A little thematic music.
I imagine June 20, 1966, was a proud day for my grandfather.
That was the day his son, newly minted Master’s of Science in Management degree in hand, started work at his first post-collegiate job — at a nice, steady, reliable Fortune 500 company.
This was a company a dad could be proud of, too. No tanks or napalm or thalidomide rolled off its production lines.
Its products came in sunny yellow boxes, familiar around the world. And every box came packed with the promise of happy memories just waiting to be experienced and preserved.
Sounds like a can’t-fail business proposition, right?
Eastman Kodak Co., like a termitic old oak, has been dying from the inside out for years. The company may be bankrupt by the time you read this, even if it hasn’t yet said as much. A share of its stock is no longer worth enough to buy a fast-food cheeseburger.
My dad, who spent 32 years at Kodak, sheds no tears at the looming end of an era. He mentally separated himself from the place the day he retired, and hasn’t looked back since. (He is also smart, or lucky, enough not to have to rely on the company for significant retirement benefits.)
I’m a little more sentimental about what may be Kodak’s final decline. As someone who reaped all of Kodak’s benefits without any of its headaches, I think the company had a lot to do with shaping the course of my family — more for good than ill.
For one thing, my dad’s first job came with a deferment that helped keep him out of Vietnam. His actual work was only remotely related to any sort of government contract … not that he called anybody’s attention to that.
Also, my dad’s Kodak salary carried the bulk of our household costs when I was a child. My dad played gigs around town, and my mom taught violin lessons out of our home. But I’m not sure those things put together added up to a really significant flow of income.
The roof over our head, the food on our table and the cars in our driveway owed their presence, predominantly, to my dad’s paycheck. I’m sure that situation was in force at thousands of other tract houses in the suburbs ringing Rochester.
(My most recent blog post talked about the process by which a non-relative gets assimilated into a family. The same is true of companies. In good times or bad, a major employer practically becomes another presence around dinner tables all over town. My father and his friends called their company “Mother Yellow,” a name as revealing as it was sardonic.)
Kodak was there with a National Merit Scholarship when I finished putting in my time in high school. I held that scholarship tightly, like a prized snapshot, for all four years. That money, combined with a smaller scholarship from my school, enabled me to get four years of college for the price of three — a bargain of some consequence, given the cost of the overpriced Eastern liberal-arts school where I went to college.
This is not to say that life as a Kodak family was all cloudless skies and bright green grass.
The company was already bleeding jobs by the time I was a teenager. I can remember my dad at the dinner table, circa 1990, matter-of-factly telling my mom that he wasn’t sure he’d have a job in a year’s time.
Years later, my dad told me about a troubled time — sometime in the ’90s, I think — when he skipped ahead six or eight months in his electronic calendar and left himself a note saying, “If you’re still here to read this message, go out and celebrate.” He was, and he did.
When Facebook came along, I found out that several of my old schoolmates attributed their fathers’ heart attacks to their tenure at Kodak. My dad got out with his health and (most of) his sanity, but he might have been ahead of the game.
Also, being a Kodak family meant early access to the company’s latest products — not always a good thing in those years. We have a few Kodak instant prints in our family photo collection, of uniformly dismal quality. We were also early adopters of Ma Yellow’s disc camera, an “innovation” so daft it makes Qwikster look like sliced bread.
Still, I think of Kodak as a place that enabled an awful lot of people over the decades to attain a comfortable middle-class standard of living. That seems to get harder and harder every year in this country. The loss of a company that took care of its people (even as its bureaucracy gave them migraines) is something to regret.
It is doubly regrettable given that western New York is not throbbing with economic opportunity. What are the odds that some other company will come along and move into that landmark downtown tower, not to mention the other office space arrayed around it? The people of Rochester are used to dealing with Kodak’s decline, but the possibility of it not being there at all is something else again.
When the company goes, I will miss it. Not for what it’s become, but for what it was, and for what it provided to a lot of people in my hometown.
For those of us who still shoot film sometimes, there’s still a promise of brightness and happiness inside each yellow box. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of that left for the company behind the box.