ATCO worker sets record, and he still has that smile|[11/14/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 14, 2005

Kelly Jelks has had the same genuine smile on his face for nearly half a century. He’s happy to go to work, and everyone knows it.

Jelks, 69, has been working at Anderson-Tully Lumber Company in Vicksburg for 50 years. On Friday, he will become the first employee to be honored for a half-century of service in the history of the business.

Anderson-Tully Lumber Company was founded as a family business in Memphis in 1889. Vicksburg became the center of operations 10 years later. Today, the company is one of the largest hardwood producers in the United States, owning and managing vast tracts of trees in many states.

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Sale of the firm to a management group, The Forestland Group LLC, a larger timber company, was announced Oct. 5 and is moving through the regulatory process, but is not expected to change operations here.

Vicksburg facilities are two sawmills, 24 dry kilns, a veneer mill, a planer mill and a four-position inspection and sorting area.

&#8220We have about 350 total employees, and I think about 30 will be recognized for 25, 30 and 35 years this year, but he’s the first one to make it to 50,” said Kamace Priest, safety supervisor. &#8220He’s an icon around here.”

Ask pretty much anyone who works at ATCO, and they’ll agree.

&#8220Just about everyone knows him, but not too many people know him off the job because he’s always here,” said Bob Conrad, green lumber supervisor and Jelks’ boss.

Jelks has done a little bit of everything throughout the years, and now he’s the coordinator for the kiln department, working 12- to 15-hour days overseeing the precise process of properly drying hardwood for finishing.

Jelks is modest about his job.

&#8220I come to work and ride around in the mornings to see what they did the night before. Then I ride around to see what needs to be done the next day. If I can do something to make the next day easier, I’ll do it,” he said.

The Edwards native went to work at ATCO in 1955, and he said the key to working at the same place for 50 years is simple – just enjoy what you’re doing.

&#8220I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said. &#8220The older you get, the better you understand. It’s the people and the job that I love. And if you can come to work and put food on the table for your kids, that’s a plus.”

Jelks has done more than put food on the table for his kids. He’s sent them all to college at Jackson State University. His wife even went back to get a master’s degree.

&#8220We make it,” he said.

He’s a good man, a dedicated worker and a hard boss, said Ruthel Martin, a forklift driver.

&#8220He’s all right. He’ll always do whatever he can to help. Sometimes he can get under your skin, but you know how it gets when you get that age. He can kind of get in the way sometimes,” Martin said as he laughed.

But age hasn’t slowed Jelks a bit, said Conrad.

&#8220He hasn’t said anything about retiring, and we don’t ask. I told him years ago that he couldn’t retire until I did, and I’ve still got a good couple more years,” he said.

&#8220I’d like to have 100 more Kellys, but a little younger,” Conrad said.

His value to the company and to its employees is indescribable, said Tommy Carpenter, yard supervisor over shipping and inventory.

&#8220He’s got so much experience and knowledge. We’re scared to death of the day he says he’s out of here,” Carpenter said.

And he can’t be replaced, Conrad said.

&#8220We won’t replace him – at least not with one person. He knows too much. We’d have to change our whole method of work,” he said.

But replacing him shouldn’t be a worry any time soon, Jelks assured.

&#8220I haven’t even really thought about it. I’m still here and I still love it,” he said.