To hear Joan A’Hearn tell it, working as a speech writer for General Electric was a great adventure.
The Ballston Spa resident has written a humorous memoir about her experiences at GE, where she worked from 1973 to 1987.
Titled “That’s All She Wrote: a GE Speech writer Tells (Almost) All,” A’Hearn’s book opens by detailing her unlikely hiring — she believed she was applying for a typing job and was startled to learn that she was actually interviewing for a speech writing position.
The secretary who greeted her was also startled, exclaiming, “Oh, my goodness, you’re a woman,” and remarking, “It’s just that we’ve never hired a woman writer before.”
Convinced she would never get the job, A’Hearn typed up a biographical sketch that talked about a childhood spent at racetracks and horse farms and the junior copywriter job she got by falsely claiming to have a college degree.
“I put the paper in the typewriter, rolled up my sleeves and started pounding away,” she writes in the opening chapter of “That’s All She Wrote.”
“I’d give them a biographical sketch, anything to get this ridiculous interview or whatever it was over with. And I was sure that whatever I did would be wasted as soon as they discovered I was in the wrong place applying for the wrong job. I was equally sure they were looking for prose that would reflect my desire to work for this revered corporate giant and at the moment my only desire was to get the hell out of there, find my car and go home.”
A’Hearn was the first female speech writer at GE, but she downplays her accomplishment.
“I was just grateful that I got that job, because I loved it,” she said. “I wasn’t aware that I was breaking ground until somebody mentioned it.”
Now retired, A’Hearn, 74, said she decided to write “That’s All She Wrote” because “I can’t stand not doing something.” She said the book grew out of short, creative non-fiction pieces that she wrote while in a writing group in Saratoga Springs. “The underlying theme in the stories seemed to be stuff that happened at GE,” she said. “There were a whole bunch of incidents that tied together.”
While at GE, A’Hearn produced videos and wrote speeches promoting factory automation, transportation systems, financial services and the major appliances business. But she was also asked to do some unlikely behind-the-scenes tasks, such as finding someone to create a cake that would play the Purdue University fight song when cut into and bringing it to New York City for a ceremony honoring one of the company’s vice presidents.
“We were at the beck and call of anyone in the company who could afford our rates,” A’Hearn recalled.
A’Hearn has nothing but praise for her boss during her speech writing gig, a man named John Duncan who died four years ago at the age of 95. But she said that while working in other jobs she often encountered men who refused to give her plum assignments or nitpicked her work excessively.
The final chapters of “That’s All She Wrote” are funny, but also bittersweet.
After former General Electric CEO Jack Welch took the reins in 1981, the whole atmosphere at the company changed. His tenure was marked by impressive corporate profits, but also the widespread trimming of workers, and A’Hearn began to fear that she would lose her job. “Under Jack Welch, GE wasn’t the same company,” she said. “There were massive layoffs. It was a numbers game.”
After watching many of her friends and co-workers get the ax, A’Hearn wasn’t surprised when she was asked to leave.
She writes, “The belt-tightening gospel according to Welch had spread throughout the land, and the longer it took for me to actively seek employment elsewhere, the more unlikely the prospects were. Then it finally happened. Gerry called me into his office early one morning (I should have known the jig was up, he never got in early), and said something like, ‘We can’t keep you any longer.’ He made it sound as if he had been trying desperately to save my job. Right.”
“I tell people ‘I was Welched,’ ” A’Hearn said.
A’Hearn said her book provides a sense of what it was like to work for a large company during the 1970s and 1980s and also of a time when more people genuinely enjoyed their work — something she fears is a thing of the past after listening to her granddaughter and her friends complain about their jobs. “I liked my job,” A’Hearn said. “I used to look forward to going to work. I wanted to let them know that this was possible.”
A’Hearn’s father was a jockey and a trainer, and she grew up on racetracks, moving frequently until her family settled in Saratoga Springs when she was a sophomore in high school. She attended St. Peter’s Academy, which is now Saratoga Central Catholic School.
“That’s All She Wrote” was published by The Hudson Press, a small firm in Glens Falls. Larry Dudley, who founded The Hudson Press, said “That’s All She Wrote” tells the larger story of General Electric in those decades through A’Hearn’s experiences.
“A lot of people are interested in the history of GE,” Dudley said. “The rise of Jack Welch is an interesting story. He transformed the company and the economy, but he also shut down plants and outsourced production. She went to work there when GE was at the pinnacle of American businesses, along with IBM and AT&T, and then things began to unravel. She was a witness to that whole process.”
Dudley praised A’Hearn’s writing style.
“It’s crisp and fresh and doesn’t just ramble on,” he said. “She’s just one of those people who’s a natural writer. That’s not such a common thing as you might think.”
After leaving GE, A’Hearn did freelance writing, and her clients included Xerox, Cadbury and Osram/Sylvania. She formed an audio-visual company called Green Street Productions, but it only lasted a couple years. She then got a job with the Schenectady Museum, where she served as marketing director for the Hall of Electrical History, which houses photographs, films, technical papers and artifacts salvaged from the GE main plant by the Elfun Society. About nine years ago, A’Hearn left the museum.
A’Hearn said she’s continuing to write and is working on a mystery set in Saratoga. She said she always wanted to be a writer but didn’t have much time when she was working.
“I wanted to be Brenda Starr,” she said, referring to the female comic book reporter.
“That’s All She Wrote” is available through Amazon as an e-book and at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady and the Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga Springs.