‘A Lot of Guys Didn’t Hold Up’: Dearborn Stamping Plant Celebrates Willie Fulton, Ford’s Longest-Serving Employee

Dec 20, 2022

For the first time in nearly 70 years, Willie Fulton has to find something to keep himself busy. The 89-year-old, who recently ended a career that began more than a full year before the iconic Ford Thunderbird came into existence, is departing as Ford’s longest-serving employee.

“I’m going to find something to do,” he said. “I have to keep moving. I can’t be sitting around the house.”

Fulton, who rarely used his vacation time over the course of his 68-year career, wasn’t even considering retirement, but a recent bout with pneumonia changed his plans. He’ll be looking for a new hobby to add to his repertoire, which includes model trains.

“Keeping busy keeps your mind sharp,” he said. “Every day I was working, I had something different to think about.”

Fulton finally said goodbye to Ford and Dearborn Stamping Plant with a small send-off from family, co-workers, plant management and union leadership. He reminisced with the help of a slideshow highlighting his career and was presented with a commemorative book created by plant leadership and signed by Jim Farley, Ford president and CEO; Kumar Galhotra, president, the Americas and International Markets Group; and John Savona, vice president, manufacturing and labor affairs, North America.

Fulton started as a core fitter at Dearborn Iron Foundry on July 15, 1953 at just 21 years old before moving over to Dearborn Assembly a couple years later, then returning to the foundry in 1960. He transferred to Michigan Casting, now Flat Rock Assembly Plant, in 1973 before arriving at Dearborn Stamping Plant in 1982, where the final nine years of his career have been spent on assembly line No. 210.

After traveling north from his native Mississippi on the advice of a relative, Fulton waited two days outside the gates to the Rouge plant before getting hired. With the exception of a brief layoff in the late 1950s, he worked continuously for the rest of his career. He credits the company’s shift to automation for his longevity.

“A lot of guys didn’t hold up,” he said. “I was lucky to be able to work 68 and a half years. A lot of guys, their bodies couldn’t take it. I’m almost 90 years old and I’m still in pretty good shape because of the change they made to automation. The lifting and the bending and that – automation helped 100%.”

Gary Tuttle Jr., team leader, zone one assembly, praised Fulton for being able to keep pace with industry changes that have taken place over six decades. “The type of work we do here is different than final assembly,” said Tuttle. “If you’ve ever worked those lines, you can really appreciate what he’s done and how long he’s been doing it. With today’s technology, we’re a long way from where he came from.”

Longtime employee of the year is one of a kind

“Icon, legend, one of a kind” are a few of the words of praise Fulton’s co-workers used as he prepared to exit the building where he has long reigned as employee of the year and owner of the premium parking space that comes with it. Kay Kaufman, senior process coach for assembly, said she was humbled to work with Fulton for the past five years.

Fulton’s customized shop bike, a mode of transport typically reserved for team leaders and tradespeople, is being preserved as part of an exhibit near the plant’s “Green Mile” entryway that will also feature photos of Ford’s longest-serving employee and information about his career.

In the lead-up to his retirement, Fulton was working on F-150 box floor pans at Dearborn Stamping Plant, responsible for ensuring the pans are properly aligned. He often would be the one to spot problems others overlooked.

 “Regardless of his age, he did not miss much at all,” said Tuttle. “He would see things that nobody else could see and always made sure things were exactly where they were supposed to be and if they weren’t – I heard about it as soon as he knew about it.”

Fulton is known for his good nature, riding his shop bike through the plant and greeting his co-workers.

“Not one time did I ever see him in a bad mood,” said Tuttle.

Plant leaders have long put Fulton up as a role model, citing his accuracy and work ethic as an example for new recruits. After undergoing orientation in a conference room bearing his name, new hires would typically meet with Fulton.

“You’re looking at someone who at that time was in his seventies and was never late to work or missed time and worked the line every day,” said Jeff Hodges, local 600 chairperson for Dearborn Stamping. “It’s a good example that anyone can do it if you try. A lot of people don’t know how they’re going to make it or if they’re going to be able to do something. And here is a guy who’s been doing it for two to three times as long as they’ve even been alive.”

Frank Piazza, plant manager, said that for a long time Fulton could run any job on the floor at rate. His decades of experience also meant he could be counted on as an advisor. “I could get a feel or pulse from Willie if things were going the way I wanted them to or if there needed to be some adjustments,” said Piazza. “He was always there as an advisor for me. He was very candid, too. I never had to worry about whether he would give me a truthful answer.”

Like others at the plant, Piazza will miss the smiles and handshakes that come along with Fulton’s presence. “I’m going to miss being able to see him every day,” he said.