Three faces reflect all our emotions

Published 9:20 pm Thursday, October 29, 2009

The news was shattering.

International Paper would be trimming its operations during the next several months, with the goal of permanently closing its doors by next spring, a move that will displace 1,100 workers at IP aone. A photo of government leaders from the three communities that will be most hard hit — Franklin, Isle of Wight and Southampton — told the story concisely and with an intensity that could hardly be matched in prose.

Seated beside one another at a table in the conference room where company officials made the now-infamous announcement were Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson, Franklin Mayor Jim Councill and Isle of Wight Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw.

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The men’s faces reflect shock, anger and bitter disappointment as they listen to Franklin Mill Manager Jeannine Siembida deliver the grim news. The emotional reactions captured on film by Charlie Passut, a photographer and reporter at our sister paper, The Tidewater News, are perfect reflections of the emotions that washed over the area as news of the announcement began to spread on Thursday.

Despite years of dwindling employment at the mill, despite a widespread understanding that the recession has taken a toll on companies large and small around the nation — despite a lot of clues, some more obvious than others — the news was shocking, if not entirely surprising.

No matter how long a sick relative has suffered from her illness, there still comes the day when she breathes her last, and that moment invariably brings survivors to the stark realization that life from this moment will be unavoidably and painfully different than it has ever been.

Considering its long connection to Southeastern Virginia, the closure of Franklin’s paper mill will seem to many to be akin to losing a close friend or relative. Shock, then, is appropriate, and anger is understandable.

There has been anger over the mill’s diminishing connection with the community since International Paper bought it from Union Camp 10 years ago. Some folks are angry at IP’s corporate decisions, which they believe drained jobs from America in favor of cheaper labor overseas. There is anger over what many consider the betrayal of the Camp brothers’ legacy.

And now, seven days after the announcement, there is bitter disappointment, coupled with an intense worry over the future.

What time of year is the right time to learn you’re losing your job? When you’ve got kids to feed, just how far will that unemployment check go? How much training can guarantee you a new job quickly in the midst of a recession and near-record unemployment?

Those are the questions that seem to haunt the faces sitting at that table during last Thursday’s announcement. And they’re surely the questions on the minds today of the soon-to-be-unemployed at IP and at companies throughout the area whose employees make their living supporting the mill and its workers.

We lift them in our prayers, asking that God would give them peace and comfort in these troubling times. And we pray for the community that has suffered this devastating blow, asking that He would give area leaders wisdom and discernment in charting a course through the pain.