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Memorial unveiled to Teesside's man of steel
A MAN of steel was remembered by friends, family and workmates on Monday as a monument was unveiled in his honour. Union spokesman Geoff Waterfield died before his dream restart Teesside Cast Products became a reality. Business Editor, Andy Richardson looks at the legacy of a man who was integral to the survival of steel making in the region.
THE recent history of the Teesside iron and steel industry has combined tragedy with moments of wild celebration.
It was fitting that the memorial to honour union boss Geoff Waterfield was made from two hugely significant slabs of steel that recall the industry's highs and lows. One was the last piece of steel to be manufactured before the former Teesside Cast Products plant shut down, and the other was first to be made after it roared back into action last spring.
Mr Waterfield, as chairman of the multi-union works committee, led a relentless campaign to find a buyer for the plant near Redcar that was mothballed in 2010 after a consortium of international investors pulled out of a contract. More than 1,000 workers lost their jobs and hundreds more people would have been made redundant if the business was not sold.
Mr Waterfield's charisma and tenacity gave hope to the workers he represented and to their families. He won high profile converts such as Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who left a meeting with Mr Waterfield sporting a Save our Steel t-shirt. The union spokesman later led a march through Redcar, which was broadcast around the world, and caught the eye of Win Viriyaprapaikit, the president of Thai company, SSI who went on to buy the works.
Cruelly, in August 2011, Mr Waterfield died of leukemia aged just 43, and failed to see production restart. His untimely death stunned the region.
Last April, Mr Waterfield's 11-year-old son Wills carried on his father's work when he relit the blast furnace as part of an emotionally charged ceremony. At the time, Wills' mother Sheryl Petite said: "I'm sure Geoff is looking down on us today and would be very proud of all of the efforts that people have put in."
It was a day when hardened steel men wept with a mixture of ecstasy and sadness.
About 1,800 people now work at the plant and earlier this month the two millionth tonne of steel made since SSI took over rolled off the production line.
The unveiling of Mr Waterfield's memorial on a patch of grass outside Steel House, Redcar was billed as a celebration of his life and the survival of an industry that began 160 years ago when iron ore was discovered in the Cleveland Hills. The inscription on a plaque beside the sculpture notes that he was "an inspiration to us all."
"This is another emotional day, but a happy one," said Ms Petite.
It had been Mr Waterfield's idea for a monument to be erected that marked the rebirth of an industry he held dear. Wills reckoned his father "would have loved" the sculpture by Northallerton-based artist Lewis Robinson, who collaborated with a team of steel workers to produce the finished piece.
Mr Robinson, a senior lecturer a Teesside University, said: "Sheryl and Wills had a say in the design. I was told to make sure it wasn't sentimental or tacky but something robust and strong. The two slabs interlock to create a union which seemed to reflect the spirit of Geoff." Phil Dryden, the SSI UK chief, said: "There was no happier person than Geoff when the purchase of the plant was announced. He always had plans, even down to the detail of what should be done with the first slab."Mr Dryden added: "This memorial was made from Teesside steel by Teesside people. It says a lot about the story of this plant. The final slab made before mothballing represents a tragedy of epic proportions, whereas the first one made by SSI is like a love affair with a happy ending.
"It is so sad that Geoff isn't here with us but I'm sure he would be delighted with the final result, and even more delighted to see his beloved steel plant firing on all cylinders.
"Thanks to Geoff no one was allowed to forget Teesside steel."
The new memorial should ensure that no one will forget the man of steel.