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RCA retirees find their old workplace changed - from shabby to sleek

Martin Watson stood in the sleek lobby of the Victor Lofts and marveled at what RCA Building 17 in Camden has become.

Martin Watson stood in the sleek lobby of the Victor Lofts and marveled at what RCA Building 17 in Camden has become.

"When I worked here, it was nothing like this," the Cinnaminson resident, 76, said. "Back then it was pretty shabby."

Watson was among about 90 Radio Corp. of America retirees who returned Monday to a place where they had spent much, if not all, of their working lives - back when the blue-collar city offered tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Camden and the downtown waterfront neighborhood RCA once dominated have changed almost beyond recognition.

But a far different economy and corporate culture came back to life inside Victor's Pub as former coworkers swapped stories. A presentation about Building 17's history, and a tour, followed.

"I started in this building in 1953 as a billing machine operator," said Jackie Harrington, 80, of Westmont. "Pay grade: Zero. I made $38 a week."

"I started as a secretary in 1960 for $60 a week," added her friend Barbara Dombrowski, 76, of Woodbury.

The gathering was part reunion, part celebration: Building 17, affectionately known as the Nipper building, is 100 years old this year.

Historian and author Frederick O. Barnum III and the RCA Lunch Club, a retiree social group, were the organizers. Several attendees told me that they had not been inside their former workplace since retiring decades ago.

"The building is the last living remnant of the birthplace of recorded sound," said Barnum, who wrote 'His Master's Voice' in America. This meticulously researched history of RCA, as well as its predecessor and successor companies, was published in 1991.

A Cherry Hill resident who is business development manager for successor company L3 Communications, Barnum noted that RCA at its peak employed thousands of people in its 31 Camden buildings.

"It's pretty amazing to be able to enrich the lives of these retirees by keeping them connected to their roots," adds Barnum, 59. "What better way to do that than to bring them back here?"

One of only three former RCA buildings still standing - the city school district headquarters and the proposed Radio Lofts condominiums are the others - Nipper was left vacant two years after General Electric bought RCA in 1991.

The block-long landmark stayed empty for nearly a decade until Philadelphia developer Carl Dranoff transformed it into Victor Lofts. The $55 million, 341-unit apartment complex opened in 2003.

"If I tell you how I feel, I'll cry," said Harry DeSeveria, an 80-year-old resident of Edgewater Park, as old friends stopped by his table.

"I loved RCA," he said. "I worked here for 43 years. I started as a messenger when I was 19, and I retired in 1996. I haven't looked back."

DeSeveria, Watson, Harrington, Dombrowski, and several other retirees I interviewed all said they were able to build careers despite being hired without college degrees.

"I came up the hard way. I was a mustang," said Martin. Fresh out of Father Judge High School in Philly, he got a job as a messenger and retired as a program manager 42 years later.

"I was a mustang," said Peter Carides, 86, of Cinnaminson; he rose from tester to technician, then went to school at night and became an electrical engineer.

"The business model of RCA was incredible. We believed in our company, and our company believed in us," said Stratford resident Jim Hemschoot.

He works with the RCA Heritage Program at Rowan University, which is conducting interviews with retirees as part of an oral history project.

"That entire business model has been lost," added Hemschoot, an engineer who "went through four [corporate] acquisitions" before his 2009 retirement.

"We were like a family," Watson said.

Chatting with two former colleagues inside Victor's Pub, he added: "We still are."

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