Time to blog Another Thousand Words for the three or four of you. I wish I didn’t have to.
That’s because I just got a press release from Jeff Strack, president and CEO of Strack & Van Til grocery stores. SVT’s parent company, Central Grocers, is set to try to sell 22 SVT stores and they’re closing nine Ultra Stores. This follows closures in recent weeks, including the SVT in Merrillville.
Today’s announcement no doubt hits hard the reported 6,000 people who work for the chain of grocery stores that, more than any other business in recent memory, epitomizes what it means to live and work in northwest Indiana.
It’s a great local story. Jeff’s grandfather started a grocery store in Highland. The Van Til family started in Hammond. Way back when they combined forces to control much of the local grocery market for decades.
And then they sold a bunch to a conglomerate. And then there was the ill-fated foray into Illinois, where they will close seven Ultra stores (and two in Indiana). Evidently there will be 22 SVT left that they’re looking to sell “as a going concern.” The 22 stores, as the release says, “are expected to continue to operate and serve their communities on an ongoing basis.”
Illinois - so close in distance, so far away in terms of loyalties. Also, there’s the entrance of Meijer, WalMart, Target, and (can you believe it?) Menard’s into the grocery market. These stores are all over northwest Indiana as well as Illinois. Not to mention Whole Foods and Mariano’s.
My heart goes out to Jeff Strack, who recently took the reigns of SVT after being relegated to the leadership sidelines of the company that bears his family’s name. Since Jeff was named president and CEO of Strack & Van Til last year, you could feel the energy returning in the stores. It was a move, however, that perhaps came a little late.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Strack & Van Til. It is quite possible that a buyer will step in for the 22 stores and that we will continue to have this brand and story to be proud of. I hope so, as the three or four of you might expect, in that our WJOB studios are named “The Strack & Van Til studios.”
When Jeff became CEO last year, he was determined to “get back to back to the roots” of the organization. Jeff and his team came up with “Indiana Made.” This message resonated locally and has built momentum. However, following a period in which perhaps the chain had lost touch with its roots – without Jeff at the helm – it may have been, as mentioned, a little bit late.
I have to tell you, since this is my blog and I pledged to the three or four of you to write (openly) Another Thousand Words every day, that I have some experience in this area. In other words, My Radio Life wasn’t always this. I of course have told you a few things about My Trading Life. But I have never mentioned My Construction Life.
Dedelow Inc. That’s what it was called. It was this large construction company that did a lot of work in the refineries, mills, power plants and sanitation plants all over northwest Indiana and Illinois and even in Florida, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. My great grandfather and grandpa got it going, and then my dad and uncle took over and made it grow exponentially.
Then one day we had to do something like Strack & Van Til had to do today. I was 19 years old, working as a Local 41 Laborer for Dedelow Inc. at the Gary Sanitary District. The foreman called all 50 or 60 Dedelow employees to the main trailer and then pulled me aside.
“Your dad wants me to tell you to walk to your car immediately and leave. Go home. Now.”
I scratched my hardhat and scrunched my face – “F--- that. Whatever you got to say I wanna hear it.”
So I, one of the descendants of the original owners of Dedelow Inc., stood with Laborers, Carpenters, Pipefitters, Cement Finishers, Ironworkers and other lesser crafts and listened to the job superintendent read a missive not unlike the one that Jeff Strack had to send out today.
And, you guessed it, every one of these Laborers, Carpenters, Pipefitters, etc., turned around and looked at me for a reaction. I had none. It was as big a surprise to me as it was to the several dozen Laborers, Carpenters, etc.
“Are we gonna get paid?” one really old Finisher asked.
“Yes,” the superintendent said. “But I don’t know for how long.”
Now that I understood. I was between my freshman and sophomore years at Occidental College in Los Angeles. It was a nice life. I played baseball there and drove around in my buddy Tiny Naylor’s MG and had a few lady friends and even had a year-round tan. So what if I had to come back to the Region on breaks and slop around in s---. It was worth it.
“Everyone go home now… except you, Jimmy. Come up here.”
And then all of the Laborers, etc., slumped away to their beat-up cars and trucks and took off. The superintendent took me into his trailer.
“You just wait here for a little while.”
“What the hell for?”
He hesitated. This man had worked for Dedelow Inc. for as long as I could remember. He was like one of the family. I could see a single tear on his cheek.
“I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Now, 36 years later, it breaks my heart to write these words – just as I’m pretty sure it broke Jeff Strack’s heart today to hit send on the computer. I’m also pretty sure I’ve never written anything about the break-up of Dedelow Inc. in all of these years and all of these journals. I haven’t even talked about it.
An hour or so later, the superintendent walked me across the gravel to my mom’s car. “You’re doing a good job out there, Jimmy, really holding your own. I can see great things for you in construction.”
So there. If not for this unfortunate happening, I very well may have been writing a blog not entitled My Radio Life, or even My Trading Life, it easily could have become My Construction Life.
I would have been proud to write that blog in that I loved working a jackhammer and I loved having my name on the side of the construction trailer. You could read it from the Toll Road. You could read it on jackets, the sides of trucks, on business cards, contracts, checks, hats. I was proud to see the fruits of my grandpa’s hard work and my dad’s and my uncle’s and, ultimately, my work and that of my many cousins and brothers.
In a word, the collapse of Dedelow Inc. was devastating, not just to me and my mom and brothers and sisters and dad – but to a whole extended family. Some never recovered. I held onto my Laborers card and was able to find work for the next few years here and there during breaks. And I was able to snake my way into UC Berkeley – as a hardship case. But the pain that started that summer day at the Gary Sanitary District has never entirely gone away.
To sum it up for the three or four of you – I can feel the pain my friend, Jeff Strack. He and the 6,000 people who make up this fine institution have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. They work hard, have built something up, and are threatened by forces outside of their control. They may rebound, truly get back to their roots, and live to fight another day. Whatever happens, though, today will be a day they always remember.