A Not-Forgotten Hero of Printing
In Memory of Carl Williamson, owner of Kennedy Print Shop, Baton Rouge, La.
The inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg, once said:
"Yes, certainly it is a press, but a press from which a spring of truth shall flow; the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread His Word. Like a new star, it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance and cause a light here-to-fore unknown to shine amongst men."
Gutenberg was one man whose VISION and movable-type printing press changed the world. And it’s an honor for me to be part of the Printing Industry.
It’s also an honor to remember and thank those who came before us in this industry, and to share here, a memory I have of one of these sometimes-forgotten heroes of the printing industry...
It was my first day as a 17-year-old apprentice at Kennedy Print Shop. In 1966 Kennedy Print Shop was one of the last surviving fully-functional and profitable letterpress printing shops in Baton Rouge, La., located just a few blocks from the mighty Mississippi River.
Mr. Carl Williamson, the owner, also operated the Linotype machine that set lead printing type for our printing presses. We also set type by hand, the way printers had been doing for hundreds of years.
It was as if time had stopped, when walking in the door of Kennedy Print Shop. It was a living, working printing museum. I loved it! I loved the smell and the sounds, and I loved to watch those old machines still operating, churning out printing for businesses all over Baton Rouge. We printed brochures for many of the old southern antebellum homes along the Mississippi, along with Cajun cook books and other regional material with a Deep South theme.
By the time I left Kennedy Print shop for another career, I had learned to operate every one of those old letter presses, including a Kelly Press, Miehle Vertical Press, Kluge Press and a Heidelberg Windmill. I still cherish those memories.
Kennedy Print Shop had recently purchased a 1250 Multilith machine, which was their attempt at transitioning into modern offset printing. That was the press that I was hired to operate. Before being hired, I had assured Mr. Williamson that I had experience running that kind of press and knew I could do the job. The truth was, the only experience I had was watching and helping my brother Billy, once-in-awhile, as he ran the same type press where he worked. I wasn’t trying to be deceitful; I guess I was just too young and too stupid to know any better. Carrying the eager confidence of youth, I really thought I could operate that press.
I soon learned that watching is not the same as operating!
The first job Mr. Williamson assigned to me was to print 10,000 envelopes. I excitedly set up press like my brother had shown me a few times; however, before I finished printing that job I had ruined more than five thousand envelopes over a period of several hours. Had I not had help from Julian Jackson, another pressman who took pity on me, I would never have completed that job.
What made matters worse, I didn’t have a clue as to the cost of envelopes, so I didn’t think there was a problem.
When Mr. Williamson came out to check on me, he waded into a sea of ruined envelopes scattered all over the floor. He was furious; his face turning beet red as he chewed me out in front of the whole shop. He hollered, "I should fire you right now! You told me you could run a #%$ press." While this whole scene played out, the rest of the journeyman printers in the shop were shaking their head and smiling unmercifully, from ear-to-ear.
After Mr. Williamson calmed down a bit, observing the chaos, he said softly, "Well, I guess now you know how to run envelopes! You do, don’t you?" I said sheepishly, "Yesss sir."
“Well,” he said, “since I’ve got so much invested, I guess, we may as well keep you.” I think he felt a little sorry for me and bad about his outburst. Over time I learned he was usually very amiable.
Another lasting memory of Mr. Carl Williamson
It was the day a Printing Union Boss came from up north to our print shop and informed me I had to join the union or they were going to cause me and Mr. Williamson some trouble. That fellow looked just like you might imagine an old union boss might look. You see, I had been avoiding joining the union, because I had a very independent personality and figured they were just bullies anyway. They were trying to intimidate me right during working hours, so I immediately went to Mr. Williamson and told him what they were doing. He came out of his office, got in the face of the Printing Union Boss and ran him out the shop at high volume. At that time, I was only working part-time after school, making about $1.25 per hour.
I continued to work at Kennedy Print Shop for several years and, when my first son was born, Mr. Williamson immediately gave me journeyman wages, which was $4.25 per hour then. I thought I was rich!
Mr. Williamson was a very dedicated, hard working American small business owner, who stayed involved in politics in order to keep the government accountable. The mayor, a former governor of Louisiana and other politicians, would stop by our shop, from time to time. Some did their printing with him, and others just got an earful when he thought they were out of line.
Here is a man, a hero I’d say, who got to work at 6:00 a.m. every morning and left about 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. every night. He also worked a half-day almost every Saturday. I never heard him complain about working; it was just what he did.
To be honest, at the time, I didn’t appreciate Mr. Williamson or my job. I didn’t appreciate the fact that, like many business owners, he put everything he owned on the line to be independent. He supplied not only me, but many other men and women jobs with little appreciation for his efforts.
It’s never too late to say, “Thank you, Mr. Carl Williamson. I have never forgotten you!”
What does Kennedy Print Shop and Mr. Carl Williamson have to do with systemic success?
You tell me!
Did I mention? Great Systems Work!
Philip Beyer, founder/president of Ebiz Products LLC and founder of Beyer Printing Inc. in Nashville Tenn., is a chronic entrepreneur, business systems analyst and consultant. Author of "System Busters: How to Stop Them in Your Business" and recipient of an InterTech Technology Award for the design and development of System100 business process management software. Beyer speaks to business owners across the country on how to bring lean, sustainable order to their businesses. Contact him at (615) 425-2652.