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Local millworker celebrates 50-year career

WHITE CITY — Days after receiving his Crater High School diploma in June of 1962, Willie Debrick rode off to work with his father at the Olson-Lawyer Lumber planing mill just off Highway 62.

Debrick still makes the daily drive a half-century later. While it might be the same place, the company name, the industry and the world have changed.

With few exceptions, Debrick, now 68, has shown up bright and early, often six days a week, for work. For the past several decades, he has overseen what is now Boise Cascade's log yard.

"My dad told me when you work for somebody that at end of day, take a minute and stop and say, 'How did I make this man my wages?,' " Debrick said. "If you didn't do it, then you better start looking for something else, because they aren't going to need you very long."

Starting at $1.85 an hour and earning $5,000 annually, Debrick has more than earned his keep and was duly honored by past and present co-workers Monday.

"We have a lot of employees that have been here 20, 30 or maybe 40 years," said Boise Cascade's White City facilities superintendent Diane Daley, who has been with the company 27 years. "I think people stay for a reason — as much as the job and work — I hope it's the people they work with. Especially after the economic downturn, where people have lost jobs, they want a job where they can support their family and stay with it long-term. They see Willie and see it as a good place to work because he's stuck around."

Debrick joined the workforce near the end of the post-World War II economic expansion, when baby boomers still were being born. Amid the Cold War and budding Space Race that fueled developments in all phases of the American landscape. A time before turmoil of Vietnam, the Great Society, Watergate and environmental movement changed the nation — and the Rogue Valley's core industry.

"I have to describe these years in the industry like a Clint Eastwood movie: 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' " Debrick said. "The first years were good. Then came the rising housing, fuel, medical and college costs; that was the bad. Now you have the ugly with all that's happened in wood products.

"I was talking with the crew the other day. Some had seen good times, some of them didn't see any of it. I hope for the younger generation they get all these things straightened out and turned around."

Debrick was the oldest of five siblings Clarence and Ora Debrick raised on a small farm outside Central Point, where he developed mechanical and welding interests. College wasn't in the cards for Debrick and there were more than a dozen mills in and around White City.

"Jobs were plentiful," Debrick recalled. "I came to work with my dad for a year-and-a-half and then finally got my own car. It drew me and my dad pretty close."

His first job for planer superintendent John Graves was placing spacing sticks to separate lumber as it moved through dry kilns. After a year, he moved to the sawmill operation and pulled on the green chain.

The green chain, where lumber yet to be dried was separated, had its own culture and accountability.

"You were paired up and if you didn't pull your share, he'd let you know," Debrick said. "It was good times. Everyone pitched in to help someone out. No one was afraid to teach someone something that they thought would help. If people saw someone buried, they helped out. It was educational and was pretty good working with people from all different nationalities."

During the Vietnam era, Debrick joined the National Guard and was stationed at Fort Lewis outside Tacoma, Wash. During that period he married and divorced. He remarried shortly after his discharge in 1969 and returned in time to help Olson-Lawyer wind down its Prospect sawmill operations.

A few years later, there was an opening at the log dump and Debrick began running equipment and "whatever else was needed."

The great wake-up call came 40 years ago when recessionary forces in the early '70s brought the industry to a cyclical crossroads.

"We were shut down for six months in 1971 and 1972 because of market conditions," Debrick said. "That's when everyone started getting worried. For a younger man with a family you looked around and went 'whoa.' Back then, unemployment paid $84 a week. That means you went out and found something to fill in — plus you had a two-week waiting period."

Lessons were quickly learned or relearned.

"In those days, everyone was living payday-to-payday," he said. "They didn't worry about tomorrow, because what happened today was the important thing. It made a lot of people stop and look at tomorrow. That was a big cultural change right there. You made sure you had a savings account some place to back you up and you changed the way you spent. It was tough, but I can thank my wife for making great things happen."

Willie and Dianna had three daughters, all of whom went through college. One, Shawna, worked her way through school working at Boise, washing heavy equipment and shops on weekends and running a water truck.

Olson-Lawyer, like Boise Cascade, was a nonunion shop, but mill hands always kept an eye on how their organized labor counterparts fared.

"This plant was good about matching or exceeding whatever the union did," Debrick said. "We never got short-changed and always came out as good or better."

As harvestable timber became more scarce in the 1970s, independent operators such as Olson-Lawyer began falling prey to competitive pressures. Rumors were rampant, he said, so when Boise Cascade acquired Olson-Lawyer in 1977, there was a collective sigh of relief.

"It was a plus for us," Debrick said. "We wouldn't be here today if Boise hadn't bought us out. They were a big operation and they were looking for some place to get rid of small logs."

The retooled veneer and sawmill fit Boise Cascade's need at the time and for what became the future of the region's timber industry.

"I think the guys felt a lot more secure about belonging to a bigger company rather than a little one," he said. "The price of timber started getting higher and higher and higher. Olson-Lawyer had to buy everything from the government or private timber holders and Boise had land holdings. They could feed our mill and off-set the rising prices and that gave them a little more stability."

Five decades ago, most Rogue Valley residents were dependent on or related to someone connected to wood products employment.

"When I got into this work, it was about brute strength and awkwardness," he said. "Now, it's about pushing buttons."

Debrick plans to leave on his own terms at the end of this year. "If I can find something to do," he said. "My wife and I want to do a little traveling, but I can't just sit at home. It's a scary thought, after working six days a week for 50 years to all of a sudden sleep in and watch cartoons."

Willie Debrick has worked at the mill in White City now owned by Boise Cascade for 50 years. Debrick says his five decades in the industry has been like a Clint Eastwood movie: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” - Julia Moore