Tuesday, August 24, 2004


I have toured the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide has been Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We walked through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together; now I'm in the office of Bryan Tillett, president of Excel. This concludes my visit to the plant.

"Vaughn Peterson was about 42 years old in 1983 when the plant burned to the ground," Bryan tells me. "He collected enough insurance money that he could have retired. But he felt a commitment to the community. It hit me then - this commitment to community. None of us would be sitting here if Vaughn had taken the money and retired."

"In the fire," Bryan says, "every drawing was lost. The morning after the fire everyone showed up for work. If you were a cabinet maker, you sat down and drew out the dimensions of the cabinets you built. Other people were pulling air tools and hand tools and cat-walks out of the rubble. We had a 50-foot by 80-foot building that had been spared. We started building frames in it. We had five other places in town where we built other parts. One month after the fire had destroyed us entirely, the first unit rolled out the door.

"This is not something that could be replicated today," he thinks. "Things are more complex."

"I was a line-worker back then," Bryan says. "That fire created such a sense of unity. Everybody pulled together and made it happen."

How did a line-worker become president of the company?

Soon after he finished school, Bryan had started his own construction company, building houses and small commercial buildings. But "we had fourteen carpenters in town," Bryan says. Just before he closed down his business, he built a plant addition at Excel. "About Christmas-time I asked Vaughn for a job. He had just laid off eighty people. That was January, 1980. I started out welding frames. Then I went to the trailer line. I became supervisor of the trailer line in 1985. When a purchasing position opened up, I accepted that. We weren't computerized yet - we had the computer, but not the software. I researched the software and set up our manufacturing inventory control."

"There were two owners back then," Bryan says, "and I felt like we needed a third. I started a three-year process of becoming an owner and in 1989 became a partner and owner."

"In 1992 we were left without a sales manager," he continues, "and I took over Sales. In 1996, Mike Nebel left the company. He had been president. I took over that role."

"Vaughn is still the major shareholder of the company and is chairman of the board," Bryan says. "Vaughn's wife, Duana Peterson, is secretary of the board. Curtis Peterson, a distant relative of Vaughn's, is vice-president. Kelly Lyon is production manager and treasurer. The four people who own the company now are Vaughn, Curtis, Kelly, and myself."

"We are proud of the fact," Bryan says, "that out of one hundred fifty manufacturers in the US, and for six years in a row, our dealer-based product has been the #1 in terms of quality, durability, and highway safety. That's according to the RV Consumer Group, a nonprofit watch-dog organization."

That sense of quality and excellence, where does it come from?

"It comes from years of experience and the ideas of a lot of different people," Bryan says. "The basic core philosophy started with Vaughn, and a lot of people have added to it over the years. Vaughn learned a lesson from John Deere. John Deere always had a good quality machine, and when times got tough, John Deere survived."

"The lesson is," Bryan says, "if you build a good quality product and stand behind it, the customers will buy it."


(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Lyle Morgan breathed the farmer's lament last Monday morning at Paul's Cafe," Ivan wrote. "Morgan said, almost to himself, 'I wonder what I'll break today.'"

"Arloa Barnes, with the statuesque form of a Greek goddess, showed she did have some flaws and human frailties," Ivan reported. "Last Wednesday Barnes showed up at aerobics with two different shoes on. When it was pointed out to her, she did say that she thought she noticed the left shoe fit a little more snugly than the right. But it wasn't a total loss. She had a pair at home just like the one she was wearing."

"Well," Ivan said, "I've got er figgered out. I can see the hand writing on the wall. I ain't gonna accomplish anything earth-shattring or significant in my life-time. So now my goal is to live long enough to cast a vote for Hillary for president. Not a very lofty goal, I'll admit, but it's mine, all mine. The reason I want to vote for Hillary is not because of who she is, but who she represents. The women of the United States. If ever a group got the short end of the stick it is the women of this country. When the west was settled it was the women that done the drudge work. Kept the family together and done without. If you want to know about women, just read Gone With the Wind. See who kept the plantations running. Or if you really want to know about women, read The Grapes of Wrath. The women of the U.S. have done all the dirty work. Now they are beginning to be rewarded. But they really deserve to have one of their kind be president. I hope I get to put a woman in the White House."

"This soft city living will get you every time," Ivan said. "Former country girl Joanne Runyon was going to have fried chicken. None of this chicken from the supermarket - real country fried chicken. So, even though her husband Francis volunteered to chop the chicken's head off, Joanne said No, she had pulled the head off many chickens in her day as a farm wife. She pulled all right. Pulled the muscles in her back. Laid up for a week and is still walking kinda gingerly."

"Lindsey Barnes made her parents happy one day last week," Ivan reported. "She came and got her dog and took Felix back to Lawrence."

Ivan said: "Stan Hooper observed that the Thornburg Road needed to be a really good road. Stan said a lot of people from Nebraska buy stuff here in Smith Center. I don't know where he got his information but he talked like he knew what he was talking about. Back in the '30s, the Thornburg Road was one of the bootleggers' roads. You would see cars from Russell and other places in the oil patch come through Smith Center heading for Brownie's in Riverton. As far as I know no one ever got arrested. The local law enforcement would occasionally put a local bootlegger in jail for a few days. There was one bootlegger in Smith Center that never got arrested. He was Jess Cook. Jess furnished booze for the Methodist drinkers. And the Methodist didn't want their bootlegger molested. So he wasn't. I remember Star Barron telling about buying some booze from Cook. Star complained about the price. Cook told him all he wanted was legitimate profit. So the local boys started calling him Old Legit."

"The boss said to the new employee, Are you a good worker and where did you work," Ivan wrote. "The guy said he had been a lumberjack in western Kansas. The boss said, there ain't no trees in western Kansas. The guy said, 'Not any more.'"

"Jack Benn showed up at the As the Bladder Fills Clug last Tuesday morning. Jack and Arlene spent most of July fishing in Canada. When I and Linton Lull asked for a fishing report, Jack said, in kind of a snarly voice, 'you have to ask Arlene.' Wav Scott said that one day Jack caught a 33-incher, which was good enough for fourth place for that day. Where Wav got his information I don't know. But Wav seems to be full of it. Information, that is."

"I can remember Doc Eustace, a doctor from Lebanon," Ivan said. "I don't think he thought much of fried food. I heard him tell Jess Bell that more wives had killed their husbands with a frying pan than they did with guns."

"I listened to the Democratic Convention last week," Ivan said. "It sounded to me like the Democrats promised to fix everything but the Thornburg Road."

"Wednesday's Quote of the Week," according to Ivan: "Francis Runyon said last Wednesday - 'This rain is really messing up our drought.'"

"I attempted to play golf last Thursday afternoon," Ivan said. "I hit the ball 56 times in nine holes and had one decent drive to show for my afternoon's labor. I'm always hearing critics say - 'I thought you played golf for exercise. Then why do you ride in a cart?' To those people I want to say - if you crawl off and on a golf cart 56 times in nine holes, you are getting exercise."

"Was it Mike Hughes who said he was in the seventh grade for two terms - Eisenhower & Nixon's. I don't know if it was Mike or not, but it sounds like something he might say."

"Preacher told a lady that her husband had walked out of church last Sunday," Ivan said. "The lady said she wasn't surprised because he did walk in his sleep."

"Find the dog star in the night sky," Ivan said. "Check Smith Center's football schedule. Watch Smith Center play. Notice how befuddled the other team is. Stay ahead of the posse."


AUGUST 24, 1998

The weekend brought hot, sticky weather. I am expecting it will be a hot one again today under blue sky. Fans pulled cool night air into the house but that will not last the course of the day, I'm sure. Most people have air conditioning. We do not - partly because of what it might cost to cool such a big old house as this, and partly because I'm not sure it's right to separate oneself so completely from one's environment. We were in Milwaukee on the weekend, visiting our daughter, and her air conditioning confused me. It was pleasant enough in her apartment, oh sure, but it was another thing entirely when we stepped outside.

Perhaps, too, there's a little German suffering I have to do.

A heavy dew. Blades of grass bend under the weight of it. Wetted grass, weighted grass. A whole month slipping away from me, a whole summer. Kids are going back to school. Back in the saddle. Back to being saddled.

I am surprised at how little haze hangs in the distance this morning. A very heavy dew indeed.

Swallows and black birds seem to be flocking. There is a long line of black birds on the electric wire along Highway E this morning. You see them in the evening as well.

All the lovely flowers at Five Corners. Ah, world! It's a scruffy earth pock-marked with beauty.

In Ripon, a fast little squirrel with a big nut in its mouth crosses the street in front of me.

Well, school has started - you see school buses like lady bugs. It's a lady bug picnic. I'm not ready yet for the end of summer.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?