Finishing the Story

Each May in Indiana, they hold an auto race, after which the stewards present one of the most recognized and coveted prizes in the world of sports, the BorgWarner Trophy, for more than 70 years a symbol not only of racing excellence but also Midwest American industrial achievement.

At the end of the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race on Memorial Day weekend 2010 and in years hence, the victors still will get their pictures taken with the famous urn and its checkered flag pattern of each winner's likeness immortalized in bas-relief. But no longer will the trophy hold any connection to the Hoosier community from which half—Warner Gear—of the now global manufacturing giant sprang at the turn of the 20th century.

BorgWarner finally closed its Muncie, Indiana, plant in April 2009, eliminating the last 200 or so jobs in a million-square-foot factory that once upon a time employed close to 6,000, making parts for World War II jeeps, Chevrolet Corvettes, and Ford F-150 pickups. Meanwhile, just 60 miles away in the world capital of speed, all of the engines used in the classic 500-mile race now are made by Honda.

Changing Gears, therefore, seems a particularly adroit title for the immersive learning project co-led by James Connolly, history professor and director of the Center for Middletown Studies, and Rodger Smith, theatre professor and director of the Institute for Digital Entertainment and Education (IDEE). With support from a provost's immersion grant, the pair enlisted more than a dozen students throughout academic year 2009-10 in an effort to tell "the other half" of the BorgWarner story in Muncie.

"The original Middletown study was organized to look at the impact of industrialization and how it changed the way people lived," says Connolly, referencing the landmark sociological research conducted in Muncie by Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd in the mid-1920s to late '30s. "We have to be just as interested in the other half of that story, in what happens at the end of all that industrial activity. BorgWarner built a big part of Muncie. Without it, what's this community going to be and what does that mean for the rest of Indiana and the country?"

Archives, Artifacts and Leading-Edge Technology

The questions Connolly poses are especially resonant with Lora Posey, '10, a history major from Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Her father works as a CNC programmer in an auto plant. In times when two of the Big Three automakers have filed for bankruptcy protection, the accounts and perspectives of former BorgWarner employees about the withering of American manufacturing strike close to home.

WarnerGear building and workersInitially drawn to the project by the opportunity to work hands-on with assorted primary source material, an archiving specialty she hopes to pursue in graduate school, Posey says the experience was "unlike anything I've done before at Ball State" and sparked in her a newfound appreciation for the sacrifices and achievements of earlier generations—even if it did little to ease her uncertainty about the immediate economic crisis.

Using the technology available in the Helen B. and Martin D. Schwartz Special Collections and Digital Complex, Posey and her classmates accreted scattered records and artifacts documenting the shared history of BorgWarner and Muncie—down to line and box scores for company as well as union bowling and softball leagues, which were immensely popular and a focus of social recreation in the postwar, baby boom years. The team also accessed archival news footage from regional media that covered the occasional labor dispute at the sprawling factory and conducted interviews with dozens of former employees, some who worked the line for 40 years or more. Fathers and sons could hold the same job for generations.

"It gave me a glimpse into the lives of these people," reflects Posey. "Factory conditions. Pay conditions. Living conditions. What cars they bought. What movies they watched. Where their kids went to school…

"I don't think industry here will ever be what it was. That's something hard for people like my dad. But we have to adapt. My generation already is starting."

Muncie's Tale

Inside the downtown Muncie offices of Ball State's Digital Exchange Initiative, more than a century's worth of material about the hometown BorgWarner plant is stitched together electronically under the deft hand of Keith Jackson, '11, a telecommunications major from Fishers, Indiana, and watchful eye of Justin Jones, the project's writer and director. What once were decades-old documents, photographs, home movies, newspaper clippings, store ads, yearbooks, scrapbooks, picnic flyers and meeting notices mingle together on the flat glass screens, gradually falling into place alongside other components of the documentary, interview footage, soundtrack, computer generated animation and graphics.

Jackson has no connection to the famous American sportscaster of the same name ("My father is British and wouldn't know who he is," he reports), but does have an eerily coincidental one to The Greatest Spectacle in Racing; his father builds race cars, including the million-dollar machines that duel at Indy, and his sister just took a job with Andretti Green Racing, one of the Indy Racing League's top teams.

In 2008-09, Jackson worked as a boom operator and did some sound mixing during the filming of My Name is Jerry, earning his opportunity to move up to video editor on Changing Gears. With the skills and experience he's built at Ball State, he's cautiously optimistic about his prospects after graduation but expects his future employment track to follow a similar pattern of moving job to job, freelancing on projects of particular opportunity or interest—a far cry from the expectations of the former BorgWarner employees speaking to him every day from the glass screens.

"These days, it's unrealistic to think of staying in the same job or with the same company for 25 years," says Jackson. "That way of life is ending. Mine is just beginning. I mean, my work didn't even exist a few years ago."

The collective hope of all the collaborators is a documentary that tells the human story of BorgWarner's decline and closure, adding Muncie's tale to the increasingly popular and relevant genre of what Connolly calls "industrial decline as film."

However, unlike HBO's critically acclaimed The Last Truck, which covered GM's shuttering of its longtime Moraine, Ohio, truck assembly plant, idling 2,700 workers two days before Christmas 2008, Changing Gears ends on a decidedly more positive note, reporting on the arrival of Brevini Wind. The international heavy equipment maker has opened a new factory in Delaware County and soon expects to employ as many as 450 people making gearboxes for industrial scale wind turbines, part of the coming "green" energy economy.

Related Links:

Center for Media Design

Center for Middletwon Studies

College of Communication, Information, and Media

College of Sciences and Humanities

Department of Telecommunications

Department of History

Immersive Learning

Institute for Digital Entertainment & Education

 

"The significance here is that this particular plant in this particular town was 'the last man standing.' The Warner brothers were here in Muncie. The company developed in Muncie. It wasn’t the only automotive plant in Muncie, but with its doors closing you could hear an age ending, a way of life for a certain type of worker who had greatly benefited from the successes of an age like no other that the common man has known."

—Rodger Smith, director of the Institute for Digital Entertainment and Education (IDEE)