180 years of experience: Four original employees at GE Appliances’ Decatur plant still there after 45 years

By Erica Smith | Living 50 Plus

Dale Higdon choked up recently as he reminisced about what his grandfather told him when he got a job with GE Appliances’ new plant in Decatur and became one of 77 employees who started there Aug. 15, 1977.

“Boy, you got the chance of a lifetime,” Higdon’s grandfather told him. “You take care of them, they’ll take care of you and you’ll be the guy turning out the lights.”

Forty-five years later, Higdon is one of four employees who’ve been at the plant all 45 years of its operation. He joins Jimmy Dobbs, Stewart Roby and Mike Seal as employees in their fifth decade of making white, avocado, almond and harvest gold-colored refrigerators. They have a combined 180 years of experience at the plant … and counting.

Higdon, 64, of Priceville, was only 18 when he was hired at the then-new plant. He said there were a couple of reasons he decided to work for GE.

“The reputation of the company was very good back then and still is now. To start up in a new industry just seemed like there was nowhere to go but straight up with it,” Higdon said.

Higdon said he has stayed with the company for so long because GE has been good to its employees and treats him well.

“I feel like I have a small piece of the business here that I get to run and it’s fun, it’s challenging every day.”

Higdon currently works as the senior manager of supplier quality and oversees the quality of purchased supplies such as metal, plastic or paper. He has also been a press operator, a metal controlman, a lab manager, an advanced engineer and a design engineer.

“I am responsible for the quality of every component we buy to make our refrigerators,” he said of his current role. “We try to be good stewards of our business and for the community. We buy from many local suppliers, which helps keep many other people employed in the community.”

While some of Higdon’s roles in the past were physical at the plant, he said he was used to hard work because he grew up on a farm and you never stop working on a farm. He said on his first day his supervisor took him to a machine and showed him how to run the press and put parts in a box.

“I looked at her very particularly and she was like, is there a problem? I was like, ‘No, I’ve never been paid this much for this little work in my life,’” he joked.

Higdon grew up in Priceville and graduated from Brewer High School. He then received an associate’s degree in electronics and a bachelor’s in management of technology from Athens State University.

Higdon said he is not planning on retiring anytime soon. “My health is extremely good, I enjoy what I do, and people still treat me very well, so I’m in no hurry to run off and be bored.”

Higdon is married to Becky Higdon, and they have two daughters and six grandchildren.

Seizing an opportunity

Seal, 65, grew up in Trinity where he resides still and graduated from West Morgan High School. He then received an associate’s in science from Calhoun Community College. His plan was to go to Auburn University, but he started working in the summer of 1977 for a contractor to set up the inside of the GE plant.

“When the plant started up in August, I just decided I would stay here. I kind of liked what we were doing, and I was in on the ground floor of this new appliance manufacturing plant. Thought it was a good opportunity to stay here,” Seal said.

Seal never went to Auburn but said things worked out well by staying close to home. He was 20 years old when he was hired at GE. Seal said he has stayed at the same job all these years because the pay and benefits have been good, and he has made friends there.

“After a while you really don’t want to start all over with someone else,” he said. “You build up a lot of benefits with vacation and things of that nature, but the main thing is the relationships you build over the years. You’ve got a lot of friends here. I enjoyed the work also.”

Seal said people should find a job they enjoy doing like he has. His current role is as a senior quality analyst role on second shift. He also is a programmer for the coordinate measuring machine (CMM) where he measures parts and refrigerators to make sure they meet specifications.

“We can take whole refrigerators or even just doors or components of those refrigerators and we can set them up on this machine. I write a program for them that will tell me the dimensions that I need so that all the parts fit together correctly,” Seal said.

Seal started on the assembly line with an injection mold press that made plastic parts. Since then, he has driven a forklift, worked repairing units, and been in quality control.

Seal said it ended up being very important to him to work close to home. He said he has a lot of friends in the area, married locally, and has had three generations attend West Morgan. Seal is married to Sandy Seal, and they have two sons and five grandchildren.

As far as retiring goes, Seal said he thinks he still has a few years left at the plant. When he does retire, he plans to do more fishing.

Reinforcing plant culture

The other two 45-year employees at the plant also are still going strong. Dobbs is a quality analyst in the CAT Lab, and Roby is Value Stream leader for Line 2.

Leifje Dighton, Decatur’s plant manager since March, said having employees working at GE for 4½ decades helps with the culture at the plant.

“It’s good to have people that are new who think differently, but it’s also good to have people that have been here for a long time that are stable and that have the history that this plant has that a lot of us don’t have or know,” she said.

From what Dighton has seen in her career at GE, she said she believes Decatur may have more longtime employees than the company’s other plants.

Dighton said Higdon is a humble, dedicated and professional employee who gets the job done. She said Seal is very technical and handles a lot of the more difficult testing and said she respects that he has been loyal to the plant.