- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

SUMTER, S.C. (AP) - A group of former Campbell’s Soup factory workers meets on the first Saturday of the month at Golden Corral in Sumter. The plant closed 25 years ago, and they’ve been meeting ever since.

On the anniversary of Campbell’s‘ closing, former employee Kathryn “Kathy” Godwin called up some of her colleagues to meet for breakfast. Godwin decided to extend the invitation to other former employees, and soon the Campbell’s Soup Friends’ Lunch Group was born. Last Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of 300 meetings of the Campbell’s Soup Friends’ Lunch Group monthly meeting. It was held at Golden Corral at 11:30 a.m., where the employees know her as “The Campbell’s Soup lady.”

Campbell’s Soup Co. came to Sumter in 1965, making it a huge force of employment. Despite the name, Campbell’s in Sumter was mostly known for its TV dinners because most of the plant’s operation dealt with chicken processing for the dinners. In 1991, the plant’s ownership switched to Gold Kist, a chicken production company. The plant has been owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, a chicken production company, since the Pilgrim’s Pride-Gold Kist merger in 2006.

Always carrying a torch of friendship, Godwin would make birthday and anniversary cards for the employees during her spare time when she worked at Campbell’s. Because of that selfless act, Godwin was awarded employee of the month in 1985.

“It’s worth just keeping up with friends,” Godwin said.

The gatherings don’t stop at lunch. Godwin regularly organizes historical trips and fun tours across Sumter and South Carolina for the group. They’ve visited Charleston Tea Plantation, Shaw Air Force Base and have even toured the alma mater.

“I want to create interest for them, not just eat lunch and get up and go,” she said. Godwin started to give away door prizes and now invites a guest speaker to every lunch.

Godwin said that some of the members have died, moved away or have gone off to nursing homes. But at the 20-year reunion 96 members were present. That’s a record even at that, Godwin said. And even if they don’t come to the monthly meetings, Godwin is still flexing her artistic hand and sending out birthday cards.

Kathy’s such a faithful lady; she’s the glue that keeps us together,” Louise Choice said. Choice worked at Campbell’s from start to finish, 25 years, then went on to work at Gold Kist until she retired.

Choice said her co-workers were like family and hoped all of them would continue to work at Gold Kist when the company turned over; however, only about half did.

“You gotta do your job, but if you’re fast, you can talk, and I talked to everyone,” said Choice, who worked on the production line.

A regular at the Golden Corral monthly meetups and to the excursions that Godwin organizes, Choice said she’s always happy to see her former co-workers.

“The ones we get to see every six months or so, we’re so excited that they come when they can,” Choice said.

Campbell’s was a popular place to work in its heyday. With dozens of departments and hundreds of workers, even Godwin doesn’t remember everyone’s names.

This year the group plans to host more than 90 former co-workers. Godwin has reserved a room and has even prepared name tags.

“I remember everyone’s faces but not everyone’s name,” Godwin said.

The number of workers didn’t limit the power of friendship at Campbell’s. Ada Atkinson, 73, said “you would feel a closeness with everyone you worked with in every area.”

Atkinson worked for Campbell’s for 20 years, staying on with Gold Kist and Pilgrim’s Pride for 40 years until her retirement. Atkinson loved Campbell’s to the very end, even after getting tennis elbow from pulling the chickens down when she worked in the production area.

“I dream about it every night, even though I don’t work there anymore,” Atkinson said. “In fact, I dreamt about working there last night. It was a wonderful place to work.

“Nobody would leave; that’s why we all became friends.”

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Information from: The Sumter Item, https://www.theitem.com


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