Kennedy: 60 years on the job a milestone

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The average American worker has been at his or her job for 4.6 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

People such as Herman Jenkins, 85, an employee of Chattanooga Tent Co., scoff at such short-timers. Jenkins has worked for the same company since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president - and he has no plans to retire.

"Retirement? What's retirement?" Jenkins said in an interview last week.

Chattanooga Tent Co. started in 1934 and has grown into one of the leading tent companies in the region, serving such events as the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl. The company also has supplied tents for White House ceremonies and more than 80 state fairs. From a cluster of industrial buildings on Oak Street, Chattanooga Tent dispatches crews to far-flung sites for weddings, sporting events, festivals and galas.

A veteran of the Korean War, Jenkins says that when he returned to Chattanooga after his overseas military service, he assumed he would go back to his job as deliveryman for a drug store on Central Avenue.

One of the regulars at the drug store lunch counter was Chattanooga Tent owner Joe Nolan, who convinced Jenkins to come to his Bailey Avenue office one day to talk about a job. Jenkins remembers immediately going to work that day helping workers repair a tent - and soiling his new suit in the process.

"He [Nolan] said he would buy me a new suit, but he never did," Jenkins chuckles.

It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for decades, as Jenkins became a valued employee and a trusted friend of the tent company's ownership family. Over time, Jenkins was, by turns, a roving installer, a tent-maker and repair specialist.

"I did whatever needed to be done," he says.

In the early years, he would ride in the company's 1949 International truck installing awnings on homes and businesses around Chattanooga.

In the 1960s, as the business shifted more to tents, Jenkins became a master tent-maker, cutting canvas pieces with electric scissors and stitching them together with industrial sewing machines.

Some of those old machines are just now being replaced.

"A tear comes to my eye every time one of them leaves the building," Jenkins offers.

For many years, he was on the road leading one of the installing crews that are the lifeblood of the business. Along the way, he met famous people across the South. He once helped erect a tent for the wedding of the daughter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

One morning in 1963, Jenkins was at his house and noticed smoke billowing from a building on the horizon. Realizing it was coming from the direction of the tent company, then on Bailey Avenue, he slipped on his shoes and rushed over.

Once there, he stood beside his friend Joe Nolan and watched the building burn.

"I don't know what we are going to do, Herman," the business owner mused.

As luck would have it, the company rebuilt and flourished through the 1960s after gaining a lucrative contract to build tents for Church of God revivals.

These days, Jenkins patrols the plant floor as a roving quality-control enforcer.

"What I really do is make sure everything is done right," Jenkins says.

"Sometimes, you'll see him on his hands and knees pointing out this and that," says David Fremouw, the company's general manager.

It's hard to imagine today's young workers staying on any job for 60 years.

Meanwhile, as Jenkins celebrates the milestone, instead of a gold watch or a plaque, maybe his company should get him that long-promised new suit.

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at