General Electric workers tell their stories

Company's great strength has always been its workforce
Virginia Brach, former employee at GE, sits inside her residency at Kingsway Community in Schenectady.
Virginia Brach, former employee at GE, sits inside her residency at Kingsway Community in Schenectady.

Editor’s note: Today marks the conclusion of our series on General Electric’s 125th anniversary. As a final nod to the women and men who made GE what it is, we shine the spotlight on some local retirees who invited us along for a walk down memory lane.

SCHENECTADY — During the early 1940s, Virginia Masto Brach’s work at the General Electric Co. was appreciated only in Schenectady.

But things changed.

Sailors in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would later appreciate the job Brach did at G.E. — although they would never know her name.

The tale has been told to generations of Brach offspring — how Virginia did her part during World War II. Brach, now 95 and a resident of Kingsway Community in Schenectady, shared her memories of important duty during the war.

Other former General Electric employees also told their stories.

Brach loves talking about her bold venture.

“I was at the office desk when they said, ‘Is there a girl here who would like to work on a machine?'” Brach said.

It was a milling machine, and the pitch continued: “‘First of all, you’ll have to go to school and learn what a micrometer is and use the micrometer,'” Brach said, remembering the discussion from 75 years ago. “‘You’ll be cutting quartz.’ I put my hand up and said, ‘Yes, I would like to work there.'”

Quartz chips were key components for electronic equipment that helped Navy ships detect enemy vessels during the war. Brach knew the job was only temporary; she would take the position of a GE man who was now in the war.

“When he came back, if he did, you had to turn over the job and he had his job back,” Brach said.

She learned the micrometer. Men in the milling department loaded 50-pound pieces of quartz in the machine, and Brach — the only woman in the department — began making the small cuts. “They were no bigger than the tip of my pinkie finger,” she said. “I loved the work because I knew I was doing it for a purpose.”

The story has a happy ending. Brach gave up her job when the man she replaced came home from the service.

“I don’t remember the years, how long he was there,” she said, “but when he served his time and had his rest, he came back and took over his job, which I relinquished and gave up as I should.”

Brach has always enjoyed telling family members and others what she did during the war.

“I am a proud grandmother because I’ve got a story that’s true to tell,” she said. “They listen over and over, the grandchildren, and say ‘Grandma, tell us more.'”

Here are the stories of other workers at General Electric:

Francis Miner

Judson Meadows Assisted Living, Glenville

Longtime Glenville and Charlton resident Francis Miner began his General Electric career in 1948. He worked in the payroll department.

“Our payroll grew from a very small number that we were paying to approximately 50,000 when I left,” said Miner, now 92. “We were paying the service engineers, the sales engineers, the service shop people and many odds and ends.”

Those checks totaled about $1 million during the late 1940s.

“We were probably up to $100 million when I left,” Miner said, adding the 40-person department of 1948 had grown to about 100 when he retired during the mid-1980s.

Miner remembers the perks that came with a General Electric job. “If you told people you worked at GE, it was like a credit card,” he said. “Just about every place you turned around, there were GE employees.”

“When I lived in Charlton,” Miner added, “they had a city bus arrangement that picked up people in the Charlton area and brought them into the city, into GE.”

Jeanne Place, a former employee at GE, sits inside her residence at Kingsway Community in Schenectady. (Erica Miller)

Jeanne Place

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

As a girl, Place made model airplanes.

“I enjoyed taking things apart and working with my hands,” she said.

She was also pretty good with math and science. She thought engineering might be in her future, and eventually talked to a friend of the family who was in the profession.

“He showed me a real, honest-to-goodness blueprint, which I found fascinating,” Place said.

Place’s father gave her permission to study engineering. But permission came with a condition.

“At least you’ll be going to college and if you flunk out of engineering school, then you can be a technical secretary,” Place said, remembering her father’s plan. “I said to him, ‘OK,’ and I said to myself the last thing in the world I’m ever going to be is a technical secretary.”

By 1950, Place was one of several new engineers just out of college and on the payroll at General Electric.

“We had an option of having what they called an engineering assignment, a design engineering assignment or a test assignment,” said Place, now 89. “We were moved around to different states, different plants so we could have an idea of what the General Electric Co. did and how they did it.”

Place made several stops for the company and spent many years in Schenectady.

“In gas turbines, I was the only woman engineer for several years,” she said. “Most of the men treated me very well. Some of the GE policies were somewhat limiting. They wouldn’t let me travel at first, then later on I ended up doing a lot of traveling, which I enjoyed, by the way.”

The work was challenging.

“I did a lot of test work, followed the production tests in the beginning, then I started doing component testing later on,” said Place, a former Niskayuna resident. “I ended up doing a lot of failure analysis as well, which meant going out and seeing what happened to the parts that failed.”

These jobs were critical for GE because big money often was involved.

“Doing analysis work is very interesting because it’s a real challenge,” Place added. “You go out to the customer’s plant and he says, ‘This machine is broken. It’s costing me $1 million a day. Fix it.’ That’s a lot of incentive as well.”

General Electric always wanted to stay ahead of the competition.

“We wanted to keep ahead so we did the best job that we could to maintain the position of GE,” Place said. “That’s what you try to do, the best job you can.”

Dick Nickerson, former employee at GE, sits inside his residence at Kingsway Community in Schenectady. (Erica Miller)

Dick Nickerson

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

Schenectady’s Dick Nickerson spent his entire 40-year career in the steam turbine and generator division.

Not everyone in Schenectady had the chance to walk around steam turbines on a daily basis. “They were monstrous,” Nickerson said. “They could be maybe 50 feet long. They’d be twice as high as I am.”

Nickerson, now 90, was in the advanced engineering program. He later worked five years in the computer group for large steam turbine generators, then moved over to turbines in bucket and rotor engineering.

Nickerson had one of the more unusual jobs at GE.

“I worked as a development engineer and also designed three turbines in my first six years,” he said. “In 1969, I was given freedom to work on and computerize anything I thought needed computerization. My management asked me not to talk to them about it.”

Nickerson eventually began computerizing the bucket group and worked on the project from 1980 until he retired in 1994. “I worked with a fellow by the name of Dave Caruso, who was an expert on drafting,” Nickerson said. “We completely computerized drafting so a man didn’t have to do anything. Push a button and boom, the picture comes.

“I couldn’t get to work early enough in the morning,” he said. “I loved everything I did.”

Anita Dunlavey

Ingersoll Place, Niskayuna

Amsterdam’s Anita Dunlavey was new on the job. She landed a position at GE shortly after she graduated from high school in 1953.

One morning, she was running late. She dressed quickly, and her wardrobe that day included a pair of bobby socks, ankle-high socks popular with teenagers of the day.

Shortly after Dunlavey began her shift, a supervisor walked to her desk. Management wanted to see one of the main plant’s newest workers.

“I though, ‘Uh-oh, I’m going to get yelled at because I wore bobby socks to work,'” said Dunlavey, now 81. “So I got up, stumbled over a wastebasket — like a klutz — and went to the manager’s office. He actually asked me if I wanted a promotion. There was a job opening and he asked me if I wanted to take that, and of course I did.”

Dunlavey said lunch breaks often meant visits to a bustling downtown Schenectady. There were bunches of Italian restaurants on Broadway.

“We used to go there to cash our checks and get a sandwich on Friday, and it was always busy, very busy,” Dunlavey said.

Dunlavey later worked at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. She retired in 1999.

“It was fun,” she said of her career. “You were expected to work, of course, and you worked. I always enjoyed it. We had many responsibilities and, of course, the better you did your job, the better it was for you.

“I was really very fortunate,” Dunlavey added. “I worked there through three pregnancies and in those days when you left, you weren’t guaranteed your job when you came back. But I always got one, so that all worked out.”

Robert Nolte

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

General Electric was always part of Robert Nolte’s family. His father, Henry “Hank” Nolte, was an engineer who began his career at the company shortly after World War I. Hank stuck around for more than 40 years.

When Dad received good news from the company, Nolte and his sister also benefited.

“Our biggest thing was when he got a patent, we got a dollar,” Nolte said. “It went on for a number of years, but then eventually he was given the Coffin award, one of the top engineering awards at GE for the work he did with vacuum tubes and the tube division.”

The award was named for Charles A. Coffin, GE’s co-founder and the company’s first president.

Nolte — always good with numbers — secured a position in the GE corporate accounting department. The numbers man often had conversations with his father and cousins — all company engineers.

“I was the only bean counter in the group, so I had to argue with the engineers once I got into the field myself,” Nolte said. “‘Why are you overspending this amount on this project or that project?’ I’d even sit down and argue with my father about it. He usually won, one way or another.”

Nolte retired during the late 1970s, after nearly 30 years on the job.

Marilyn West, a former employee at GE, sits inside her residence at Kingsway Community in Schenectady. (Erica Miller)

Marilyn West

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

Marilyn West did a little bit of everything at the plant from 1972 to 1992.

“I had a knack for finding records so they created a job and called it the records clerk,” said West, 85, who worked in the pension office. “I answered the phone, main line. I processed medical claims.”

She also maintained bank files.

“It was the place to work,” West said. “My husband worked there, my father worked there, my uncle and my brother.

“The benefits were fabulous, they had good life insurance, they had a savings program that was excellent. For every dollar you put into the savings program, GE put in 50 cents. It set up into a situation where we could live here (Kingsway) with all these expenses and not have to worry about money.”

West knows times have changed.

“They’ve cut back on all the benefits. There’s no more pension. Medical insurance is worth nothing. It’s like not having any — savings plans aren’t what they were,” she said. “Glad I’m still not working. I’d probably get fired for this.”

John ‘Pancho’ Carao

Ingersoll Place, Niskayuna

John Carao joined GE in 1950. Office work was not for him — he found a job on the company railroad.

Sometimes, that meant laying track. “It was work,” he said. “The rails were 30 feet long, and they were heavy.”

Carao rose through the railroad ranks. Eventually, he was driving the train and making pickups around the plant. Anything big — such as turbines — and anything potentially dangerous — like kettles of molten metal — could end up in the train cars.

“It was exciting, but you had to watch out,” Carao said, adding that motorists in the plant sometimes did not look out for big engines.

“I was in a turbine once coming out of a gate, he was coming late for work, I’m at the railroad crossing and bang, he hit my engine,” Carao said.

There were some harsh words. Carao was always careful, even if other drivers were not.

“If you got in the way, I got blamed for it,” he said. “No matter what happened.”

Ethel Thiel

Judson Meadows Assisted Living, Glenville

Ethel Thiel worked only briefly at General Electric, during the 1940s. She knew the land that would later become the atomic power lab complex — it was once her father’s farm.

“I started out in drafting and I didn’t care for drafting, so I moved to I.G.E. (International G.E.), in the office typing bills,” she said.

During the 1940s, any job was money in the bank.

“It was a sure paycheck at the time,” Thiel said. “The war was coming along and jobs weren’t that plentiful. If you got a sure job with a sure income, you were set.”

Eric Thiel

Judson Meadows Assisted Living, Glenville

Eric Thiel — Ethel Theil is his wife — was accepted into the four-year G.E. apprentice program in 1940. He had recently graduated from Mont Pleasant High School.

“With the war on, we worked at an accelerated pace,” said Thiel, now 95. “Lo and behold, I graduated in two years and four months. This was in 1943.”

Thiel began work as a machinist and toolmaker. “Our job was to keep up the tools for the presses, or to make new ones to replace those, which were quite intricate,” he said. “As machinists, we learned how to run all the various machines in the tool shop.”

In 1944, the nearly 100 new apprentice program graduates were inducted into the armed forces. Thiel said many went into the Navy; he became a motor-machinist mate on a landing craft support gunboat.

Thiel later moved to the Knolls Atomic Power Lab and worked on nuclear propulsion systems for ships. He retired in 1983.

Ray Sarnacki

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

Former Rotterdam resident Ray Sarnacki always remembered his first look at General Electric.

It was an open house around 1930, Sarnacki was just a kid. But he was fascinated by a chain-driven truck on display.

“I couldn’t understand a truck driving with a chain,” he said. “It was a battery-operated truck back then.”

By 1941, Sarnacki had a job in the company’s radio transmitter department. He was drafted in 1943 and was soon working as a radar operator in the Navy.

Sarnacki later worked in the small motor and generator test division. He retired in 1982.

Frank Potochnik a former employee at GE, sits inside his residence at Kingsway Community in Schenectady. (Erica Miller)

Frank Potochnik

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

Frank Potochnik worked at the General Electric silicone plant in Waterford for most of his career. He started in 1950 and retired in 1987.

“It was a good place to work,” said Potochnik, who graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. “We really had a lot of fun. We were making a lot of money because we were kind of a unique business. Silicones were used to make insulating materials.

“It was a small part of the company,” Potochnik added. “Everybody enjoyed the work.”

Earl Barnes, a former employee at GE, sits inside his residence at Kingsway Community in Schenectady. (Erica Miller)

Earl Barnes

Kingsway Community, Schenectady

One of the high points of Earl Barnes’ GE career — which started in 1954 and ended with his retirement in 1992 — was a patent he was awarded for innovation in the large steam turbine division.

Burtonsville resident Barnes’ idea was concentric steam pads for steam turbine cooling, allowing machines to operate at high temperatures.

“We got along great, we were like family,” Barnes said of his friends at GE. “We played softball together, did a lot of things and developed a team approach within our engineering organization.”

Barnes, now 83, did not finish his career in engineering.

“I got transferred from engineering to manufacturing late in my career,” he said. “They were downsizing and I was fortunate enough to be downsized to manufacturing. There was a severe mistake made in the ordering of a forging for a turbine rotor. I was able to save the forging without the company losing several million dollars.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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