For this family, good things sprang from GM

December 01, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

I married into a General Motors family, and when I did, I took a special kind of vow: "What is good for General Motors is good for my family."

As I watch Congress consider whether to lend the struggling automaker and its cohorts a hand or let them fail, I say a silent prayer of thanks that the patriarch of our GM family is not alive to witness the cold and angry response of politicians and the public to his company's tough times.

"Dad got lucky," said Ken Mihoces, my husband's brother. "He was able to get a job with GM. Everything else in our life was because our dad worked for GM."

My father-in-law returned from World War II and got a job driving a bread delivery truck at night. But his fortunes, and those of his young family, changed when General Motors decided to build a parts plant in West Mifflin, Pa.

Rudy Mihoces got a job working for the construction company that built the Fisher Body Plant and, when it opened in 1950, he got a job inside the plant. During his 30-year career there, he rose to head of payroll, and he did it with only a few college courses.

His oldest son, my husband, Gary, remembers that the change in the family's fortunes was as substantial as it was symbolic: GM was putting food on the table.

"When sometime around payday, my mother made my favorite dinner - steak with french fries - I thought it came from General Motors," my husband remembers.

"When I got a new sport coat for my confirmation, I thought that came from General Motors. I felt the same about each new baseball glove or bicycle," he said. "I remember checking the price of GM stock in the paper when I was just a kid because I knew what a dividend check was."

"Gary" was a popular name in the late 1940s. There was Gary Cooper in the movies and Garry Moore on TV. But my husband was always proud that his initials were the same as General Motors.

"I told everybody I had monogrammed cars," he said. Whenever anyone praised him for his school work or athletics, he would say, "GM. Mark of Excellence." And when he was courting me, he once left a note: "Get that genuine GM feeling with genuine GM parts."

As a boy, my husband remembers a fierce loyalty to GM cars that continues today. "If our family car (a Chevy, Buick or Olds) stopped at a red light, and there was a Ford or a Dodge or - oh my god - a Volkswagen next to us, we'd make some crack about it," he said.

"Even now, when I get out of my Saturn in the parking lot at work and walk by maybe 25 foreign cars, I notice."

As a young single guy, my husband decided to splurge on a gold-toned Subaru. But when it came time to pick the car up at the lot the next day, he told the salesman he'd changed his mind.

"I couldn't sleep that night," he remembers. "I apologized to the salesman and gave him a bottle of Scotch."

Over the years, the Mihoceses have owned just about every GM model and brand the company produced: from the Vega to the Yukon, from a Corvair to a Corvette, from a minivan to a Cadillac.

When he married me, I was driving a Datsun 200SX and my husband wouldn't so much as turn the key in the ignition. And when my son got his first car, he went to his Uncle Dan and asked permission because it was a Jeep.

"I told Joe, 'That's OK. Just buy American,' " said Dan.

Before he was forced to retire in the 1980s during the last automotive downturn, Rudy Mihoces would bring two of his four sons on board at the Fisher Body Plant in West Mifflin.

Ken, four years younger than my husband, went to work in production, became one of the plant's skilled tradesmen and then became a United Autoworkers benefits representative. He was forced to take early retirement last May after 31 years at the plant.

When Dan graduated from college in 1988, Fisher Body hired him as a temporary employee. "The lady in personnel liked my dad and she liked me, and she said, 'Tell Danny to come see me,' " said Ken. "She hired him on the spot."

Dan rose through the ranks to become a member of the management team at the plant. Knowing that the plant would close in a matter of weeks - and with three young children to educate - Dan resigned from Fisher Body in August after 20 years.

All four of Rudy Mihoces' sons graduated from college, and none of them had loans or debt. They believe it is because their father worked for GM.

"All of this, it would kill my dad," says Ken. Stock that kept his parents comfortable at as much as $90 a share until they died is now selling for less than three bucks a share and is probably worth nothing. "I think it would destroy him."

When Dan left in August, he was the last Mihoces to leave the plant that had fed the Mihoces family - steak and fries and the occasional half-gallon of real ice cream - for 58 years.

"I just drove by the plant the other day," said Dan, who found a new job in the plastics industry. "There are a lot of good people who are not going to be as lucky as I have been.

"I don't think GM has gotten what it deserved," said Dan. "It did a tremendous number of important things in the last 10 years, but you don't see that at a time like this."

At its peak, there were 2,500 workers at the Fisher Body plant. Even when its numbers were reduced to 750, it was winning all kinds of awards for the way it was able to turn on a dime and produce the replacement parts that GM needed.

Now there are a handful of temps - like Dan was 20 years ago - at the plant until it formally closes. Ken says he expects the plant his father helped build to be torn down.

"I grew up thinking it was actually my dad who said, 'What's good for General Motors is good for America,' " said my husband.

"One thing I know: What was good for General Motors was good for the Mihoces family."

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