Got Milk? … Maybe Not

By Lyle Hill

When my father, Lyle Alvin, left the southern Illinois family farm in the mid-1940s, he moved to Chicago and took a job in a factory that manufactured tin cans. With four brothers and two sisters, the small farm could not possibly support all of them, and, one by one, the entire clan made their way to Chicago to work in the tin can factory. Some of them would spend their entire working lives making tin cans. My first recollections of life are from the tattered wooden framed house on the corner of Thirteenth Street and St. Charles Road in Maywood, Ill. It was right across the street from the truck docks of the American Can company where my father, aunts and uncles worked. It was also a block south of the Maywood Glass and Mirror Company where one of my mother’s cousins ran the office. My brother and I made regular visits to the glass company where we could get suckers and bubble gum from Cousin Edith. Sometimes she’d let us watch the men who worked there cut glass—exciting stuff for a kid of that era.

Lyle Alvin very much wanted to live the American Dream—a car, a house and yard he could call his own. But that dream required money. So when he wasn’t making tin cans he pumped gas at the Refiner’s Pride service station on Lake Street in Melrose Park, Ill. There was no self-service in those days and no canopy over the gas pumps. You pumped gas, checked oil and cleaned windshields in whatever weather there was. And in the Chicago area, weather is not only unpredictable, it’s often harsh. So when a better job opportunity came along, he took it.

A dairy company in Franklin Park, Ill., was expanding and after my dad met with the owners, the Deans, Sam and Howard, he decided they were, as Lyle Alvin used to put it, “the right kind of boys to work for.” They also offered better pay and more hours. The company, Deans Dairy, grew and Lyle Alvin grew with it. He became a foreman in the warehouse and then the general foreman of the entire facility. Although not well educated, he read people well and was liked by all. He took great delight in letting his children know whenever the Dean boys came to him for advice or to help them solve a problem. And he got his house. I remember that day well and also remember the union meetings that took place in the dining room there. I would sit under the table or as close to it as I dared and listen to the men who talked about how they planned to push for the things important to them. For several years, Lyle Alvin was their leader. He was very loyal to his employer, but he believed the hourly workers needed representation. He was their voice.

Lyle Alvin loved his job and was incredibly proud of the company he worked for. He also liked and admired the Deans and their families. He liked to say that “I always gave them their money’s worth” and I have no doubt he did. His last union pin is pictured on this page. I kept it after he retired. I see it every day when I sit down at my computer.

Just a few months ago, the headline in a suburban Chicago newspaper brought sadness to me. It stated … “America’s Largest Milk Producer Files for Bankruptcy.” Dairy product sales had declined for the fourth straight year. Milk alternatives were everywhere and estimated to grow 500% in the next few years as people switch to plant-based products and away from cow’s milk. Also, the company’s biggest customer, Walmart, dropped them last year when they started their own dairy.

Energy drink manufacturers, beer producers and other beverage suppliers have all been introducing new products, changing their product offerings and, in some cases, buying companies that offer different products in an attempt to deal with their changing market. Deans did not adapt. Their failure to change and the lack of foresight has cost them dearly. The business section in a recent Chicago Tribune had two front page articles of a similar nature. One story told of the Bakers Square bankruptcy that involves more store closings. These people make the best pies in the world but failed, in my opinion, to keep up with the times and operated their units like they did 30 years ago. The other story told of the conversion of one of the country’s largest Sears stores into a 400-unit residential facility on Chicago’s north side. New methods, new products, new services … it’s not an option. It’s a necessity for us all.

Lyle Alvin was the king of all things cliché. He used to say that “the only constant is change” and “nothing stays the same forever.” He was a pretty good baseball pitcher in his younger years and one of his other favorite sayings was the “hardest pitch to hit is the change-up.” He was right. Maybe the real question is, “how many swings do you have left?”

Lyle Hill is the managing director of Keytech North America, a company providing research and technical services for the glass and metal industry. He also serves as president of Glass.com, an information portal and job generation company for the glass industry. Hill has more than 40 years’ experience in the glass and metal industry and can be reached at lhill@glass.com

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