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Embracing a fresh start

Russ Wiemers responds to a teacher using sign language at Spokane Falls Community College on Friday. Wiemers, who is getting certified as a sign language interpreter, is a former employee of Stimson Lumber. 
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Russ Wiemers responds to a teacher using sign language at Spokane Falls Community College on Friday. Wiemers, who is getting certified as a sign language interpreter, is a former employee of Stimson Lumber. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

As a kid, Russ Wiemers vowed never to work in sawmills. His shift-worker father came home bitter and angry too many nights, defeated by skirmishes with management.

With a wife to support, Wiemers’ views changed in his early 20s. He took a job at the Atlas sawmill in Coeur d’Alene, raising four kids on the steady paychecks. As the years slipped by, Wiemers longed for more challenging work, but he was reluctant to give up the security of $16-an-hour wages and four weeks of paid vacation.

When the Atlas mill closed in December, the 50-year-old lumber grader was forced to make a fresh start.

Wiemers enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College’s program for sign language interpreters. He’s one of a dozen former Atlas workers using federal benefits to go back to school.

About 120 workers lost their jobs when the mill closed. A booming job market has helped absorb many of those employees, said Denise Lunderstadt, a supervisor at the Idaho Commerce & Labor Department in Coeur d’Alene. Some went to other mills; others took related jobs in construction and manufacturing.

Wiemers, however, seized the chance to make a major career change. He turned down an offer at an Oregon sawmill and set his sights on the classroom.

“I wasn’t going to quit; I had 28 years,” he said of his previous job. “But I kept hoping this place would shut down soon enough so that I could do something else.”

Starting over at 50 was feasible, he figured. At 60, it would be harder.

After years of making split-second decisions on the quality of pine and cedar boards, the veteran lumber grader is back in the world of quizzes, late-night homework sessions and class presentations. Most of his classmates are in their 20s.

“They all look young to me,” Wiemers said. But maturity has advantages. “I probably have a more serious view of attendance than some people. I want to be there on time, every day.” That’s the kind of ethic you pick up in a sawmill, he said.

Dennis Johnston also took advantage of retraining opportunities. The former laborer at the Atlas mill plans to complete a business degree at Lewis-Clark State College. Without the federal benefits, the 34-year-old Hauser man said he couldn’t afford to take classes full time.

Competition from sawmills in Canada and other countries helped secure the federal retraining dollars. Stimson Lumber Co., which operated the Atlas Mill, was able to demonstrate that foreign trade undercut its market and contributed to the mill’s closure. That qualified laid-off workers for Trade Adjustment Assistance.

Workers can receive up to two years of schooling through the program, with a cap of $16,000 in expenses. A related program extends unemployment checks while the workers are in school. Over the past three years, about 260 former mill workers in North Idaho have qualified for the retraining.

It’s a lifetime benefit, so workers can use the program at any time, Lunderstadt said. However, they must be able to show that job prospects exist in their field of study.

As soon as Stimson announced that the Atlas mill would be closing, Wiemers started mulling options. His interests were diverse. He’d shot a documentary of Rathdrum, where he lives; interpreted for deaf people in his Jehovah’s Witness congregation; photographed weddings; and used self-taught computer skills to develop a safety manual for the Atlas mill.

Career counselors steered him toward health care, but long waiting lists for classes and prerequisites deterred him. Interpreting, however, held promise. He’d learned the rudiments of sign language years before from a deaf friend.

Wiemers started school in January. He earned a 3.95 grade point average last quarter but is still adjusting to a schedule that includes studying until 11 p.m.

He’s also had to unlearn much of what he knew about sign language. American Sign Language has a distinct sentence structure, and Wiemers was translating what he heard verbatim.

“He’s enthusiastic and not afraid to be challenged,” said Marie Rendon, an instructor in SFCC’s interpreter training program. “He’s not locked into his way of doing things.”

Watching his wife, Debbie, go back to school two years earlier helped with the transition, Wiemers said. He saw how hard she worked at her studies.

Debbie Wiemers recently finished SFCC’s interpreter program and now works part time, earning $17 per hour.

Unemployment and her paycheck will keep the household running until Wiemers graduates.

“I have a lot of skills other than working in a sawmill,” he said. “I didn’t pursue them because I was there … being a drone.”