BLOOMINGTON, Ill. | Ron Thacker only worked at Bloomington's UNARCO plant for a couple of years as a young man in the early 1950s, but it left an indelible imprint on his life — and his lungs.
Thacker, now 77, is among more than 100 workers who contracted asbestosis, an incurable lung disease, from the asbestos used at the factory to make insulation for such things as pipes and boilers.
"I used to grind this stuff with a grinder," he said, adding the company knew asbestos was deadly, but that fact was never revealed to workers. "Every year we had to go in for a chest X-ray," he said. "I thought they had our good in mind."
Instead, the company used the X-rays to determine whether workers had the beginning stages of asbestosis. If the X-ray revealed a spot on the lungs, the company "would find a reason to let you go," said Thacker, who is working with others on a new exhibit at the McLean County Museum of History detailing UNARCO's history in Bloomington, and the long-reaching effects of asbestos.
The company, first known as the Union Asbestos & Rubber Co, relocated from Cicero to Bloomington in 1951. UNARCO was purchased by Owens-Corning in 1970, and the plant closed two years later. UNARCO filed for bankruptcy in 1982 and the plant, at 1111 W. Perry St., was razed in 1991.
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed over the years by victims and survivors of workers exposed when they worked at the plant; in almost every case, juries sided with the victims, finding that workers were not warned of the dangers of asbestos when they worked at the factory. Jury awards totaled in the tens of millions of dollars.
While Thacker didn't see any effects of the disease until 2007, when he was hospitalized for what was thought to be pneumonia but actually was asbestosis. His brother, Leslie, who worked at the plant for eight years, died from an advanced form of the disease in 1981 at age 49. Their father, Charles Thacker, who also worked at the plant for several years, died of the disease at 71 in 1977, said Ron Thacker.
"Do I sound angry? You bet. I can't stand somebody doing something shady," said Thacker, who became a minister, most recently at Danvers Baptist Church.
Mike Matejka, director of government affairs for Great Plains Laborers District Council, is guest curator for the exhibit, A Deadly Deception: The Asbestos Tragedy in McLean County, scheduled to open in 2015. He's been working on the project for three years.
One component of the exhibit will be a memorial to people who died after exposure to the asbestos used at the plant — either those who worked there, family members exposed when plant workers came home with the asbestos fibers on their clothing, or workers who used products made at the plant, said Susan Hartzold, the museum's curator.
"We don't want just a list of names," said Hartzold. "These are people. They died because the company thought of the bottom line."
Hartzold wants to make 8-by-10 collages of each person and create collage books to include in the exhibit. "We have 104 people on the list," she said. "But I'm sure there are hundreds more."
The exhibit also will include a history of asbestos; information about the extensive list of products that contained the material; a history of UNARCO; information about the lawsuits filed by victims and/or their families; and a look at the process to remove asbestos.
"It's a catastrophe that didn't happen just one day; there have been multiple slow deaths over decades of intensive suffering," said Matejka. "This exhibit is important to remind ourselves to honor the workers and families; to look at the larger social questions to ask what's still going on out there now with the emerging technology."
Thacker believes his strong faith in God is why he's still around, saying, "He had another plan for me."
Thacker was in and out of the hospital several times in 2007 and saw his condition worsen — much like what happened to his brother. On the 12th day of his last hospital stay that year, he said a prayer: "I said, 'Lord, I'm not scared of dying but if you stop this, I'll tell everyone who did it.'"
Thacker was not hospitalized again until recently, but he's back on his feet.