On the Bridge: Ed Shaw faces changing times
GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Rev. Mr. Edward Shaw and his wife of 37 years moved to Pittsfield three years ago, into the first house they have owned, after 28 years in Housatonic.
For 31 years, Shaw worked for the Rising Paper Mill, which became the Fox River Paper Co. When the local owner sold the Housatonic mill to a rival company, Neenah Paper, in 2007, Neenah shut the mill within two weeks. According to Eagle records, 137 people lost their jobs.
"It was a tough time for me," Shaw said, "thinking I had spent 31 years in a secure establishment, that I could retire and care for my family."
He grew up in a family of nine children -- his mother had been raised Catholic, singing "Adeste Fideles" with her twin sister every year at the Christmas Eve Mass in Lenox Dale.
But she married a Protestant and stayed home to care for her children.
"We had tough times, but we learned through the times we struggled financially," Shaw said.
When his father became ill and could not work, the family came together.
"You did yard work, you raked leaves, you shoveled snow, and you gave the money to your mom because that might be your dinner that night," he said.
Sometimes, he would come home to find the lights out until they could pay the power bill. But neighbors helped neighbors and his family reached out to each other.
"We dealt with it," he said.
Shaw started working at Fox River when it was still the Rising Paper Mill. Rising was a private, family-owned company, he said, and, in 1976, Robert O'Connor sold the mill to another private company, owned by Robert Buchanen.
Rising and Fox River were a lot alike, Shaw said. Small orders kept them afloat in tough times. Because they were small companies, they could take on smaller orders that larger companies ignored. They made many kinds of paper and were known for art paper.
Their source of water was an artesian well, he said, and their customers valued their paper so highly that when Neenah announced that the mill was closing, one of their largest customers tried to buy the mill, Shaw said, to keep it running.
Shaw did shift work and moved to different jobs wherever the company needed him -- the paper machine, the beater room, where they prepared paper to be machined -- but he spent most of his time in the finishing department, converting paper: taking the paper made on the rolls and running it through cutters and guillotine trimmers, getting it wrapped and sealed into boxes and sent to the shipping department.
He spoke well of O'Connor as a boss.
"He knew your family," Shaw said. "He knew who you were. He'd come down on the floor [to say] ‘How're things going -- how's your wife, your children?' He came down at holidays. People got free turkeys. We've gotten away from what makes us go."
Shaw became vice president of the union, representing the workers and negotiating contracts. It takes skill, he said, to sit at a negotiating table.
"You have the company on one side and the people on the other, and you're pulled from both sides," Shaw said. "You try to represent people as best you can for their own good, and you have to look at the company's side also. They're trying to make a business work. We represent the business, and we want to be compensated for our hard work. And sometimes ... personalities can get in the way."
When the negotiators had reached a compromise, Shaw would then have to present it to the people he worked with, and they could reject it by a vote.
"You have to go back and explain," he said. "People felt the union was so powerful, if we didn't get what we wanted, we could just strike and get it that way. It's not true. No one wins in a strike, and the biggest loss is to the workers."
He saw only one short strike on his watch.
"You hammer out the hard issues and make a go of it," he said.
And they did, until Neenah stepped in.
When Neenah first bought Fox River, Shaw said, staff members were glad to be bought by a large company with public stocks. They never anticipated they would be shut down.
The closing was a time of heartache for him. Young people just starting their lives had new cars, new homes and babies and now had no jobs.
"BerkshireWorks got involved with them," Shaw said. "I'm sure a lot of young employees went back to school. Times are tough. We know that now. A lot of manufacturing jobs have gone overseas."
"When something like that happens, you feel devastation. You feel bitter -- why did this happen to me? But you do what you have to do."
He worked for Monument Mountain Regional High School for a year in 2007, then came to his present job as an evening custodian supervisor at Muddy Brook Elementary School.
"I feel blessed to have this job," he said.
In 2007, too, he was ordained. He now serves as a Catholic deacon for St. Peter in Great Barrington and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Housatonic, both parishes under the care of the Rev. William P. Murphy.
Shaw became Catholic at 21, returning to his mother's faith. Later, he took courses for his ordination at Elms College for four and a half years while he was working 10-hour days at the paper mill.
He remembered the day he first heard a Catholic Mass, by chance after a folk concert -- and the day, after a year of study, that he first knew he wanted to become Catholic.
He had gone up into the mountains in Vermont, where his brother and his in-laws had a camp. He sat on the hillside above the reservoir to watch the sun rise. And that morning he felt a warmth, he said -- his spirit became alive.
This profile is written in colaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge, to bring many voices to this magazine. To har more about Ed Shaw and On the Bridge, visit our blog at berkshrieeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.
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