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Women’s History: Audrey Roberts

Women’s History: Audrey Roberts
By MARY JEAN HALL
Special to the Press
Audrey Roberts came to Weakley County for her job, but she stayed for the community.
Roberts, a Delaware native, transferred to Martin in 1969 to work as an executive for Martin Manufacturing. She came when the plant brought the administrative offices from Philadelphia, Pa. to Weakley County.
“I’m not a city girl,” Roberts said. “I grew up in a small town like Martin is. It was a different world than Martin is, but Martin is growing into that over the years… I’m watching it grow.”
Martin Manufacturing was primarily a shirt manufacturer for the military. The plant manufactured anywhere from 500,000 to one million garments each year, depending on what was happening at that time. Roberts noted that the entire company made probably 13 billion garments at that time.
“It was in large quantities, whatever we did,” Roberts said. “We were lucky enough to be the low bidder on those easy contracts.”
Martin Manufacturing made the issue garments for many branches of military service, including the jumpers for the young sailors in the Navy.
Roberts’ role came as an unusual one for that time period. She was a female who served as the president of the company for a few years before her retirement. In that role, she secured the government contracts for the manufacturing plant and obtained materials to make the garments.
“I was always fortunate that the industry and my male counterparts gave me respect so I worked with them as an equal,” Roberts said. “Working in basically a man’s world didn’t bother me in the least. I was very fortunate that I was accepted.”
Roberts offers encouragement for other females working in leadership roles.
“If you’re working in a man’s world, you’re still a woman and you need to hold yourself up so they’ll respect you as that,” Roberts said. “You have to work as an equal, and that’s what I did.”
The company has been closed for about three years, but employed about 600 people during its time. The average employment was around 250-300 people.
“The people who worked at the plant, they were wonderful people.”
Roberts noted that the company closed from outsourcing since all of the uniforms are now made overseas, including postal service and airport employees’ uniforms.
“That would keep a lot of manufactures busy in this country, but all their uniforms are made offshore,” Roberts said. “It’s something most of us don’t think about.”
“We were trying our hardest to keep the manufacturing inside the country. It didn’t work, but we tried. I feel so bad that the plant decided to close and take it all offshore. I hate that. It’s a sad moment for all of us within the community.”
Roberts encourages her children and others to read labels and look where it’s made.
“If there’s ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ and if it’s at all possible and within a reasonable price, buy it,” Roberts said. “Don’t buy what’s made offshore. You’re setting a principle- We need to support our own country and we need to do it now. All of us can make a difference in our own way by standing up for what we believe in and setting an example. “
Roberts noted that when she first came to this area in the 1960’s, she believed that there was a sewing plant or shoe manufacturing plant in almost every small town, to make garments or shoes, and sometimes both. She also remembers that Union City made some of the first stone-washed jeans, in an old diaper washing company. The company perfected the process and made upwards of 50,000 pairs of jeans a day.
“The whole area is really interesting if you ever get a chance to go back and look at the things that have happened here,” Roberts said.
Roberts raised her five children in Weakley County and noted that it was very similar to where she came from. She grew up in little town with about 10,000 people and it was a residential area.
“It was a small town where you knew everybody, and that’s what I enjoy about Martin,” Roberts said. “The people who have worked with the university have brought growth into the town of Martin.”
She said that local industry, such as with MTD, has brought growth into Martin. She said that Martin Manufacturing offered scholarships and allowed employees to do certain projects to help the community.
“That’s all part of it,” Roberts said. “With a small town, you actually become a part of it and you want to see it grow.”
Despite retiring in 2002, Roberts keeps busy by giving back to the community.
“It was the people in the university putting out their hands to make us feel welcome and settle in the area,” Roberts said. “I always felt like I had to giveback to them to thank them for what they did.”
To do that she has served on lots of committees for the university, and her children and grandchildren have attended UT Martin.
Roberts served on the American Apparel Manufacturers Association Board during her 20 years or so with Martin Manufacturing.  She retired from it when she retired from the factory. Currently she serves on the WLJT Board of Directors, Martin Beautiful committee and the Federal board for the Federal Prison Industry.
“You do what you can to help the community grow and see it prosper,” Roberts said.
“It’s a responsibility to make that industry or make that organization to grow… use your expertise to make it improve itself.”
“I’ve lived a very busy life, a very lucky life, and I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished over the years.”

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