June 18 03:12 AM

Retired engineers share designs for a new world

Waitress Missy Ellgass prepares to pour another cup of coffee for Ed Pauley and Charles Lee during their recent meeting at the Imlay City Big Boy. photo by Tom Wearing.

April 23, 2008
Ed Pauley, 68, and Charles Lee, 77, have been meeting for breakfast at area restaurants since the late 1970s.

Initially, they met to discuss their respective careers, their families and how they would change the world—if they could.

All these years later, the pair keeps the same ritual, though much has changed for each of them.

Pauley and Lee have always had a lot in common, sharing essentially the same field as General Motors engineers. They also attend the same church, St. Paul's Lutheran in Imlay City; and they have similar values and philosophies.

While both men are now retired, their weekly meetings continue; even if the subject matter of their conversations has evolved.

"We used to talk a lot about engineering and how our careers were doing," recalls Lee, a resident of Almont since 1973. "We both worked for Fisher Body. We understood each other and we talked the same language."

"Now we talk more about current events; like the mayor of Detroit and the sad state of the world," Pauley chimed in. "We're attempting to solve all these problems with about as much success as anyone else is having—not much."

Sometimes the conversation shifts to matters of health. Even to discussion of which coffee sweetener is safer and more palatable.

"We debate the differences between Equal, Sweet & Low and regular sugar," Lee says. "Some of them have a bad aftertaste. We've decided that Splenda is best, so we usually bring our own along. Apparently we have a lot of time on our hands."

The luxury of extra time affords Pauley and Lee more opportunity to assess the current state of the U.S. auto industry and the economy in general. And they're not particularly optimistic.

"We still like to talk shop," says Pauley. "Especially about the state of the industry—the strike that has about 30 plants shut down, the outsourcing of jobs and how the workers of today are dealing from a position of less strength."

Although both men climbed the corporate ladder to the level of salaried employees, they began their careers like most others.

"We came in as hourly workers, so we don't have any problem with the rank and file," says Pauley. "That's where we started."

"We began when the wages were really low and the union had its place," Lee says. "They (the union) did a lot for the safety of the workers at the time."

"And they created the 40-hour week and mandatory overtime pay," adds Pauley.

"Back in the 1950s, I had a chance to make 10 cents an hour more if I wanted to work on the floor as a punch operator," recalls Lee. "I was told by a guy who was many years my senior, that it might not be a good idea. I knew it was good advice when as I shook his hand, I was shaking a stub."

Today, with thousands of American workers losing their jobs to cheaper labor in other countries, both men suggest the responsibility for the struggling automobile business has to be shared among the auto companies, workers and consumers.

"There were people who saw this coming," suggests Pauley, "but how could they affect the kind of needed change in an industry that is market-driven?"

"Americans wanted bigger cars, and with all the amenities and new technology," says Lee. "Then the CAFE standards were adopted and began to add to the cost of our vehicles. Eventually, the industry couldn't afford the added costs and higher wages."

Pauley, who was involved in the early design and production of electric vehicles, believes the nation's leaders have been too quick to jump on the next available bandwagon, in hopes of finding a panacea for our energy problems.

He also thinks the recent movement toward ethanol is shortsighted, suggesting the advantages of the fuel additive are outweighed by its disadvantages.

"Growing corn for gasoline instead of for food has been a big mistake," he says. "There has been a lot of hype about this. But sooner or later, the press and public will wake up to the fact that this is a huge boondoggle."

Both Pauley and Lee agree that the U.S. may need to readjust its thinking about the option of nuclear power. They cite the partial nuclear core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1978, as having stalled the nation's nuclear program.

"We haven't built any nuclear plants in 30 years," says Pauley. "Three Mile Island put an end to it. But Japan runs at 90 percent nuclear for its power and France is at about 80 percent. If our goal is to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, then we have to eliminate our reliance on foreign oil. We have to get our power from somewhere."

Regardless of which direction the nation takes to find alternative fuel sources, the answers are likely years and many billions of dollars away, says Lee.

"We know there is energy misuse and there is no real energy plan in place," Lee says. "We need something to wean us off oil, but it's not going to happen overnight.

"The Europeans are half-a-century ahead of us on this. Gas was $4 to $5 a gallon 15 or 20 years ago. They moved to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars many years ago. In this country, we've got gutless wonders making our policy decisions. We're far behind."

As evidence that he practices what he preaches, Lee recently scaled back on the size of his personal vehicle.

"I had been leasing a Silverado pickup," says Lee. "It has its place in the market but it was a gas hog. I just downsized to a Chevy Cobalt that gets about 33 miles to the gallon. With the price of gas, I guess I was driven to change my habits."

While both men adhere to certain political principles, Pauley fears that regardless of who or which party wins in November, the answers to our nation's energy problems will be slow in coming.

"No matter who gets in, our problems are so overwhelming that I think it will be a failed presidency," predicts Pauley. "The problems that are looming are so great, that I don't think they are solvable in the four- or eight-year span of a presidency."

For now, Lee and Pauley intend to continue to meet, hashing out the world's problems and maintaining their long friendship.

"Finding someone you can communicate effectively with is very important," says Pauley. "The commonality we share has helped strengthen our relationship. We understand each other and don't have to explain everything."

Pauley and his wife, Kay, have been married 38 years and reside in Imlay City. They have three sons, Tom, Matt and Andrew; a daughter, Debbie; and three grandchildren.

Lee and his wife, Shirley, have been married 56 years. They have four daughters; Denise, Vicki, Dawn and the late Laurie Lee, a former Imlay City Middle School principal.

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