My dirty laundry

Eric’s been writing about sweatshops again. Not that he accuses me or any of you of operating sweatshops, quite the contrary. His view is that the term “sweatshop” has been misused to the point of dilution. Anyone who’s worked in a factory would have to admit to themselves that at some point they’ve also callously and senselessly thrown that ugly word around in response to a workplace disagreement or a mis-timed process. Disgruntled employees have been using that cheap-shot for years and I’m no less guilty; the memory shames me and sullies the remembrance of someone I profoundly respected.

I have to tell you a story. It’s kind of long but it’s about someone I knew and a lot of people called him a sweatshop owner -me included- but that was a lie. A bald faced lie. This essay was originally published in the Designer’s Network Newsletter in 1996. I don’t remember what month.

It was a tradition in the garment industry to announce the deaths of great people by placing a full-page ad in the pages of Women’s Wear Daily. This isn’t done as much anymore. I never gave obituaries much thought until a year ago. Then last May, my hero died. His name was John Sullivan.

He deserved some mention of his passing. He deserved an acknowledgment that he lived and contributed. His lifestyle did not meet the approval of other manufacturers because he was gay and contrary to public belief, being gay is no more acceptable in this industry than in any other. John was openly insulted, ridiculed or excluded in industry circles. He did not get the respect he deserved. Well, this is my obituary for John. You owe him a great debt; he’s taught you many things through me.

John was born in East Germany. In 1938, he and his family were forced to leave their home, narrowly escaping the Nazi rampage that shamed the integrity of all men. John’s father knew America was safe, free and brave. America became their home.

John joined the US Army as soon as he could. He survived dramatic battles, the very sort depicted in popular films. Once, he was the only man in his battalion to survive. He was wounded many times, was patched up and set back to fight. Until he died, he set off airport metal detectors from the shrapnel he still carried in his body. After the war, John coached professional hockey. After a time he got bored and finally settled down to help his parents with their home business in Albuquerque New Mexico. John’s family worked late every night, cutting and sewing leather coats right on the kitchen table.

John built his parent’s business into the world’s largest manufacturer of western-style outerwear and leather coats. John became rich and successful but if you think this is the end of his story, you are wrong. John still had a war to fight, the one he fought till the day he died, and this is why he was a hero.

This was John’s war. A lot of industry consultants told him he could not manufacture in the United States and make a profit. Go offshore they said, labor in Thailand is cheap. John could have made a lot more money but it wasn’t worth it to him. He was committed to producing a quality product in his community and country.

John’s home was the United States. The country that adopted him and fought to save him and other Jews. John paid his debts. He fought bravely and with distinction; first in World War II and then by keeping his work at home. John was absolutely committed to employing his neighbors. For 42 years, John fed 300 families a year. John wasn’t touchy-feelie and fuzzy and he wasn’t perfect. Heroes never are but he didn’t run a sweatshop.

All employees complain and sadly, we were no exception. But we always had a paycheck; 9 days of paid holidays, two weeks of vacation and a turkey at Christmas. He let me take time off whenever I needed; my son is disabled and needed to go to doctors a lot. John let me take a 2 hour lunch every Wednesday so I could read stories to the kids in my son’s class; help out the teacher and that sort of thing. He knew that kids need this even though he never had any of his own.

In factories, things get slow sometimes and people get laid off but not at John’s factory. Rather, he asked for volunteers. Anyone who needed to work had a job and spent their time cleaning, painting or organizing the warehouse. Nobody complained then. How could anyone complain when the production manager was pressing sleeves and mopping floors in suit and high heels?

I loved John. I still miss him terribly. John was my mentor and my hero. He was a hero for all of us. Who can take his place?

Employ your neighbors and keep your work at home.
Teach your children and your neighbor’s children.
Keep the knowledge and skills alive….

John taught me more in 3 years than I’d learned in the preceding 15. He invested a lot of time in my education when he didn’t have much time left. He was sick and didn’t want to die. The best thing he taught me was passion and commitment to my work.

What I preach is not a joke. It’s not quaint. It’s not funny. It’s not fantasy and it’s not a myth. This is REAL. This is my life and I never want to share something so personal again. It was very hard to write this because…I was a welfare mother who couldn’t get a job. With a disabled child, no one would hire me. Other than my son, I had two things; my pattern making tools and a paper sack of donated clothing; I’d lost everything else. We lived in a battered women’s shelter with no family and no friends. John gave me more than a job. He gave me hope, integrity and self-respect.

So when I say, “employ your neighbor…gets her off welfare… Before you know it, she’s bought a home, paying taxes and meeting with her child’s teacher…”, I’m talking about myself. Would you have hired me? If John had not hired me, you would not be reading this today…or any day.

The guilt I live with -stupid I know but it pains me- is that when he was alive, I never thanked him for the Christmas turkey. He didn’t have to do that. Many employees criticized him rather than thanked him. “Sweatshop” was one of the words thrown around, stupidly, carelessly. We were so ignorant and thankless. Ingrates, all of us, I despise the person I was for what I failed to do and I still miss him. I’d work for a “sweatshop” owner like him, any day. Since he died, I don’t throw that word around anymore, maybe you shouldn’t either.

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  1. Carol says:

    A beautiful and moving tribute, Kathleen.

    Twenty years ago when we first moved to Denver, I was exploring downtown Sakura Square. Tucked quietly under a flowering tree there was a bronze bust simply labeled “Ralph Carr” of a largish white guy. Seems strange in this Japanese enclave. The library didn’t have a bio, but I was able to dig out some information.

    He was governor of Colorado when WWII started. He couldn’t keep the feds from interning West-coast Japanese here, but successfully fought any who lived in his jurisdiction from being swept in. He went to great lengths to convince powers-that-be here and in neighboring states that they should encourage immigration by these people to work the sugar-beet fields. This sounds more exploitive than sweatshops but would have diverted paranoia and given innocent people the honor of a living wage in better housing than the camps.

    Like John Sullivan, people of his time had a different perspective of who he was. He was being groomed for the presidency before the war, but this destroyed him politically. He did it anyway, though his health broke down and a fatal heart attack caught him comparatively young.

    Googling just now has given a fuller story. It’s gratifying that the Sakura Square bust has had an attribution added.

    Great examples come out of times of great stress. We don’t have to go back fifty years; we live in them now. Daily decisions based on our personal ethics can, and do, make a difference.

  2. Very nice!
    It grates on me every time I hear about sewing industry “sweatshops” in the news, whether in the ghettos or the third world. Many times, the opportunities that sewing factories provide to desperate people are the only opportunities they’ll ever have to get ahead. The workers could not care less about the hardships and “abuses”, which only seem so from the perspective of our comfortable, air-conditioned, well-fed Western excess.
    No doubt, John’s satisfaction came from the giving of the turkey, not the getting of your thanks. Let it go, and know that your passing along his lessons today is better testament to him than any tokens of appreciation you might have thrown his way then.

  3. Robert Welton says:

    Great comments on Kathleen’s story.
    The members of many corporations’ diverity councils would do well to read them all.
    Unfortunately, the media seems to carelessly use the term “sweatshop” synonymously with any sewing factory setting regardless of its environmental attributes.
    I have only sat in front of my mother’s old black head Singer so I have no idea what a real sweatshop is like except for the media portrayals associated with Kathy Lee Griffin.
    Hopefully, these are few and far between.

  4. Josh says:

    Nice story Kathleen. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with my employers. But in the end I realize that they are just trying to get the work out so that we have a job.

  5. Gigi says:

    What a moving story, Kathleen. You know, I never knew how generous some of my past employers were until I became self-employed. That’s just the way it is. We learn and move on.

  6. Carol says:

    Yesterday I met with a woman to work up designs/patterns for a company successfully established several years ago on Andros in the Bahamas. They received an award from their government on being the business doing the most for their local people.

    They are interested in hosting me coming down to meet their staff and tour their facility.

    As we were visiting while working, their method of pay came up, and with a visible hesitation she said they paid by piece work. My response was that when I had employees, we started them hourly (somewhat above minimum wage) and as soon as they demonstrated quality work and dependability, switched them to piece work because they could make considerably more money.

    Unfairly being labeled a sweatshop employer is obviously an ongoing hassle for them.

  7. Rocio says:


    This is one of those stories that I’ll never forget… I’ve been battling a pretty bad case of bronquitins for almost a month, and at a time when the business is expanding so rapidly and we are getting ready to move to a new location, I really needed something to keep me going for the next couple of weeks :-)

    John sounds like an incredible person, and wherever he might be now I’m sure he’s proud of you and the way you have kept his legacy and teachings alive

    We don’t always fully appreciate someone until they are gone… but I think he probably got a lot of satisfaction out of doing anything that was in his power to keep the employees happy.

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  9. I found this by clicking on your weight-loss story from your post of August 1 about plus-size clothing manufacture, and I’m glad I did. Thank you for sharing a personal story of hope and gratitude–it brought tears to my eyes and motivation to my soul.

  10. Sfouche says:

    Thank you so much for putting this back up Kathleen. I didn’t know about you in 2005 sadly, but am constantly reminded of how glad I am that I know you now as evidenced by this post.

  11. Reader says:

    Very interesting. One small point: If he was born in 1938, he was born in Germany, not East Germany. Germany was not divided until after the end of WWII.

  12. Kathleen says:

    He wasn’t born in ’38, his family fled then. Actually it was probably closer to ’36 but I didn’t know the exact date when I wrote this. And yes, I’m familiar with the division (lived there until the age of 16). Perhaps better stated as what was then East Germany. That it was east Germany matters in another story I have of him, not yet (or ever?) told on this site.

  13. Jen Rocket says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. I have worked in a similar situation and may have thrown that word around once, but it immediately felt wrong. Our leader was also kind and caring more than most, he kept everyone busy when work thinned out, and took the time for special events. His work ethic was stronger than most of the people working along with him, and that meant a lot to me too. I know that thousands of people out there experience joy from his creations every day, but will most likely never know who he is. I do and I will never forget.

    On a second note, I also believe in keeping the sewing HERE I can’t ever see myself sending my sewing over seas, I will look in my city first. And I have no qualms with training someone, in fact I like what Carol hinted on, that if you let people get used to the work first, then you can ease them into a more fair pay rate, I wish more people did that.

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