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Voit Workers Recall a Bygone Industry

September 29, 1987|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

When Ruthie Doak started working for W. J. Voit Rubber in 1942, she was a shy 18-year-old in her first real job--making rubber fuel tanks for war planes.

Doak stayed with Voit through nine presidents, three wars, the deaths of company founder W. J. Voit and the son who replaced him at the helm. She was there through the company's move from Los Angeles to Santa Ana, its 1957 sale to AMF Inc. of White Plains, N.Y, the birth of her daughter, the death of her first husband.

She made basketballs and footballs for more than 40 years--both by hand and machine--and she still hasn't gotten over AMF's decision to close down the Santa Ana AMF-Voit sporting goods factory for good in 1983.

"I still feel bad," she said Friday night, as she gathered with nearly 150 former Voit employees for their fifth reunion. "That was my life for all those years. About two years ago, my husband said 'Let's take a drive to old Voit's (the Harbor Boulevard plant). When we got there, there was nothing, and I started crying. 'Hey,' I told him, 'I spent half my life there.' "

Products Made by Hand

Friday was an evening of economic oral history, its storytellers were an average age of 60 or so. They gathered to swap gossip, count the rising toll of dead friends and wonder about their colleagues who didn't show up, those who, perhaps, have less fond memories of the factory and its closing four years ago.

W. J. Voit opened Voit Rubber in 1922, making tire retreading products in a Los Angeles factory. In the ensuing years, he invented what is considered the world's first inflatable rubber beach ball, inaugurating the sporting goods empire to come. In 1957, AMF bought the company, and the sporting goods factory was moved to Santa Ana in 1963, and closed down 20 years later.

Junie Medina, 60, worked at Voit Rubber in Los Angeles from 1946 to 1958 and left to follow her sailor husband to Connecticut. Medina was the first woman president of the rubber workers' union at Voit, saw the company's employees through the first of several strikes and left just before automation took her job as a ball builder.

"We built basketballs and footballs," said Medina, of Anaheim. "And at that time they were built by hand. We didn't have any machines back then. . . . Now, you don't make anything by hand."

Over the last 20 years, jobs in the inflatable rubber ball industry have bounced out of the United States in record numbers, as sporting goods plants relocated to foreign countries with significantly lower labor costs.

Voit's payroll dribbled away between the 1960s and the factory's 1983 closure, as domestic labor costs rose throughout the industry. Its 1960s high of 800 employees dipped to 250 in June, 1983, when Voit employees were told that the manufacturing plant would close three months later.

Staff size and employee morale weren't the only things that diminished during Voit's last years in Santa Ana.

"In 1968, when I started working there, they were making bowling balls, swim fins, masks, basketballs, baseballs, snow skis, water skis, oxygen tanks, golf clubs, swimsuits and footballs," said Fran Blevins, of Cypress, who retired after being laid off by Voit. "When they closed the plant, they were making volleyballs, footballs, basketballs, racquet balls, swim fins and masks. That's it."

The problem: The work went overseas, Blevins said, "and when they closed up, they sent the basketballs to Taiwan and China, the racquetballs to Mexico."

And the employees were forced to scatter or learn new skills. With a shrinking sporting goods industry, Southern California has little use for experienced ball stripers and buffers, fabricators and inflaters.

The first Voit reunion was a spontaneous party at a local Mexican restaurant, attended by about 300 recently or soon-to-be laid-off employees.

"I think maybe there was a little sadness in . . . the first one," said Mary Lou Brodine, 52, who has helped organize subsequent reunions. "But they had such a good turnout they decided to do this every year."

Much of the melancholy has worn off the annual event, and Friday night was more a slice of manufacturing history than a wake for a dead industry.

"Every year it seemed like we lost another sporting good," said Norm Nuenke, 51, who arrived at the Garden Grove reunion from Racine, Wis., sporting a tie of yellow, polyurethane Swiss cheese. "We worked hard so it wouldn't bottom out.

"We had a very warm and close association there," said Nuenke, a one-time Voit chemist. "But that's all in the past and impossible to retrieve. I'm happy with my new job and looking toward the future."

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