis said of his boss. "But I think he should be the man of the year."
Indeed, Mr. Feuerstein's decision to keep his promises to his workers has drawn praise from around the country. The word that a wealthy man would show loyalty to his employees has become news.
"'That's the tragedy in our society -- that people are surprised by this," said William L. Lane, president of Holy Family Hospital in Methuen. "But maybe if we look hard enough, there are other people like him out there. Or maybe his example will spur others on."
When people ask Mr. Feuerstein why he's doing all this, Mr. Lane said, the mill owner recites a sentence in Yiddish, a rule his father taught him. It translates to something like, "When the going gets tough, act like a man."
Family, factory stayed
Mr. Feuerstein's grandfather, Henry, founded Malden Mills as a woolen factory in 1906. When other New England textile companies closed or moved south in the 1950s, Malden Mills stayed.
The company moved into synthetics. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the largest producer of fake fur in the world. That market died abruptly in the late 1970s, and Mr. Feuerstein declared bankruptcy.
But he stayed. He told people he was loyal to the skilled work force that produces Polartec, which the Malden Mills research and design team created in the 1970s and has since refined. Today, Polartec, made in part from recycled plastic soda bottles, is used to make winter outerwear, shirts and underwear.