Campbell Kids keep in touch

Soup company retirees remain friends with former co-workers

Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2003

CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- Can packers, engineers, managers, chefs: A corporation brought them together to make soup. Now retired, they still find themselves drawn to one another -- this time, for the fun of it.

They are the Campbell Kids, an unusual alumni group of retirees from the Campbell Soup Co.

Dozens of them gather twice a month to eat breakfast and socialize at a diner in Cherry Hill, a few miles from corporate headquarters in Camden. They golf together. They take vacations together. They watch the obituaries to see which members have died, so they can send flowers to their families.

It's hard to put on airs around people who have worked with you for decades, said Layman Liby, 84, who worked more than 46 years at Campbell.

''You can't go on an ego trip in this group,'' he said.

There are plenty of other trips, though. The group has arranged Caribbean cruises and has chartered buses to Atlantic City casinos and Broadway shows. Extra money from the trips goes to the flower fund.

An alumni group for a company's retirees is a rarity, said Jeffrey Dwyer, a professor at the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida. But it's common for people to maintain ties to their old colleagues and employers after retirement, he said. Such ties can become more important as life expectancies lengthen, giving retirees more time and energy to pursue social lives.

Around Detroit, Dwyer said, many retired autoworkers stay active in union-sponsored social programs.

''There's clearly an attachment to that place and social networks affiliated with that place,'' Dwyer said.

Retirees from Avista, a power company based in Spokane, Wash., often show up 100 strong at monthly meetings, said company spokesperson Debbie Simock. That group was started by retirees in 1978.

The Campbell Kids' vitality as a group owes itself to social ties that have outlasted economic ones. Once a dominant employer in New Jersey, Campbell Soup Co. still maintains its corporate headquarters here, but its presence in the area has diminished since executives shut down the Camden soup plant in 1990.

At a recent gathering at the Diamond Diner, Harry Nelson called a Campbell Kids meeting to order. He wore a lapel pin with two tiny flags -- one with the Stars and Stripes, the other with a Campbell's mascot. Nelson, 82, has run the Campbell Kids since 1985, when he retired from management after 46 years with Campbell.

He told the group of about 50 retirees that two members had died. He passed around get-well cards to sign for two other members -- one of whom, it turned out, had recovered enough to make it to the breakfast, breathing tubes still in his nose.

Many members have regular tables. One group of eight former engineers always arrives together, well before the official 10 a.m. start of the meeting.

Leona Laird, 76, also is a creature of habit. She worked for 47 years and nine months for Campbell, ending her career in the company cashier's office. Now she is the vice president of Campbell Kids, collecting money and scheduling activities, just like she did before retirement.

Joseph Borda, once a union official at the Camden plant, still complains about the company's missteps. He lists ways Campbell has wronged its retirees, such as not saving the honor roll of employees with 25 years service before the plant was demolished in 1991.

Borda was one of the Campbell Kids who sued more than a decade ago when the company cut benefits for retirees. For a while, the relationship between the company and its retirees was strained.

Relations are better now, Nelson said. In December, each Campbell Kid got a gift, including a box of Godiva chocolates and some company trinkets.

The Campbell Kids began in 1985 when Nelson and a handful of other retired men started meeting for lunch at a shopping mall's food court. These days, the twice-a-month gatherings often draw about 75 people, and December's holiday luncheon attracted 136, Nelson said.

But the group shrinks with every memorial bouquet it sends.

''We're losing a lot of people,'' said Joe Morrison, who used to be in charge of receiving frozen food for the company. ''You don't get any young people, because young people don't retire.''

Most members are in their late 70s or 80s, from the generation that fought in World War II. With the canning plant gone, there are fewer new retirees available to join the Campbell Kids -- and not all of them want to socialize with folks 20 years older than them.

For now, however, Campbell Kids meetings are the place to find a golfing foursome or sign up for a road trip to Atlantic City.

''This is full time for me,'' Nelson said. ''This keeps me going.''

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