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The quintessential company man

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FLIN FLON -- In a day an age when employee loyalty is precarious at best, Fred Houston is a remarkable model of stability.

He has been with Vale's Thompson mining and smelting operation for more than 50 years, the company's first Manitoba worker to reach the five-decade milestone.

"I'm not sorry that I came up here (to Thompson)," says Houston, still spry at 72 with dark boyish eyes and thinning grey and white hair. "Like I told my wife, all I wanted was a steady job and to have kids and then be able to support them."

Maintaining a family would have been far more difficult had Houston stayed in his native Pine Falls, northeast of Winnipeg.

He did have a position at the paper mill back home, but after being laid off he headed to Winnipeg to land a construction job. He was working only a few months a year when something in the newspaper caught his eye.

"I bought the Free Press and they were advertising for labourers in Thompson," Houston recalls.

At that time, in the spring of 1963, the future "Hub of the North" was just seven years old and had a population of only 6,300.

The plain-spoken Houston had never been to Thompson -- not a whole lot of people had -- but he nonetheless hopped a train for a job interview in The Pas.

He hired on with the company, then called Inco, and found himself back on the train headed for Thompson. A new life awaited on May 24, 1963, his first day on the job.

What a different world it was then. Lester Pearson had just been elected prime minister, Duff Roblin was fresh into his third term as Manitoba premier, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup champions.

Grateful for the chance to earn a paycheque, the energetic Houston performed a range of tasks. He washed windows. He cut grass. He toiled away at the Inco water treatment plant and the nickel smelter.

When he learned the company was looking for mine hoist operators, he jumped at the chance. He entered the hoist room in 1967 and has remained there ever since.

"Back when I started, you put on both the power and the brakes," Houston explained in an interview for Vale's website. "You controlled the speed. You pulled the brake lever a bit to slow down, and when you got close to a level, you would apply the brake. It was kind of like learning to drive a standard transmission on a car."

With computerization, things are quite different today.

"Now it's like operating an elevator," Houston told the website. "There are no more challenges to operating -- it's so darn easy."

Unsurprisingly, Houston has become something of a legend at Vale, the quintessential company man who derives great satisfaction from a day's work. Sometimes people he doesn't know want to shake his hand.

Well past the conventional retirement age, Houston continues to bring a solid work ethic to 12-hour shifts that tucker out men half his age.

He maintains his energy by taking walks, swimming and enjoying coffee with "the guys" during social outings at Thompson's bustling Tim Hortons.

Among Thompson's longest tenured residents, Houston is well known throughout the northern city. Here he and wife Carol, whom he wed in 1960, raised six kids and numerous foster kids.

Perhaps emblematic of their love, Carol hasn't put any pressure on her husband to call it a career.

"She said, 'It's up to you because when you're retired, it's going to be hard, you're going to be bored staying at home,' " said Fred.

Still, Houston knows his days with Vale are numbered. He figures he has a couple of years left, at which time he and Carol plan to move to Winnipeg, where they have a daughter and son-in-law.

If Fred gets restless, he is told that his son-in-law can always score him a part-time warehouse job.

And absolutely no one will be surprised if Fred Houston takes advantage of that offer.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 A15

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