When a company closes, its employees usually scatter to the wind, finding new work and friendships elsewhere.
But for a group of former Campbell Soup Co. employees who worked at the Modesto plant, the end of their jobs was just the beginning of their friendships.
The group has been meeting once a month since the plant closed in 1996. They call themselves the Campbell Soup Brunch Bunch, and they've been gathering year after year to share stories and catch up on their lives.
"We just thought we'd do it for awhile," said organizer Dorothy Howell, 86. "You never know how many people will actually come. But it's wonderful that people want to keep in touch."
This week, the group marked the 14th anniversary of the plant's closure Aug. 22, 1996, with cake, old photos and assorted Campbell
"People who worked other places are always saying, 'You know, I worked there all those years and I don't know where (my old co-workers) are anymore," said Edna Wallace, 66, one of the regulars. "But people who worked at Campbell, they always say that this place was like family."
The group was started several years before the plant closed as an occasional birthday club for employees. The friends would meet at Denny's. But after the plant shut down, they made the meetings monthly and moved to Coco's near Vintage Faire Mall.
When Coco's was torn down to make way for the Elephant Bar, the bunch moved to the Old Mill Cafe on Ninth Street, where they still meet.
The brunch bunch gets together every third Thursday of the month. Anywhere from 25 to 40 people show up each time. At every meeting, each person gives a short update on what is new in his or her life.
Many bring photo albums, some from back in their plant days but also of recent vacations and grandkids.
The group started as all women, but men joined several years ago. Members range in age from 59 for the youngest to 93 for the oldest. Most worked at the plant for decades and almost all now are retired.
They labored in several departments -- production, maintenance, human resources, management -- yet when they get together, they're just friends catching up. Even two women who worked as federal Agriculture Department inspectors, the people who watched over those who worked at the plant, come each month.
Some, such as Don Cronan, had been working at the plant even before Campbell took over. The Modesto man started in 1944 and retired after more than 40 years with the plant in 1985.
He said he comes to the breakfasts because "I like girls," but got serious and said the group is a support system. Cronan often brings old newsletters and other keepsakes from his time working for Campbell.
Also among the group is 71-year-old Annie Tillmon. When she started at the plant in 1963, she was one of the first two black workers hired. She stayed with the company for 30 years before retiring, as did her husband, who went to work there a year after she did.
"They took me right in, and I didn't ever have no problems there," Tillmon said.
The youngster of the bunch, 59-year-old Kenny Ayers, started with the company in 1969 and left in 1992. His last job there was in maintenance, then he left for another company. He worked other places for more pay, but he said he considers the Campbell plant his home.
"When I started there, I was 18," he said. "These are my people. I grew up with them. Nowadays in most plants, you are just a number, but people really cared about each other there."
They said the plant often celebrated birthdays and special occasions in its cafeteria. Potlucks and social gatherings were the norm.
They remember the day the plant closed -- how there was sadness and anger. Old pictures of former plant manager Bob Horn, who died in 2004, are brought out. He stood outside the plant, with tears in his eyes, and shook everyone's hand the last day it was open.
"Everyone cried that last day," Wallace said.
That closeness still comes through. At the meetings, the friends pass around more than a dozen cards to sign. They're a mix of birthday, get well and condolence cards. Howell keeps careful records of everyone in the group. She carries around a three-ring binder stuffed 4 inches thick with names, phone numbers, important dates and newspaper clippings.
Howell calls everyone on her list the Monday before each meeting. She also picks up the cards and goes to the post office, sometimes with help from friend and fellow former co-worker Norma Richardson. In all the years the group has been coming together, Richardson has had to sub for Howell only three times, when illness prevented her from making the rounds.
She even has special envelope labels printed with the name "Campbell Soup Brunch Bunch" on them.
"It's not a chore," Howell said, "it's a privilege."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.