WATERLOO — After 52 years working for John Deere, Gaylord Converse was ready to turn over the keys to his boss.
“Gaylord stopped me last week and said. ‘It’s all yours after next week, Dave!’” said Dave DeVault, general manager of John Deere’s Waterloo operations.
Converse, of Frederika, retired at the end of January. He was one of just three employees in the company’s entire 5,400-worker Waterloo operations with 50 years or more with the company. He’s spent that entire time at the company’s complex on Westfield Avenue and Commercial Street near downtown.
The 1965 graduate of Sumner High School began working at Deere Jan. 23, 1967. Then, the company’s entire manufacturing operations — then the John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works — were all on Westfield. Since then the company has expanded to various large plants throughout the Cedar Valley — together, the company’s largest manufacturing complex in North America.
“He bleeds green,” said Kelly Henderson, communications and visitor services manager in Waterloo. He and his wife Vicky farm near Frederika. “His wife’s comment was he builds for John Deere all day long and he goes home and drives a John Deere all night.”
Downtown, Converse was as much an institution as some of the buildings and a mentor to many, DeVault indicated
“He’s trained so many people in the component shop,” DeVault said. “It’s interesting. When many people meet Gaylord, they think he’s a salaried person,” a supervisor. “He’s a production employee that just knows the machine shop like the back of his hand, been through all the changes we’ve done. Just crazy.”
Ninety days after he was hired at Deere, he was called into the military and enlisted in the Air Force, serving in California. Because he had 90 days in with the company, he retained his position in seniority at Deere through his military service. He was to have been headed to Thailand, but his parents divorced and he was allowed to return home to help his mother on the family farm.
“And I came back to Deere’s. That’s what pulled us through — that paycheck from Deere’s,” Gaylord said. His mother also returned to school and found a management job starting Country Kitchen restaurants. He’s continued working and farming up to the present day.
He and Vicky, who was teaching school in Sumner, met in a church choir and were married in 1972. “He was a singer; he loved to sing,” she said. And the school principal encouraged her to join the choir as well. Both their families had farmed, and in fact, knew each other back when they were small children.
“When we were first married, I was teaching and he was working third (overnight) shift” at Deere, Vicky said. “We’d pass each other. When I was going to school, and he’d come home, he’d go straight to the farm from work. And then try to get in to get a little sleep. He’d get maybe only three, four hours.”
They lived in an apartment in Sumner and Gaylord’s family’s farm was outside of Sumner. Their mothers were basketball teammates at Frederika High School, which later closed. Vicky graduated from Tripoli.
Gaylord successfully balanced farming and work at Deere. “One thing I did, I didn’t get too big in farming. I didn’t get any more than what we could handle. That was a good thing because a lot of guys got in too deep and down the tube they went when the farm (commodity) prices dipped.”
Gaylord and Vicky bought a farm of their own in 1974. His Deere paycheck provided steady income as they got that operation going.
He was interviewed by Forbes magazine as part of a story on Deere n the early ‘80s. At that time Deere arranged for bus transportation for its workers from outlying areas. Gaylord was one of the individuals on the bus who was interviewed. At that time, Gaylord had 15 years in with the company. He told the reporter he’d probably retire from the company soon to farm full time.
He didn’t. It was a good decision. Gaylord and Vicky said the Deere paycheck helped them and their young family through lean times during the 1980s farm crisis and also with the medical bills for a seriously ill daughter, Kalyn, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at age 2, became mentally disabled after radiation treatments and passed away following a series of strokes at age 26.
“We went back and forth to Rochester (Minn.),” at the Mayo Clinic, Vicky said. “We had to go to the National Institutes of Health at Bethesda, Md.“ for lengthy treatment.
Gaylord “stayed on at Deere then because of the situation with health insurance” Vicky said. “We cannot say enough about John Deere insurance. We would have lost the farm if he had not been working at Deere’s.” And Gaylord joined the family every weekend they were at Rochester.
“It seemed like along the way, things came along” that kept Gaylord working at Deere, Vicky said. “Plus his John Deere paycheck was helping us keep our farm going.” Vicky also alternately worked and stayed at home, depending on the children’s needs.
In addition to Kaylin, they have a son, Kevin, daughter Kiana of Lake City, and three grandchildren. Kevin helps farm and his son Lane is active in 4-H.
“I thought about Kalyn, how proud she would be of her dad,” Vicky said. “She was like about a third-grader all of her life. She was loving, just so compassionate. She loved her brother and sister.”
Improved working conditions also were a factor in Gaylord’s longevity at John Deere.
“When he started at Deere, working conditions were not good,”Vicky said. “They were so dirty and it was heavy lifting. Now they have robots and everything. Now the facilities are so wonderful and so clean.”
“In the summertime about the first of April it’d start being hot and it’d stay hot until October. I mean it was hot. All the time,” Gaylord said.”Now, it might be hot a couple weeks out of the year but I still don’t see anybody wearing sweat bands. We have fans. We didn’t even have fans back then.”
And more efficient. “It would take up to eight to 12 hours to set a (machining) line up in the old spiral double gearing machines,” in the old days, Gaylord said. “Now they do it in about two hours.” Instead of cutting parts with multiple machines, “now they cut a whole part in one machine. Wow. That’s because of the redevelopment. It’s basically the same stuff. It’s just a different way of doing things,” he said.
“I used the things I learned at Deere to help me out on the farm,” Gaylord added, in terms of getting the most out of his equipment. “If Deere’s can do it, I can do it on the farm.”
They have older Deere tractors.
“I have a 4430, it’s a 1973, still going strong. It started yesterday,” he said.
“It’s a great company to work for,” Gaylord said. “Benefits are great. Management, they’re great people. Bend over backwards to help you out. I’ve never had any problem with any of the supervisors. It’s a different environment now than back then. Supervisors were kind of hard-nosed.“
Gaylord’s “retirement” plan is simple.
“We’re going to be full-time farmers,” he said.