.cat-links { display: none !important; }
We Are Family

We Are Family

By Sherri Coner

With tears in his eyes, Bob Charles of Shelbyville pointed at his wife and said, “I called Donna cryin’ like a boy.”

“We were all crying our eyes out,” Connie Lentz of Trafalgar said as more than 20 other former Jenn-Air employees nodded in agreement.

They were remembering a September day in 1996 when they learned the doors were permanently closing at the Indianapolis-based kitchen appliance manufacturer.

Founded by Louis J. Jenn in 1947, the factory was initially known as Jenn-Air Products Company.

Later it was known simply as Jenn-Air.

When former Jenn-Air employees gather for reunion lunches, longtime workers like Bob Charles of Shelbyville and Lois Bevis of Indianapolis enjoy catching up. Here, Bob’s wife, Donna Charles, recalls teasing Bob about treating female coworkers like his little sisters. (Photo by Sherri Coner)

When Maytag bought the plant in 1986, unpopular changes were implemented.

In spite of that unfortunate fact, the workers stayed.

Most of them had been with Jenn-Air at least 10 years by then.

They earned an above-average salary and excellent health benefits through the Sheet Metal Workers Union.

But something other than money also made them stay.


“We grew up there together,” said Sammy Turner of Greenwood.

With only two months’ experience as a husband, Charles was proud to be a union man.

Debbie Bacher of Trafalgar was 21 and already facing the stress of adult responsibilities.

“Back then I went through a divorce with a child to raise by myself,” she said. “My job at Jenn-Air was my lifeline. But I also had tons of friends there.”

The first time Lentz punched a Jenn-Air time clock, she was 24 and married.

Jenn-Air founder Louis Jenn worked hard to cultivate a family atmosphere at the plant. During cookouts at lunchtime and birthday cakes on break, Jenn was a frequent face in the crowd of workers. (Submitted photo)

Her husband, Bill worked at the Chrysler Electrical plant across the road.

Not long after deciding that paint fumes made her nauseous, Lentz and her husband learned they were expecting their first child.

On production lines or in the cafeteria for meals, young coworkers mixed hard work and long hours while congratulating each other about weddings, new babies or first home purchases.

They also had each other’s back in tough times.

“Mary helped me get through my divorce; now that’s a friend,” said Bacher as she smiled at Mary Miller of Avon.

Employee birthdays never went by without cake and hugs.

Bacher’s Coca-Cola cake was a breakroom favorite.

“And Sue loved my fudge,” she said of Southsider Sue Stone, seated across the table.

“Clara was the most beautiful woman they had at Jenn-Aire,” Lenz said of Southsider Clara Hazelwood. “It was the way Clara carried herself and how she dressed and that long, black hair.”

Sheepishly dropping her head, Hazelwood seemed embarrassed by the attention.

Jenn-Air employee for 21 years, Sue Stone of the Southside, posed at the plant with her first supervisor, Bobby Carr. (Submitted photo)

Donna Charles laughed and said, “I always teased Bob and called all the girls his harem.”

From the moment Charles grabbed a plant uniform, he became the big brother for anyone needing a helping hand. When roads were icy, he transported his “harem,” meaning female coworkers, from their homes to the plant and back again.


Martin Fallon of Center Grove happily accepted shift changes and overtime, working in different production lines and learning the ropes about the role of an inspector.

Like Fallon, Bacher was eager to develop new skills. She learned product inspection, production line work and responsibilities in the paint department.

“A lot of people didn’t like to move around like that,” she said. “But it didn’t bother me.”

Maybe no one ever wondered if Cupid hung around Jenn-Air with romance on his mind. But Turner very unexpectedly met John, the man who left the plant after a year and became her spouse.

Stone hosted the lovebirds ceremony at her home. The late Harold Ward, another Jenn-Air coworker, performed the ceremony.

“He was such a good man,” Turner said of Ward. “It meant the world to me that he married us.”

The work ethic at Jenn-Air was beyond impressive.

Bob Charles of Shelbyville, formerly a longtime resident of Southport, shares an emotional goodbye with longtime coworker and close friend, Dolena Olivier when the Jenn-Air plant unexpectedly closed in September of 1996. (Submitted photo)

When practical jokes and laughter accompanied the grueling workload, employees not only did great work; they had great moments with coworkers who felt more every day like family.

When Lentz mentioned the fish prank to the group, laughter rippled around the Greenwood restaurant tables filled with former Jenn-Air employees.

On that day, someone sneakily added water and a goldfish to a drip jar, meant to capture grease.

When the shocked inspector curiously peeked at the contents and screamed, the joke became even funnier.


When memories returned to that unexpected September day, a quiet fell across the dining area. With no warning, 860 dedicated Jenn-Air employees lost their jobs, their future plans and friends who were more like family.

Within weeks, three other area factories, Chrysler Electrical plant, RCA and Western Electric, also shut down.

Thousands of shocked, heartbroken employees were suddenly jobless.

A couple of weeks after goodbyes were said and tears were cried, they went their own ways, trying to make sense of it all. Smiling, Jim Butcher of Indianapolis remembered a phone call from Stone.

“She said, ‘Let’s go find ourselves a job.’ So we did.”

Debbie Bacher of Trafalgar and Marty Fallon of Center Grove. (Photo by Sherri Coner)

In fact, they were both hired at Arvin Industries in Franklin.

“Sue worked for one day, but I stayed nine years,” Butcher said.

“I was 24 when I started at Jenn-Air and 43 when I left, Lentz said.

As photographs were passed around, friends scooted closer or peered over shoulders to see their yesterdays.

“It was so, so traumatic for us,” Lentz said of the plant closing. “It was like losing brothers and sisters.”

Working long hours beside trusted friends but also taking time to laugh and care about one another was a rare experience. Through the years and job changes, none of them were successful in replicating that Jenn-Air dynamic at other jobs.

They still gather at restaurants and make phone calls, show up for hospital visits and funerals.

But that September Day in 1996 still brings on a sting.

“I would have never left there,” Bob Charles said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *