By Angie Kinsey firstname.lastname@example.org
"I started on Dec. 29, on my birthday," Douglas, 88, said as he waited at the corner of Kentucky Avenue and Water Street for the plant's 50th anniversary celebration to begin Thursday night. "I took a cut to go out there. I made $1.60 an hour."
Douglas, of Paducah, worked as a cascade operator for 26 years before retiring. In the early days, "you weren't supposed to tell anything," he said. "There was more in the paper than we could say. We had a lot of hard work, but I made a lot of good friends."
A large crowd, including many retirees, gathered at the riverfront for the anniversary celebration, which included the unveiling of a three-panel floodwall mural, a concert by the Paducah Symphony and a fireworks display. The murals, painted by Robert Dafford, depict cars driving down the plant access road in the 1950s, a frenetic construction scene and an aerial view, which includes the words "Welcome to the Atomic City."
"I'm so proud of it, and it's something for the town to be proud of," Annie Ruth Long, 79, said of the murals. "This is wonderful. I'm seeing people I haven't seen since 1986."
Long began working as a secretary at the plant in 1953, when the plant was still under construction. "I was out there before the main administration building was there," she said. "It was crowded, and the traffic was just horrible."
Long said the only time she was concerned about working at a nuclear facility was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. "When Kennedy was president, we were told where we had to go in case we got bombed. That was frightening."
Many retirees talked about old times at a reception at the Paducah-McCracken County Convention and Visitors Bureau, hosted for them by the bureau and the 50th anniversary committee.
"There are a lot of old people in here I knew years ago," said Harry Goforth, 84, who ran the machine shop 50 years ago. "You recognize their faces, but at our age, we don't remember names."
Clyde Hopkins, plant manager from 1972-78, was easily recognized by his former employees, who greeted him at the reception with handshakes and the question, "Do you remember me?"
"Most of these people I know," said Hopkins, who now lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "Paducah was a great place to live and work, probably the nicest of anywhere we lived over the years. There was a great work force here in Paducah. The people enjoyed working. It's remarkable what they've been able to accomplish here."
Charles Turok, 77, of Paducah said people were proud of working at the plant in the early days. Turok, a chemist who eventually worked in industrial hygiene, worked there during four decades, from 1953 to ’87.
"There was more pride a long time ago," he said. "I can't tell you what they're doing now. Back then it was secretive. I never will forget it was so secretive, a lot of people didn't know what they were doing. The FBI used to be downtown, and they asked people what we were doing. They asked one guy, ‘What do you make out there?’ He said, ‘I make $1.25 an hour.’"
Turok said he was always aware of the plant's nuclear production. "I never had any fear of it at all," he said. "I have some nostalgic memories, but they are all pleasant. I enjoyed it."
Turok, who watched the plant being built, said he believes it will be around for another anniversary milestone. "It will be here a long time," he said. "I have no doubt that anyone out there now will be able to retire there if he wants to."