ODELL — Diamond Fruit Growers is just part of the neighborhood for three employees with 40-plus years with the company.
Elena Rosales, Ed Coon and Jack Keller said Diamond has been a good part of their lives. Coon, in his 45th year, calls Keller, “Number one.” That’s a reference to the top-of-the-line fruit and to Keller’s status as Diamond’s longest-standing employee.
The Odell resident was hired as a lift truck driver 53 years ago, at the age of 22. Seven years later he would be Coon’s first boss, at the former cannery facility in Hood River, also known as the Cascade plant, which closed in 1982. Interviewed at loading dock one, Coon points north and said he lives “through that wall and about 400 feet that way.”
Rosales, also of Odell, has worked for 40 years with Diamond, all as a sorter.
“I enjoy working here; my supervisors treat me well. I’ve been working a long time and I feel good about working with them,” said Rosales, who loves working with friends and is the only one of her family employed at Diamond.
“I didn’t want to learn to do anything else because my hands didn’t work so good,” she said. “I didn’t want to learn to pack; just stay sorting. As years passed the nerve system of my hands stopped working, and I had surgery, and was told I couldn’t do another job.
“I like the job, and I feel comfortable doing the job. I work with friends and I feel good working with them,” Rosales said.
As to the biggest change at Diamond since 40 years ago, she said, “I haven’t seen much of a change; I see the same people working.” As to how much longer she will work, Rosales said, “I am not sure, but maybe soon I will finish.”
Coon grew up with the company. “It’s a long time but it’s been a good company to work for; it’s treated me and my family well,” he said. He started at the Cascade plant, was transferred to Odell, and then got full-time work. His father, Delbert, was a year-rounder and his mom, Gladys, worked as a sorter.
Coon started at the cannery loading trucks and train cars in downtown Hood River. He recalls the day the last railroad car went out from Cascade and Third streets, loaded with ice, “and that was the end of that era.
“It got to the point where there was cannery and packing, two different entities, so when cannery went down everybody got laid off from that, so I had made the right choice to come here,” he said.
“It’s a family place; it’s been good all the way through, given me a chance to do different things,” said Coon, now supervisor in packing. “It’s like when I started and where I am now, it’s been varying.
“I’ve done this here, worked at that there awhile, and went there, Cascade, Pine Grove, Oak Grove, Odell — wherever we were needed — picking up fruit or shipping. You ship with a track into the truck and load it up day after day and then go to some other project,” he said.
“Number One” Keller is in charge of the Odell loading dock, a job he’s done since 1971; previously he was receiving foreman at the Cascade plant. He started as a lift truck driver, and still has his favorite forklift, a 22-year-old.
What has changed at Diamond?
“Everything,” Keller said. “We used to ship out of five warehouses; now we do it all out of here. Everything was lugs (wooden boxes); now it’s all plastic.”
Another change is the importance of the “third fruit” of Hood River.
“Cherries last so long now — used to be a month deal; now its eight weeks right out of your summer. It about kills you,” joked Keller.
He has no plans to retire. “I like to work! Heck, my main hobby is cutting wood,” Keller said. “It’s been good to me; put two girls through college.”
But Keller remembers when he was not so sure of his longevity with Diamond, or the longevity of the company itself.
“As long as I’ve been here I didn’t think it would last this long,” he said. In the ‘80s we had to take a 10 percent cut, the cannery was going down. In fact, I found another job, but my wife talked me out of it. A lot of people thought it would go down, but I stuck with it.
“There have been a lot of management changes. For awhile, we went through a change every couple of years. It’s a lot more stable now. Management and the marketplace has a lot to do with how (well) we’re doing.
“When I started it was nothing but apples,” said the man who has overseen sending out of DFG fruit for 42 years. “Now we don’t ship an apple — just little lady apples, decoration apples.”
Coon likes to talk about Keller.
“He was my first boss,” he said. “He’s been all over the place. He’s been to the different plants. He’s a living legend.
“I learned a lot from him. I came from a place where I hadn’t worked out in the public that much, and I found that there was a system; he was here long enough to know how the system worked, and I just kind of ponied on him, and everything went along, and we did really good,” Coon said of Keller.
“He’s a really good guy, rough and tough, and he has a soft place in him, even if he doesn’t show it that often.”
But when asked, “What will the company do without him?” Coon said, “Oh, these other guys have already figured that one out. That’s the whole system. You come in and you learn and you make decisions and try something different out.
“It’s a company that was having its problems and everything, and the management and the people are pulling together and the growers are responding in a positive manner and they’re making money. That’s what it is.”