Whirlpool withdrawal in Fort Smith: Careers shattered 

The Whirlpool plant was the cornerstone of the Fort Smith economy, once employing thousands. In June, that all swirled away.

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"This is a stepping stone," she said. "It's almost like we coddle them and protect them. They get the one-on-one. They get the attaboys they need. They get the warm fuzzies, and they get that we're behind them. They're not going to get that on a college campus."  

With the economy so dire and her students destined to compete with just-as-qualified candidates who are less than half their age, Faubus-Kendrick said that the faculty at the center has to wear a lot of hats for the older students they see: friend, psychologist and confidante.

"It's difficult," she said. "It's sitting and listening to their anger, their disappointment, their fear. It's listening, and saying: 'Let's take a piece of this at a time.' "

Laura Strange, 55, worked at Whirlpool for 29 years and two months, eventually becoming a coordinator on the refrigerator door line. Strange didn't want us to take her picture, but you already know what she looks like — what grief looks like, what sleepless nights look like, what worry looks like. When we talked to her, she was mad, heartsick, always seeming to be on the verge of shouting. During our interview, when she mentioned that she'd at least be receiving Whirlpool insurance when she eventually does retire, she was gently informed by Howard Carruth and others that this was not the case because she was a few months shy of 55 the day the plant closed — the 55-year-old cutoff age being one of the quirks of the final compensation deal worked out between the union and the company. She and others at the table came close to arguing about it, with Strange insisting she'd been explicitly told by "the people upstairs" in management that she would receive company insurance upon retirement. Eventually, however, the realization that she'd been either mistaken or outright lied to seemed to wash over her. And just like that — poof — another dim spark of her hope was gone, before our very eyes.  It was a horrible thing to witness.

Her situation, Strange said, is almost unbearable at times. "The stress is unbelievable," she said. "People say, pick something else and do it! That's hard to do. I can't go back to a factory. I tried one time, and I failed the physical. I have carpal tunnel. I have arthritis in my shoulders and in my hips. Going out and getting another factory job is probably not going to happen for me."

Even as she tries to push forward with her education, Strange said, her time at Whirlpool is still holding her back. When she was young, Strange was a crackerjack typist, able to top 50 words per minute. "Now I can't get past 20 because my fingers are so messed up," she said. "My fingers just don't work like they used to."

While Strange seems determined to press on, she knows, like the other folks from Whirlpool, that the clock is always ticking. It's a common refrain: Who is going to want to hire any of them?

"After two years of retraining that's definitely not going to get me a job in this area that pays as well as Whirlpool, I'm going to go out there and try to compete at doing something I've never done before with kids who are fresh out of college," she said. "They'll want that same job, and if I were in charge, I would take the young person. In two years, I'll be 57. I can't retire, and I'm a long way from the Social Security line. What do you do?"

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