Innovators of industry: Women’s role at Ken-Rad, GE hailed

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OWENSBORO, Ky. (AP) – The Owensboro chapter of the American Association of University Women wrapped up Women’s History Month by celebrating of a group of women whom Judy Adams described as pioneers – the women who worked at Ken-Rad and General Electric.

Adams, the president of Owensboro’s AAUW, said that 17 women who worked for the companies attended an event recently at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History. Family members of the women who worked for the companies were also invited to visit, share memories and see photographs and artifacts related to the companies that once employed more than 6,000 area people, many of who were women.

The Kentucky Electrical Lamp Co. began at the end of the 19th century on what was then Lewis Street, currently J.R. Miller Boulevard. In 1918, Roy Burlew morphed the company into the Kentucky Radio Co., which became Ken-Rad. During World War II, it was purchased by General Electric and was sold to MPD Inc. in 1987. Charlie Mattingly, an engineer who began working for GE in the late 1960s, attended the March 19 event at the museum. He said that during the Ken-Rad/GE days, the company was producing vacuum tubes that were used in radio communications.

The glass tubes were used to make connections to the electronic circuitry of whatever devices they were associated with — radios, TVs, military weaponry and more, Mattingly said.

One of the women in attendance at the event was Mary McCormick, who began working for GE in June 1956. She was the first of three African-American women to be hired at the company’s plant on Ninth Street.

The Daviess County Public Library has a video interview of McCormick, and in that archive, McCormick said being such at trailblazer for women, and specifically minority women, was “kind of strange at first,” but she got used to it.

She said her pastor helped her obtain the job because GE had a government contract that required the company to hire minorities.

“I don’t see it as a big deal,” she said. “But I think it was a good step to be made, and I was glad to be able to get on at GE.”

One of her first jobs there was what she called piecework that involved her dropping and welding filaments into the tubes.

“It was a good place to work,” she said. “I made a good living there, and I was able to save money by working there. I don’t have anything bad to say about it. I worked at other places, but this was the one that earned me the most money.”

Ann Hagan McIntyre began working for GE Sept. 13, 1950, two weeks after she turned 18. Of the six children in her family, five were employed at the company, she said, adding “we’re all GE people.”

McIntyre, who worked for the company for 37 years, said one of her jobs was using a microscope to place parts with tweezers, which “made me so nervous, I was just getting sick.”

She worked a myriad of jobs for the company over the years, was a member of the union and took part in some of the strikes through the years.

“I don’t know what Owensboro would have done without GE,” she said. “It’s how I raised my kids.”

A few decades ago, she began organizing a GE dinner group that continues to meet. At one point there were more than 100 people in attendance, but now McIntyre said, they are lucky to have 30 during the four dinners each year.

She didn’t attend the event Sunday at the museum because she had to watch the University of Kentucky Wildcats play basketball.

“I wouldn’t give that up for nothing,” she said. “I’ve just got to watch my boys.”

McIntyre’s older sister Dorothy Hagan Aud worked for GE for 46 years. Aud died last year, but her daughter, Connie Morgan, attended the event “to make a connection with my mother, and the things that she did,” she said.

General Electric would put out weekly newsletters, which were on display at the museum. In one of the newsletters, Morgan found her own first birthday announcement, which she said was special for her.

“These women really paved the way for the rest of us women to have what we have today,” Morgan said. “My mother was part of the union at GE, and the union really helped to improve working conditions in this area, as it did all over the country.”

She said a lot of the things working women take for granted today happened as a result of the things the women did during that time.

“Everything I have in my life, everything my kids have, really is a direct result of my mother working at General Electric,” she said. “She was a pioneer for working women. Most of those women were.”

Kathy Olson, the museum’s CEO, said the original assembly line at the Kentucky Electrical Lamp Company was one of the first jobs outside of the home for women in Owensboro, which was a social change for them.

“So really it was the beginning of women in the workforce,” she said.

Women had better dexterity in working with the small parts and components that went into the vacuum tubes, which were delicate, Mattingly said.

“Many times the work was performed under a high-powered magnifying glass, or a microscope,” he said. “It was hard work when you are sitting for eight to 10 hours a day, and have production pressures under you, and you are expected to meet specific standards.”

He said that “it was a different era back then,” and it wasn’t typical to have casual conversation during the workday like people do these days.

Olson said that Ken-Rad/GE/MPD had such a large footprint on Daviess County history that it is going to take up a large portion of a permanent exhibit under construction on the second floor of the museum that will tell the comprehensive history of the area.

Of that 7,000-square-foot exhibit, 2,300 square feet will be devoted to Ken-Rad/GE and will include several artifacts, photographs, some of the original machinery from the factories and more.

She said that in the 20th century, GE was Owensboro’s largest employer. With more than 6,000 employees, it still holds the record for the single-largest employer in the area.

The story of the four companies — Kentucky Radio Company, Ken-Rad, GE and MPD — is one about society, technology, the economy and human interest, “and that’s why we are going to devote so much space (in the new exhibit) to it,” Olson said.

“We’ve had other industries that were truly pivotal for Owensboro that employed a lot of people and were important, but to span an entire century of one community is something that is pretty special,” Olson said.

The exhibit is projected to be complete for about two years, and the museum is still collecting artifacts. In fact, one item Olson says they need and haven’t had the opportunity to acquire is one of the uniforms that women wore while working for either Ken-Rad or GE.

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Information from: Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, http://www.messenger-inquirer.com

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