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‘The heartbeat of Palatka:’ Brother-sister duo talk lifelong commitment to Georgia-Pacific mill

Though the Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper mill is just outside the Palatka city limits, so many people work there that its impact can be felt throughout the community. More than 900 people carry Georgia-Pacific’s scan badge on a lanyard, and when they visit the grocery store or restaurants, it sparks conversation every time.

“Most times they have a sister, brother, aunt or uncle who worked within the facility,” said Wade Dallas. “We are all tied in together. It’s one of the most sought after jobs.”

Georgia-Pacific serves as the largest non governmental employer in Putnam county, a county of about 75,000. Its total payroll is around $86 million, according to public affairs manager Terry Hadaway, with a career average salary in the range of $55,000.

But that’s not why Dallas and his sister, Karen Dallas Session, stayed so long. The company is like a family to them, after spending 30 years and 42 years respectively working long shifts at the mill. Their seven siblings and mother also worked for the company, bringing the Dallas family’s commitment to Georgia-Pacific to more than 150 years.

“Before my older brother Ralph retired five years ago, we had three of us here at the same time,” Dallas said. “There’s a sense of pride and camaraderie and there’s always something to talk about.”

After serving 20 years in the U.S. Marines, Dallas began as a mechanic with Georgia-Pacific.

He now serves in a group of seven mechanics, working what can sometimes become 16-hour days depending on how the machinery is functioning.

Dallas, 60, said the company’s safety program motivated him to come up with some solutions. He has a patent out now for a “safety swing gate,” which allows workers a safe place to step off of ladders.

“In a place like this there’s a lot going on, but you can implement things if you seek out the right channels to do it,” he said. “A lot of the stuff we’re working on now, it’s 70 years old. So it’s time to implement and increase some safety surrounding the stuff we work on for years and years.”

Session started out on the floor and in 1989 became the company’s first African American woman to serve as shift manager, leading 35 employees.

“Back then, the field of opportunity was not as open as it is now,” Session said. “It feels really good. You don’t have to sit back and say ‘oh, this is a man’s business.’ If you want it and you have what it takes, the opportunities are here.”

Session, 64, called her time at Georgia-Pacific as a “sweet journey” and said she wouldn’t change a thing.

She, like her brother, refers to her coworkers as family.

“They [the workers] look at this place as a lifeline,” Session said. “It’s a place that people want to work, where you can travel miles and miles to get here. That says something. All my life it was just where you wanted to be. It’s the heartbeat of Palatka.”

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Dahlia Ghabour
July 10, 2018