The octogenarian on the assembly line: Charles Bowers is celebrating a quarter-century at BTL Industries at the age of 85
By Sarah Colson and Scott Robertson
Charles Bowers rises at 3:58 every morning to make it to his manufacturing job by 5 a.m. He works four ten-hour shifts each week and loves his work. The same could be said of all his co-workers. But the difference between Bowers and his colleagues is Charles Bowers is 85 years old.
Bowers could teach a master class in work ethic, if there were such a thing, and Greeneville’s BTL Industries is glad to have him, not only for his work, but because that work ethic makes the entire company better.
“We have to have a dependable workforce and somebody that will be there every day,” General Manager Matt Latts says. “We need employees who do their job as they’re supposed to and meet the quality standards that we’re required to meet. Charles really is a model of that. He is extremely dependable and has been for a very long time. He’s getting the job done like he’s supposed to but he also provides some energy and life to the manufacturing staff.”
For the first few hours each day, Bowers cuts copper pieces into specified lengths for the company’s main customer, ERMCO. Then he works the last six hours of his shift on the assembly line.
“Work, whether at BTL or on the farm, is my best friend,” Bowers says. “I love to work. Some of us are cut out to do these things and some of us are not. And I’m cut out for it.”
Latts said Bowers’ work ethic inspires his other 75 full-time employees.
“First of all, our average worker is here for 16 years,” Latts said. “So we have a group of employees who have been together for so long, they’re just like part of the family. Charles is an inspiration not only from a work ethic standpoint but also overall as a good person to all of our employees as they come on board.”
That work ethic comes from a lifetime on the farm. In fact, Bowers jokes that he works to support his farming habit. For the better part of his first six decades on earth, Bowers worked the land, along with his wife Wanda, who is still the light of his life.
“Each day was a struggle from four in the morning to the dark of night,” Bowers says of farming, “while being plagued with worries over drought, mastitis, crop failure, and a multitude of other problems. But a good sale of the year’s tobacco crop, the sight of a newborn calf, or the harvesting of a crop of hay and getting it stored before it rained made it all worthwhile.”
After years of hard farm work and declining cattle sales, Bowers started looking for a career that would still allow him to continue working his small farm. He remembered having met Terry Leonard at Leonard’s men’s clothing store back in the 1950s after Bowers returned from his time in the service. “I couldn’t have afforded to buy much from him. Maybe I bought a pair of socks,” Bowers says.
Leonard and Bowers became friends that day, so when Bowers began looking for his second career, he talked with Leonard. Soon Bowers was working for BTL, now run by Leonard’s son, Watson Leonard.
“We do a lot of work that has a very short window from the order to when it’s got to be out the door and they understand that and embrace that opportunity and that challenge,” Leonard says. “We don’t have a lot of young people come in or new people come in but when they do, they tend to be very successful and they tend to grow fast. I think everybody else’s mentality rubs off on them.”
On the farm, on the assembly line, or in the classroom, Bowers says the most important characteristic of success is and always will be good, old-fashioned hard work.
“I went to an agricultural class after I got out of the service and I learned a lot from them,” he said. “That teacher said, ‘Men, don’t ever let your work push you. Push your work.’ That was one of the best statements I ever heard. Stay ahead. That’s what it meant. I still try to do that.
“It’s a joy to work with people you can call ‘friend,’ who are hard-working, responsible people. It gives you a good feeling to know that the transformer parts you’ve been working on have benefited people without electricity during tragic weather conditions. I’m thankful to my co-workers and management for helping me feel needed and appreciated, and I want to express a special thanks to the Leonard family for giving an old man of 85 the opportunity to keep working these past 25 years, for I need to be busy to be satisfied.”