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  1. Narratives

Meet some of the longtime staffers who brought you the Tampa Bay Times

Many plant workers had been on the job for decades and hoped for years more.
In 2006, the year of record revenue for the then-St. Petersburg Times, the press runs were unbelievable. Some days were grueling. Some were beautiful. Joe Figiel liked the challenge.
In 2006, the year of record revenue for the then-St. Petersburg Times, the press runs were unbelievable. Some days were grueling. Some were beautiful. Joe Figiel liked the challenge. [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]
Published Mar. 3
Updated Mar. 6

Starting next week, the Tampa Bay Times will be printed at a plant in Lakeland. The paper’s plant in St. Petersburg is being sold, and most of the approximately 150 employees are losing their jobs.

Ladda Peterson, nearly 24 years

Press Craft Operator II

A quarter-century of nights, of lunches taken after dark. Of waiting for plates in the beginning and scraping ink off the presses at the end. “I haven’t painted my nails in, oh, 20-something years,” said Ladda Peterson, 54. Ink gets under the nails and bond solution ruins the paint. “I’m going to paint my nails every other day.”

Her parents fled from Laos during the Vietnam War and ended up in a refugee camp. Years later, Peterson followed family to Florida, where the weather recalled home. She needed health insurance for her and her daughter, even if that meant shifts that stretched into 3 or 4:30 a.m. She met her husband here. She watched the place grow, grow, grow, and shrink. “I’m proud. We had come so far,” she said. “This is all I know.”

Ladda Peterson
Ladda Peterson [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]
Related: For more than half a century, newspapers were produced at St. Petersburg facility

Paul Geisert, 34 years

Press distribution night manager

“You thought a newspaper would be around forever,” said Paul Geisert, 52. He knows it’s hard to imagine “the enormity of what it takes to get it done.”

“To actually see the papers streaming out, bundle after bundle, to realize how many papers, even now when it’s reduced ... just the scope of it,” he said. “The Grand Canyon, I used to see pictures of it all the time, till I actually went, and it was beyond expression. You can look at a million pictures, and it’s not the same as standing there.”

Paul Geisert
Paul Geisert [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

David White, 14 years

Press distribution team leader

This work was physical, and unfolded at night, after David White, 51, put in a day of teaching at Bayside High School. He and co-workers stacked 20-pound bundles on pallets, sometimes for four or five hours straight if the presses ran smoothly. He knows why local news matters: He still has scrapbooks of his basketball years at Boca Ciega High School, where he was a McDonald’s All-American and jokes that his position was “Give me the ball and get out of the way.”

“In our age bracket, no matter how connected we are to the digital world,” he said, “we still find it important to have that piece of paper in our hands.”

David White
David White [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Joe Figiel, 31 years

Press Craft Operator II

In 2006, the year of record revenue, the runs were unbelievable. Joe Figiel liked the challenge. Some days were grueling. Some were beautiful. It was always interesting. “What’s amazing is how you can get your stories out by deadline, and we can get it in print the next day.

“It’s a sad ending,” said Figiel, 60. He’s looking for work in printing, though maybe something a little different. “But life goes on.”

Joe Figiel
Joe Figiel [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Ben Hayes, 45 years

Director of operations

The smell of the ink hardly hits Ben Hayes anymore.

Hayes, 64, worries about the staff. So many don’t know where they’re headed next. “There is an allegiance to each other and not letting each other down that transcends that corporate mission.”

Ben Hayes
Ben Hayes [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Kevin McTier, 28 years

Press PIC: Person in charge

Kevin McTier, 52, stacked papers in the mailroom at first, then became a janitor to support his kids — five of his own, and after his wife’s sister passed, her four, too. “This is the real world, Kevin,” he told himself, seeing the presses for the first time. “You’re in it now.” In between dusting and mopping, he would watch people in the plate room laying film. The intricacies of it fascinated him. He applied and applied, and made it to the press.

“They’re like my family,” he said. “Oh, man, when March 6 comes, what am I going to do?”

Kevin McTier
Kevin McTier [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Marty Butcher, 15 years

Press PIC: Person in charge

Marty Butcher, 40, sees the end through the disappointment in his kids’ eyes. This is all they’ve ever known him to do.

“I loved coming here,” he said. “It’s been a privilege to work here and try to make the paper look as good as I can every single day that I come in for the readers.”

He’s one of the few getting picked up at the Lakeland plant. He hoped for nightside but will drive 108 miles, round trip, for a day shift.

Marty Butcher
Marty Butcher [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Nicholas Valencia, 17 years

Press superintendent

Nicholas Valencia, 37, started in the mailroom, stacking bundles. Then, and all along the path to press management, pride was everything. He’s not a sentimental guy, but he’d pick up papers at the store and check the margins: Even? He’d check the colors: Were they in all the way? He’d flip to 2A, to see if the copy had come off of his press.

He wanted to do his part to have the story told.

“I’m a God-fearing man, so you do the work like you’re doing it for the Lord,” he said. “You know what I mean?”

Nicholas Valencia
Nicholas Valencia [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Lannis Thomas, 41 years

Press room manager

In the days when Lannis Thomas, 61, dropped his college studies for a job at the Times, workers filled the press room floor every night. On Saturdays, all four presses ran for three hours straight. Some days, he’d go home and pick up the paper and, say, “Oh, this is what I was doing last night.”

He hired nearly 100 people. Most had never seen a press. He remembered his own awe and intimidation, and worked to put them at ease. In a job measured deadline by deadline, he reminded his team, “Anybody can do it when they’re coming in and everything just goes perfect.” He smiled: “But I like the challenge when sometimes things don’t go right.”

Lannis Thomas
Lannis Thomas [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Sam Jordan, 34 years

Senior electronic technician

Like the fire department, Sam Jordan, 61, was there if you needed him. He had worked on plane electronics in the Air Force, then in construction, but the plant was something else, like the General Motors assembly line in its prime: “Holy cow, that’s a lot of steel.”

He fixed, rewired, maintained, upgraded the finicky plate-makers and tying machines. “You really felt like you were part of something big,” he said. “It’s all got to work smoothly and in concert or it won’t work at all. Any part of the chain breaks down and you’re done. And we do all of this in the middle of the night.”

Sam Jordan
Sam Jordan [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Terry Schofield, 21 years

Truck driver

Terry Schofield’s run took him to Riverview. All of the carts of papers in the back of the Peterbilt were his responsibility, from the press to distribution centers where the carriers awaited. Schofield, 64, had been driving since the pre-air conditioning years on the loading docks, through the purge of staffers that cost his wife her job, through his kids’ college years.

He had a soft spot for the mission. He’d been an Evening Independent paper boy — sure, yes, to save for a ’62 Corvette — but he has always taken pride in the journalism. “I can’t fathom this building being gone, for this to come down,” he said. “It’s an identity. And it’s no longer our paper.”

Terry Schofield
Terry Schofield [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Richard Gunnels, 14 years

Press Craft Operator II

He’d been a locksmith before, but with new cars out every year, the locks would change. Here, work was something he could master. Down in the reel room, Richard Gunnels, 53, would load rolls of paper while the presses consumed them, ensuring the flow did not break. He got along with everyone, especially after the end of the well-staffed, cutthroat years. In downsizing, there was hard-won community — and so much more to do.

“It amazes me what we used to complain about,” he said. “My backup plan was Sarasota, but I hear they’re closing, too.”

Richard Gunnels
Richard Gunnels [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Shawn Smith, 31 years

Newsprint operations superintendent

The rolls came in by truck or rail from Canada, and Shawn Smith, 52, and his team stacked them warehouse ceiling-high in neat, brown towers. They drove clamp trucks, bringing the unwrapped rolls to the reel room. On a night pushing 200,000 copies, they might blow through 50 rolls. “We used to go through a couple hundred a day,” he said.

He has an 11-year-old to support and doesn’t know what’s next. He’ll stay to see the last of the newsprint leave, some to Lakeland and the rest sold. “They treated me good, and I tried to do my best,” he said.

Shawn Smith
Shawn Smith [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

José De La Torre, nearly 34 years

Machine operator and floor supervisor, packaging

José De La Torre, 57, had just finished an associate’s degree in computer engineering in Puerto Rico, but he found work at the plant and never left. He moved up: feeder, key operator, jobs that put him up close with tricky old machines. He ran inserters, watching paper jackets get stuffed with ads and all of the extra bits that fill a newspaper. Then there were fewer of those, and more automation. “We noticed things changing,” he said. But staff would tell themselves: “We’re lucky. We’re still here.”

“My wife tells me to take a break. ‘You’ve been working all this time,’” he said. “No, I can’t do that. I need to work.”

José De La Torre
José De La Torre [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]