HAMMOND | The Unilever plant in Hammond has had its own Cal Ripken Jr., a reliable workhorse who toughed it out day after day, a guy as sturdy as the 83-year-old factory's brick facade.
Timothy Lockett, the Calumet Region's iron man of soapmaking, clocked in at the bar soap factory at the corner of Calumet Avenue and Indianapolis Boulevard every day for 30 years.
The Hammond native and current Merrillville resident never once called in sick with a cold, the flu or an excuse to sneak off to an afternoon Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Lockett, who's retiring and moving to his wife Mary's home state of Texas, put in three decades of sometimes grueling shift work — including plenty of 16-hour overtime shifts — without ever missing a single day.
Lockett, 58, had perfect attendance for his entire 30-year career at Unilever, said Charlotte Davis, a human resource business partner at the Unilever Hammond plant.
"We are not aware of anyone else at our factory who has achieved the same," she said.
Lockett did go on family vacations. But he punched in whenever he was scheduled to work and never left early. That's so important to the plant's production that the company has given out gift cards to anyone with perfect attendance at the end of the year.
His motivation for showing up every single day was to provide for his family and a wife he loves so much that he can tell you the exact minute he first met her at an Arizona Bible college nearly four decades ago. They had four children together.
"My beautiful wife has been my greatest motivation," he said. "I call her honey, and tell her, 'I've got to go make money for my honey.'"
A colleague said Lockett was inspiring, and not just for his dedication to his family and his job. He's also a minister at the Upper Room Church in Gary, and often dispensed wise words to his colleagues at the soap factory.
"It's a job that can get to you sometimes," said Doreen Soucy, who has worked with Lockett for years. "It can be quite physically and mentally challenging. He'd always tell you not to worry."
Lockett had sayings for trying times. He often told colleagues if they didn't mind, it didn't matter. He encouraged them to be like pine trees when snow falls on the branches, and just let it slide off.
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He always gave co-workers words of inspiration whenever they were aggravated or stressed out, Soucy said. He would seek them out and offer words of consolation when their parents or other family members passed.
"He's wonderful. He's philosophical," she said. "He's kind and patient and inspiring."
Soucy, who teared up when talking about how much she would miss her colleague, said Lockett always helped out other workers, such as if they had a jam in the conveyor system or a stack of paperwork to turn in. He had been one of the five most senior employees at the plant and often was turned to as a source of institutional knowledge.
Lockett, who was one of 14 children raised in Hammond, wanted to land a job at Unilever after he was laid off from the city's Parks Department more than three decades ago. He heard the pay scale and benefits were good and was thinking of how he could best provide for his new family.
Every day for nearly a year, he prayed he would be blessed with a good job and called Unilever's personnel manager to tell him he would be eager to work at the plant, which makes Dove and other Unilever soaps. One morning, the manager called him back and Lockett could hear the smile in his voice. The factory finally had an opening.
Lockett started as a general laborer who did whatever was needed. He mopped floors, unloaded box cars and cleaned up.
Eventually, he worked his way up to being a machine operator so he could earn more pay. He operated a variety of machines, including the automated packaging system that packs soap into the cases.
He looked forward to going to work every day. He wanted his wife to enjoy a good quality of life.
"She's very sweet and understanding and exciting to be with," he said. "She's my soul mate. I was speechless when I first met her, but now I can talk to her without ever being lost for words."
They have found a dream house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms in Texas, where he will retire after he worked his last day at Unilever on Friday. He looks forward to reading, riding bikes and enjoying other fun activities with his wife.
"It's going to take some adjustment, not getting up and going to work," he said.