Three hundred and sixty retirees from the old Glenn L. Martin aviation plant in Middle River crowded around metal tables with Formica tops, nibbling from Styrofoam bowls of pretzels and chips.
They seemed like kindly grandparents, for the most part, with their ball caps and golfer-goes-to-heaven jokes.
But they built some of the legendary machines of flight -- the Mars, the Mariner, the B-26 Marauder that helped crush the Nazis and imperial Japan.
Down front at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 65 hall, a bald man with bifocals, rolled-up sleeves and a sportsman's belly held a microphone and faced the group.
He was a retiree, too, but not from the historic Martin plant. Ray Roquemore, 62, put in his 41 years at a Lockheed aircraft factory in Georgia. He came out of retirement two years ago, when Lockheed and Martin Marietta merged, to run factory operations at Middle River.
Part of his mission was to look at selling off the legendary old Maryland facility, a "secret" that made a malignant sweep through the work force. With employment plummeting and whole sections of the factory dark, the outsider from Lockheed "was the nail in the coffin," one employee recalled. So as Roquemore delivered his message to the retirees, they interrupted with gasps and exclamations. What he said was that his mission had come to an unexpected conclusion.
The plant is not going to close, Roquemore said. Not only that, it is expanding -- as a crucial part of a new corporate thrust into aircraft maintenance and repair. "It's too sweet a business to sell," he said. "It's going to be there a long time."
Employment at Middle River is up 40 percent just since December, to 1,400 jobs from 1,000, with about 200 more positions waiting to be filled. Machines that were idle for years have fresh coats of white paint and are cranking back up, alongside brand new machines. Vast spaces that just a few months ago were dark are cleared out and preparing for new work. Overhead is down, profits are up.
Now known as Lockheed Martin Aerostructures, the facility has become "a cash register," one top corporate executive said.
Roquemore credits the people who work there.
Most of the people who work there credit Ray Roquemore.
History played a role
"I just can't say enough about the man I can honestly say I think he's the best thing that has happened to this company," said Ida Johnson, who has been laid off twice from her job as a quality inspector. Middle River recently worked its way through a five-page recall list, summoning laid-off workers like Johnson back to their jobs. Now she finally believes she will retire at the plant.
There was a time when generations of Marylanders expected to spend their careers at "Martin's" like their grandfathers, mothers, cousins and uncles.
Glenn L. Martin put his headquarters on the waterfront outside Baltimore in 1929. The enigmatic aviation celebrity, whose beloved mother helped build his first plane in 1909, brought a touch of glamour along with his army of jobs. He had been a business partner with the Wright brothers, had appeared in a movie with Mary Pickford, and made the first over-sea flight in 1912 with a bicycle inner tube for a life preserver, a compass strapped to one knee and a barometer strapped to the other.
Martin sometimes showed more vision than business sense. His 1935 China Clipper seaplane became a romantic icon, the pioneer of commercial flights over the Pacific, but it almost bankrupted the company.
World War II came to the rescue. The camouflage-shrouded plant ballooned to 53,000 jobs during the war. After that glorious, feverish peak, the company went into a cycle of shrinking and swelling that seemed to reach its logical end around 1995.
By then, Middle River was down to two primary functions: one unit produced Navy missile launchers, and the remnants of the old aircraft factory built thrust reversers -- the part of a jet engine that blows backward to slow a plane when it lands.
At that time known as Martin Marietta, the company had long since moved its headquarters out of Middle River and was merging with Lockheed to form the world's biggest aerospace powerhouse.
Middle River had been laying off employees for several years. Some of its contracts were losing money, and most of the metal-working machines that once thundered with life were sitting idle. Management wanted to sell the machines for needed cash.
The outside activities that build unity among employees had halted. "As we were headed on that spiral down, they thought it best not to have those types of functions" so no one could say they were laying people off but spending money on picnics, said Nellie Butler-Grinage, an 18-year employee who is president of the union representing hourly workers.