Tuesday, September 14, 2010
By Nancy Wenger
Mike Ryterski, 90, remembers that farming was filled with challenges and hard work. But there were some perks. "When I was 12, I rode a big sorrel horse five miles to St. Mary Magdalen School, and I used to out run all the Model Ts." he says with a laugh.
His formal schooling ended after completing seventh grade, when he worked the family farm near Pinckneyville, Ill. Then, at age 20, he moved to St. Louis to meet the challenges of work in the big city.
Ryterski found work in an industry that develops specialized lubricants for machinery used in diverse industries, such as mining, automotive racing and farming. From 1940 to the present, his career has endured 70 years - and he continues to work three days a week. After moving to St. Louis, Mike lived at a rooming house near the plant. After he married, he and his family continued to live near the plant, too.
"He does our research and development. Mike works in the heat in the grease department where the temperature gets to be 120 degrees," said John Shields of Schaeffer Manufacturing. Located near Soulard, it's the oldest family-run company in Missouri and one of the oldest in the country.
Through trial and error, Ryterski developed solutions that cannot be duplicated, or equaled, by other leading companies, Shields said.
"I formulated all the greases and oils and have constantly worked on making improvements," Ryterski said. Because of his skills and dedication, Schaeffer Manufacturing created a lifetime achievement award in his honor. Recently, the company nominated him for the Energizer (Battery) "Keep Going Contest," Shields said. Ryterski was one of 100 semi-finalists in the contest that drew 1,200 entrants. He also was recognized on Sept. 10 as St. Louis city's oldest worker in the Missouri Older Worker of the Year contest, sponsored by MERS/Goodwill.
After such a long work history with one company, Ryterski said he feels "like family." Undoubtedly, Schaeffer Manufacturing feels the same way about him, too. Talk about loyalty.
Mike Ryterski, 90, has been working at Schaeffer Manufacturing Co. in south St. Louis for longer than many people have been alive. Celebrating his 70th year of working there, the master grease maker has been selected as the St. Louis region's oldest worker in the 20th annual Missouri Older Worker of the Year contest sponsored by MERS/Goodwill.
Ryterski hired nearly everybody at the plant, including his boss, Rich Niedbalski, in 1984 and his boss' father, Thomas, in the early 1960s.
He "retired" as a vice president in 1990 but continues to work three or four days a week, imparting his decades of knowledge about engine oil and equipment lubricants, offering life lessons and helping the plant grow from three employees to 29 today. Schaeffer Manufacturing also has 60 office workers and another 400 sales reps nationwide.
Niedbalski said he often goes to Ryterski to bounce ideas off him. "I want to zap every bit of knowledge I can from him," he said.
Ryterski is the only resident of St. Louis Altenheim, a senior community not far from the plant, who still has a job.
"I've worked here for 21 years and he's the only person who has gone to work on a regular basis," said Kathy Clark, Altenheim's administrator. "I think a lot of older people lose contact with the community because they withdraw but here is a really good example of a person who has continued to contribute."
After his wife, Barbara, died about a decade ago, Ryterski said he didn't want to stay home. "Some people think I'm crazy for working," he said. "But I'm healthy and I get exercise running all over the plant. There are people who walk with walkers and are younger than I am."
Born in 1920, Ryterski grew up on his family's farm in Tamaroa in rural Illinois. He helped his father grow beans, wheat and corn, raise cattle, and milk cows. He quit school at 14 and started raising horses to help his dad pay off the farm. He started working for Schaeffer in 1940 making candles and medical soaps for the Army. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II for two years and then came back to the plant. The wider availability of electricity forced the plant to switch to lubricants and greases for equipment and trucking. Ryterski developed a gear grease formula used on draglines, shovels and mills for the mining and steel industries that, today, is sold by major oil companies.
As the head of research and development, Ryterski does not have a desk or an office, instead working on his feet, creating and mixing batches of lubricants. Recently, he was selected as one of 100 semifinalists considered as a 2010 inductee for the Energizer Keep Going Hall of Fame.
Founded in 1839, Schaeffer began business as a producer of soap, candles, engine oil for steamboats and axle grease for Conestoga wagons. Today, Schaeffer manufactures specialized synthetic oils, fuel additives and other products for the construction, trucking, agriculture, marine, mining and high-performance racing industries.