It’s almost time to say goodbye

Greg Brooks soon will be leaving his daily work routine of going to the Courtland paper mill for a new routine at an IP mill in Pensacola, Fla. He said the move will be an adjustment: “The population in Lawrence County is 34,000. The population in Escambia County (Florida) is 300,000.”

MOULTON — For a few more weeks, Greg Brooks will live out his 30-year routine as an employee of International Paper.

His mornings go something like this: rise at 4:30 a.m. to ready for the 1½-hour drive to work. Along the way, he'll drop in for a chicken biscuit at Reed's Grocery. From there, take the route through Hillsboro to Alabama 20 or travel Alabama 33; it's a 25-minute drive either way.

But things will change next month. Brooks will start a life outside Lawrence County when he transfers to the IP mill in Pensacola, Fla. He will leave behind his home, family and friends.

Brooks, 50, took a position with Courtland's Champion International paper mill in 1983, which would be acquired by IP in 2000. He is a maintenance mechanic.

"Champion has always been the highest-paying job in Lawrence County," he said. "It was the best job I could get."

‘Stunned’

Brooks, like others, was shocked at IP's announcement last fall to close the mill.

"We were stunned for about two months. I don't remember having a coherent thought for the first four or five days," he said.

But Brooks considers himself one of the fortunate ones. He chose to transfer over an offer from Resolute Forest Products in Calhoun, Tenn., knowing he could keep his benefits if he stayed with IP.

Brooks visited Pensacola with his wife Lisa two weeks ago.

"The population in Lawrence County is 34,000. The population in Escambia County is 300,000," he said. "It was a little overwhelming."

Brooks said he and his wife found a good place to live — a condominium halfway between the work and the beach.

"We vacationed at the Gulf every year for 30 years. Now we're going to vacation in Lawrence County," he said. "We're going to go and make the best of it."

Though Brooks will be leaving behind his children and extended family, he is making plans to visit often. His daughter is a substitute teacher for the Lawrence County system, and his son is a senior at the University of North Alabama.

A big concern is leaving his father, Hal Brooks.

"He's good with us leaving, but he hates for us to leave," Greg Brooks said.

Hal Brooks, 74, who retired from IP in 2008 after 30 years, said he will keep in touch with his son over the phone and help watch the house throughout the week.

"I wish the mill hadn't closed, but I'm glad he got himself a job," he said.

Greg Brooks also will leave behind his photography studio, which he has operated 13 years. Brooks does school portraits for Lawrence County High and the Speake School.

"That's my hobby," he said. "I've shot a lot of these kids. It's going to be tough to walk away from that."

Brooks plans to keep his business running while he is gone and hopes to find new opportunities in Pensacola.

Somber mood

He said a somber mood has settled in as the mill has slowly begun dismantling.

"I think a lot of people thought they weren't going to shut the whole mill down," he said. "You can sense now it's getting tenser, sadder."

In November, workers gathered to watch the first of four machines shut down.

"You were watching the death of the machine," he said. "I knew when we shut it down, it was the end."

A crowd of about 50 gathered to watch machine 33 finish its last roll of paper.

The mill revolved around the colossal machines, which Brooks described as long as a football field and two stories high.

The last horn blew at 7 a.m., and production ended for good.

"They're pretty intimidating — loud, noisy, and now they're quiet," he said of the machines. "They're just sitting there."

The final two paper machines are scheduled to shut down at the end of January. Mill spokeswoman Laura Gipson said dates for the mill to end production have not been finalized.

As the machinery is turning off, workers are also saying goodbye.

Brooks said maintenance mechanics often shake hands with crew members before they load up their tool boxes to go home for the last time.

"To see the guys with their tool box loaded up, leaving, it pulls at your heart," he said. "I've seen grown men trying to hold on to it and be tough."

Kim Nichols, a production worker at machine 35, said his goodbyes have been limited because his machine is still running.

"People I've been working with for the last 30 years — I'd compare it to high school graduation. It's hard to say goodbye," he said.

Brooks estimated about 60 to 70 maintenance workers have been able to transfer to other mills.

"You may never see them again ... you never know," Brooks said.

Meredith Qualls can be reached at 256-340-2442 or mqualls@decaturdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @DailyMeredith.

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