“I WAS A mean kid,” admits Don Rojem, 86, a Michigan native and retired member of Local 169 (Detroit). “I just wasn’t cut out for school.”
After being twice kicked out for being a rebellious student, Rojem, at age 12, put formal education permanently behind him and began an adventure that ultimately led him to become a Boilermaker, a job he grew to love and would one day write about in a newfound passion for poetry.
His early life was all about adventure and hard physical labor. He worked on farms and in logging with his father. He rode the rails from state to state in search of work and opportunity. In 1946, at age 16, his mother signed papers for him to become a union seafarer, and he traveled the Great Lakes on coal colliers, from Duluth, Minn., to Buffalo, N.Y., and points in between.
Rojem later did stints as a Laborer, Carpenter and Ironworker before a contractor impressed with his work opened a door to the Boilermakers’ local in Detroit.
“There was no apprenticeship program back then,” Rojem recalls.
Training was all on the job, and he taught himself to weld. But his early life working across multiple industries had served him well, and he picked up skills that made him capable of handling the varied assignments required of a Boilermaker.
Rojem boomed across the country, working on power plants, refineries, steel mills, iron mines and other industrial projects. On many of those travels, his wife, Joyce, traveled with him. They are still married after 61 years.
In 2008, Rojem, at age 78, completed his last job as a Boilermaker and retired with Joyce to their homestead in Alabama. He discovered his poetic calling by chance a few years later, after reading the works of British-Canadian Robert Service, known as “the bard of the Yukon.”
Always good at rhyming, Rojem took two weeks to complete his first poem. Others followed quickly, and he was soon writing about everyday life, boiler making, religion and other topics. He compiled a book of poetry, which he gives out freely to others.
Today Rojem reflects on the many advantages of a Boilermaker career. He is fiercely loyal to the trade and is quick to share his thoughts. His favorite piece of advice: “All you’ve got to sell is your labor, and if you break the company [by being irresponsible], you break yourself. You don’t have a job anymore.”
Rojem applauds the Boilermaker Code, the new MOST program that serves as a guidepost for excellence in the trade. He acknowledges the challenges that Boilermakers face from competition and from harsh environmental regulations like the Clean Power Plan.
“The last thing I want to hear,” he says, “is ‘I came on board too late, the last Boilermaker just went out the gate.’”