For more than 30 years, Troy resident and Collinsville native Dana Stout Johns dealt with the dirt, dust, ash, and intense heat and air pressure at Ameren's coal-fired Sioux power plant in St. Charles County. But the company's first female plant technician she said that was nothing compared to the words that were slung at her.
"I was called a lot of things — some I didn't even know what they meant," Johns said. "I was asked why was I taking a man's job away? Why wasn't I at home where I should be? Am I a 'queer?'"
But Johns, who has been married to husband Frank Johns for 38 years, said words weren't going to keep her from the good-paying, union job she got in 1979. So she cleaned toilets as a janitor, shoveled coal as a 'stationman" and operated heavy equipment as the Sioux plant's first female heavy equipment operator.
And she said her hard work and determination paid off.
"After a while, I think they knew I was not going away and there was a certain amount of respect gained for my perseverance," Johns said. "Some didn't care if I was a woman and some disagreed with my being there. But pretty soon when I was talking with someone, they cleaned up the profane language and started treating me as an equal."
Johns, 59, retired from Ameren in January after 32-1/2 years of employment. She became an electrical apprentice in 1982 and became the plant's first female electrician to earn journeyman status in 1985. She gained a coveted master control technician apprenticeship in 1999 and earned journeyman status for that job in 2002, becoming the plant's first female master control technician.
"When I first met Dana, she was an electrical mechanic already and they had been saying over the years that when we come in and take men's jobs, we're not qualified," said Ameren machinist Karen Cook. "Well nobody could say that about Dana. She's as smart as any of them, she knows her job and she didn't back down from any assignment. She was a few years before me and she made my transition easier."
Operating Engineers Local 148 liaison Verle Clines was in the electrical apprenticeship program with Johns. He said he witnessed the discrimination that Johns experienced firsthand.
"I view females in this career field as a minority and me being an African American also a minority, so a lot of times we were placed together," Clines said. "Consequently, I worked with her a lot and I saw a lot of the blatant disregard for her opinion. They would totally ignore anything she said."
Clines recalled a team job of moving a multi-ton piece of equipment through a door. The move required precise measuring, rigging and hoisting. Clines said Johns warned them that their measurements did not take into account the equipment's handle and that would prevent it from going through the door. She was right.
"So we wasted almost four hours because they wouldn't listen to Dana and she just calmly looked at them and said 'I told you' and that was it," Clines said. "And if you can imagine egg on someone's face. They had to take it all back out and take the handle off which took about 15 seconds."
Clines said that's why he asked Johns to be part of Ameren's Skilled Crafts Education Program, a mentoring and recruitment program that he oversees. The program was given the Ameren President's Leadership Award in 2011.
"She was a valuable asset to the program and she came up with innovative ways to do things," he said.
Johns said her leaving Ameren is bittersweet. At her retirement party last week, Johns counted her former female coworkers. They totaled six.
"It was a tough place for anyone to work and only strong women stayed there," Johns said. "When I left the Sioux plant, there was only one woman left."
Contact reporter Ramona C. Sanders at 618-344-0264, ext. 136
* Information accompanying this story was edited to correct the name of the company that originally hired Johns.