Several employees said goodbye Thursday to their family away from home as they worked their last day after many years at the SAS factory in Conway.

San Antonio Shoes (SAS) announced in February it would permanently close the plant in Conway, eliminating the 144 jobs. A group led by the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce started work in 1945 to bring International Shoe Company to Conway in order to provide more jobs for residents. Work on the plant was completed in 1947. International planned to hire about 500 workers. International operated the plant about 30 years and then closed. R.G. Barry, another shoe company, operated the plant for five years and then closed. SAS opened 26 years ago. Many employees have been at SAS since it opened, and others have been at the plant since before it was operated by SAS.

Sherry Cates of Vilonia has been at the plant a total of 39 years. She started working there in 1970 when it was International and has been through R.G. Barry and SAS as well. Her parents, Forrest and Jonnie Jobe, worked at the plant as well. She spent a lot of time there as a child, she said.

"When I was 16 and could drive I would come up here and sit on a stool and wait for Mother and Daddy to get of work," she said.

She started as a piece worker at International and worked her way up to a supervisor by 1987 at SAS, she said.

"It's all I've ever known," she said. "It raised my brother and I. It raised my kids and almost the grandkids. It's sad to see it close, but that's just shoe business, I guess. We went through two of them. I don't plan on going back to more shoe factories. We'll just have to see what opportunities come up."

She laughed when she recalled she only took the job at International to work long enough to buy a refrigerator.

"My daddy told me if you ever want to have anything, you don't need to quit. So I didn't quit," she said.

Syndi Appleby of Conway came to International in 1973. She shared in common with Cates that she did not intend to stay long.

"I came because no one in Conway would hire me," she said. "I was 17. I came to work only until I turned 18."

Appleby said, "SAS has been a very good place to work. The other ones were fair, but they didn't compare to SAS. I just stayed because of the people."

The workers are like family to one another, she said.

"I've seen lots of divorces, lots of children, grandchildren..."

"We've seen each other's kids grow up," Cates chimed in.

Appleby continued, "We've been through a lot together and pretty much raised each other. We are definitely family, and it's a very sad day."

Debbie Lasker of Conway said she remembers when her mother babysat for Cates during the International days.

"I was in high school. I remember thinking 'I'm never going to do that,'" she said.

She came to work at R.G. Barry in 1978 right after graduating from high school. She said she and her coworkers have been through bad and good, but the good times outweigh the bad.

"Someone made the comment that (it feels like) our parents are getting divorced and all us kids are going to foster homes," she said. "Because we're family."

Sheila Pennington, plant manager, said of SAS, "They don't mind bringing people up through the factory. Everybody was somebody, just different responsibilities."

She has been at the factory at total of 30 years. She came to work at R.G. Barry right out of high school and was hired at SAS when it reopened the factory. She said a lot of workers who started in the factory were moved into management positions under SAS.

"Not a lot would have the opportunity, with only a high school education, to move into management," she said. "It's not a success story of mine that I came in the back door a kid and ended up a plant manager. That's what SAS was. They wanted to do the family thing because they wanted everyone to realize those piece workers, those hourly workers, were the backbone of the company."

Ken Gayler of Conway formerly worked at a shoe plant in Searcy and came to the Conway plant when it was under R.G. Barry. He said he has been with SAS since day one.

"It's been a good run. Good company. Family-oriented," he said. "The economy got us. It wasn't that we weren't making good shoes. It was the economy. They've given us a lot of opportunities, a lot of chances for a lot of individuals. We've had a lot of good times the last 26 and a half years."

(Staff writer Rachel Parker Dickerson can be reached by e-mail at rachel.dickerson@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1277. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)