By Ray Balogh
SYRACUSE — Rodney Mast and Cal Ripken Jr. have something in common: spending productive careers loyally playing for the same team.
Hall of Famer Ripken played 21 seasons for the Baltimore Orioles. Mast’s career with Rinker Boat Co. in Syracuse ran a decade and a half longer.
Saturday, Aug. 1, saw him shut off the lights of the now abandoned manufacturing complex on Chicago Street for the last time.
“The place has been closed for three weeks,” Mast said. “We’re just cleaning up the facility. They asked me to stay until the very end and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Mast started with the boat manufacturer, once the fourth largest in the world, in 1985.
He was 14 and spent his first couple years pushing a broom and driving a forklift. He graduated into a position manufacturing cabinets and helped load boats onto semitrailers for shipment.
He chronicled his climb up the ladder in the company. “I became supervisor of the cabinet shop and then supervisor of the wood shop. In 1995, I became the plant manager while also being the engineering manager. I wore a lot of hats. We were lean and mean.”
Mast retired as engineering research and development manager, a position he held for many years.
During his 35-year tenure with the company, Mast saw quite a few changes. “We probably had 75 to 80 employees when I started and I’ve been there when we had almost 500 employees. I’ve probably seen the whole county come and go through here.
“I’ve been here through many building add-ons and improvements. We put pools in the building for testing boats, so we wouldn’t have to take them down to the lake.”
His most gratifying contribution to Rinker was installing and operating computer-aided manufacturing and computer-aided design programs, which he estimated “increased efficiency 100% easy.”
Mast attended IPFW for a year to learn the programs, attending as a full-time student from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. two days a week while maintaining his job at Rinker. “I went to college to do exactly what John Rinker offered me.”
But it was the people who tethered him to the place for a third of a century. “Probably the main reason I stayed was this was my work family. I could have done CAD for any company. But I worked with dedicated people who would do anything for you.”
The plant’s closing was announced April 13. “Some people lost their jobs that day,” said Mast. “My heart goes out to the employees we didn’t get to say a heartfelt goodbye to. The long-term Rinker employees need to be noticed for their dedication. We had a lot of 20- and 30-year veterans. If not for those people, Rinker would not have been Rinker.
“The biggest asset of a business is its people and I came to realize as a younger member when a business loses sight of that, it gets into trouble.”
Mast had nothing but kudos for former owner John Rinker. “One memory I have about him is he was such a humble guy. He was a multimillionaire and drove a scooter to work. It was very easy to work for someone as humble as John.”
Mast and Sonia, his wife of 27 years, have three children. Their 17-year-old son, Silas, is a junior at Warsaw High School. Daughter Bianca, 14, is a home-schooled eighth grader. “We have a daughter, Macy, who is in heaven. We had her home for a week and she passed away in her sleep. That helped me see what is important in life.”
That epiphany carried over into his career. “I realized I was working for God and not for people and that changed my whole perspective,” he said, quoting Mark Twain, “‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’
“I told God, ‘I’m going to give it my best shot.’ The bigger story is more than just our job.”
Mast was approached by six other companies and signed on to one of those corporate suitors a week before his job at Rinker ended.