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Willie McGee
Rick Lipsey
May 01, 2000
He heads the first family at the last plant in the U.S. where golf shoes are handmade
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May 01, 2000

Willie Mcgee

He heads the first family at the last plant in the U.S. where golf shoes are handmade

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Cool air is blowing through the windows, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. is blaring on a boom box, and 61-year-old Willie McGee is working the machine that attaches toes to soles on the second floor of the FootJoy golf shoe factory in Brockton, Mass. When Etonic shut down its plant in Richmond, Maine, in September 1998, FootJoy's Brockton facility became the last nonautomated golf shoe factory in the U.S., and the only place on earth where all-leather golf shoes are mass-produced by hand. "We're a slice of history that'll never happen again," says McGee, a fixture on FootJoy's assembly line for 39 years.

With FootJoy producing 93% of its shoes in Asia, annual production in Brockton, which specializes in the company's traditional Classics line, has dropped from 250,000 pairs a year in the mid-1980s to 150,000 last year. "Those things they make outside America may have our name," says McGee, "but the only real FootJoys are the ones that our hands put together."

An unusually large proportion of the hands making FootJoys in Brockton have belonged to the McGee clan, the first family of golf shoes. Since Willie started in 1961 as a tack-puller, removing staples from the insoles of completed shoes, eight other members of his extended family have worked the assembly line: his younger sister, Mary Hargrove; Mary's daughter, Terri, and her son, Will; three of Willie's four children, Diane, Gayle and William; Sean Hilton, Mary and Willie's nephew; and Lynne Gourdin, a niece of Mary and Willie's. "It seems like everybody here but me is a McGee," says Lois Kielczewski, 58, a stitcher who uses the same 80-year-old Singer sewing machine that her mother, Alice Trynasty, worked on from 1970 to '78.

The McGee family's production peaked in 1989, when six of them worked on the line where 28 brass nails, 48 staples, three square feet of leather, 20 eyelets and two spike plates are used to make each of the 760 pairs of shoes produced daily. Today, five of FootJoy's 150 Brockton cobblers attend the McGee family reunion every summer in Pachuta, Miss. (pop. 256). The latest to join the firm is William, 21, who signed on in January as a floater, filling in wherever needed. "I love working here," says William's cousin Terri, a marker who stamps silver ink lines on slabs of leather for stitching and fitting purposes. Terri, 34, was hired in May 1988, after her mother, Mary, who had joined FootJoy one year earlier, told her about an opening. "I was a single mom with a baby daughter," says Terri. "I'd been on welfare for two years, but they hired me on the spot. It makes me proud when I see all the pros wearing our shoes on TV."

Mary stands at a big wood table from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., looking for defects in the 13,440 pieces of leather that pass in front of her each day. Four years ago, Mary was afraid she was about to lose her job. American Brands (now Fortune Brands), the Old Greenwich, Conn.-based conglomerate that owns FootJoy, was considering closing the Brockton factory because it was so costly to make the Classics, which sell for $210 to $295 a pair, in the U.S. But Brockton gave FootJoy a tax break, and American Brands kept the factory open. Tiger Woods was another boon for the factory. "Tiger helped save my job," says Mary, who is 58. "Ever since he came around, business has really picked up."

Mary's son Will has been at FootJoy for three years. He was working the graveyard shift at a UPS warehouse when Mary told him about a tack-pulling position at FootJoy. "I didn't think I'd like working in a factory," says Will, 36, "but it sounded a lot more attractive than working nights."

Will was surprised with his new work. He'd had several jobs since graduating from Brockton High in 1982, but none gave him a sense of dignity. "I play in our office golf league and see non- FootJoy people wear our shoes," says Will. "That makes me feel real good, like I'm part of something special."

Recently, Will was made an inspector in the insole room, and the raise that came with that promotion will help pay for his wedding next spring to Christine Mays. "Chris works at a hospital," says Will, "but I wouldn't be surprised if by this time next year she's got a new job, right here with me."