June Ulvi, 84, places one hand over her heart, tears pooling in her eyes, as she describes how she felt her late husband’s presence with her while listening to old country music the night before.
June and her husband, James (Jim) Ulvi, used to love dancing together and would often hit the dance floor with friends. Their favorite tunes were country songs and polkas.
The two had been married since 1954, and now, decades later, they were determined to keep living life to the fullest, with dreams of growing old together at the forefront of their minds.
However, those dreams took pause when Jim was diagnosed with mesothelioma — a deadly cancer — after being exposed to asbestos while working as a millwright at the Conwed Co. plant in Cloquet for over 30 years.
Suddenly, the family was hit with devastating news that his life would likely be cut very short.
“When you’re looking towards retirement, that’s no way to end … your working days,” June said. “There’s a death sentence behind it.”
The couple tried to not let Jim’s diagnosis ruin their bright visions for the future. They worked to construct a new summer home in Cromwell and made plans to live near family in Arizona throughout the winter.
June bought Jim an ATV to help him move around their family farm in Esko, and he continued to work to provide for his family.
“He had this … disease … but it didn’t stop him from functioning,” June said. “Because that’s the kind of a person he was. He was stubborn. He wasn’t going to give into it.”
The two continued to work and plan for years after the diagnosis until finally, Jim’s deteriorating health left him with no strength left to dance.
“We’d get out on the dance floor, and we’d do a couple of rounds, and he says, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” June said. “It’s hard to give up what you like to do and know that you can’t do this anymore, and it’s never going to change.”
Jim died in Duluth on Feb. 13, 2010, at age 82, leaving behind June and their four children.
“I feel my husband was robbed,” June said. “He had many good years left, and he was so talented and hardworking.”
Jim was one of 39 former Conwed employees to be diagnosed with mesothelioma after working at the factory, with the most recent mesothelioma death occurring in 2020.
Conwed and asbestos
The Conwed Co., which has since ceased operations, used asbestos in the production of its Lo-Tone mineral board and ceiling tiles at its Cloquet plant from roughly 1959 until 1974.
Asbestos is a fire-resistant material that was largely used in production factories throughout the 1900s. It is now known as the leading cause of multiple health defects, such as lung diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma — a cancer that can take up to 20 years to present itself and has a life expectancy of five years or less.
Although Conwed officials claim that they never knowingly risked the health of their employees, court evidence shows various warnings dating back to 1959 that were given to Conwed officials regarding the potential health risks involved with asbestos production.
There are currently no records showing that Conwed issued any official warnings to their employees regarding the dangers of asbestos exposure.
Court filings also show that it is unlikely that Conwed required their employees to take any safety measures regarding asbestos, such as wearing masks during production or changing their clothes before leaving the factory. However, evidence suggests that they did have masks available in some departments.
According to Conwed’s corporate counsel, Robert Brownson, the International Paperworkers Union required the masks to be worn voluntarily. He said Conwed never intentionally jeopardized the health of its employees.
Following initial health screenings of former employees in 1986, Conwed has faced hundreds of claims from former workers and their families.
While the most recent one is headed to trial this month, typically, these cases are filed under workers compensation claims and are quietly settled outside of court.
The Ulvis received a settlement following Jim’s diagnosis, but June said it wasn’t large enough to allow Jim to retire. He would continue to work various jobs throughout his battle with cancer.
“I don’t think Conwed cared,” June said. “It was money. They cared about the production. They cared about what their manufacturing was, but they didn’t care about their employees. … It was so callous.”
She emphasized that no amount of money could bring her husband back, and nothing can right the wrong that was done to him and other Conwed employees.
“You can’t bring him back,” she said. “What can they do? These people are gone. They’re dead. What can you do? Put up a monument? No.”
This idea was echoed by the family of former Conwed employee, Edwin (Ed) Nyholm, who died from mesothelioma on Sept. 18, 2002, just days before his 70th birthday.
Nyholm worked at the Conwed plant in Cloquet for roughly 35 years, followed by an eight-year construction career.
He did not live as long as Jim following his mesothelioma diagnosis, dying less than two years after his initial screenings.
“He went pretty fast,” Nyholm’s daughter, Barb Lambert, said.
The Nyholm family said they received a quick and quiet settlement from a claim filed against Conwed's asbestos provider, Union Carbide, among other defendants, after the initial diagnosis, but that it will never be enough.
“Money … doesn’t replace a person,” said Pam Bocker, Nyholm’s daughter.
When asked how they felt toward the Conwed Co., all family members of the deceased responded with one feeling in common: anger.
“(T)hey think that paying out money to families is their way of making it better, and it’s not,” Lambert said.
She said she would like to see a public acknowledgement from the company, while Bocker said she wants people to sue Conwed until they “go broke.”
In a March interview, Brownson told the Pine Journal that this has in fact happened, with production ceased and any remaining money at Conwed going toward paying off claims.
“It’s just sad, because they knew for years what it could do and didn’t say anything,” Lambert said. “It just shouldn't have happened.”
Working at Conwed
Family members recall seeing their loved ones come home dirty after working at the Conwed plant.
Lambert and Bocker both said Nyholm usually changed his clothes before he came home, but they don't believe he ever made use of the employee showers that were available.
“There was times where all you could see was the whites around his eyes because of the glasses that he wore,” Lambert said.
According to Bocker, Nyholm also had the option to wear a mask and often would.
June said she does not remember anything about masks, but that Jim would also typically change before coming home. She washed all of his work clothes, and shared that they were “coated” in grease and white dust.
A common complaint heard from the family members is that Conwed employees worked very hard for very little pay.
June said Jim was laid off when Conwed sold to the U.S. Gypsum Corp. in 1985, and Lambert shared that Nyholm received a retirement that was too small to live on.
“They just screwed him, they really did, in many ways,” Lambert said. “When the mesothelioma came, it just doubled my anger.”
The cancer takes its toll
Mesothelioma is described in different ways by the family of those who died, but a common theme seems to be that it is a quick and silent killer.
“It’s like the silent killer because it’s going on in your body. You don’t even know it. Next thing you know, you’re dying,” Lambert said.
Lambert shared how her father’s knowledge of the fact that he was going to die changed his personality, taking a toll on the entire family.
“After he got sick … he didn’t have that zest for life that he always had,” Lambert said of her father. “He wasn’t the joking guy, happy-go-lucky guy that he was before that.”
At the time of Nyholm’s diagnosis, Bocker was living out-of-state and dealing with the simultaneous health decline of her first husband due to cancer.
She said the only thing that brought her comfort was the fact that her husband and father would go to heaven together, with the two men dying just less than 24 hours apart.
Lambert, who watched her father’s deteriorating health first-hand, said that it was a “heart-wrenching” experience.
“It was horrible … watching his decline,” she said. “He … (was) such a strong powerful figure in our family.”
The sisters both say the hardest part of losing their father is watching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up without him — some of them living through his death and others never getting the chance to meet him.
“It's awful because all they hear is what we tell them,” Bocker said.
For June, the hardest part of her husband’s death was seeing what he was going through and knowing that he deserved better.
She described how he was never able to see their future plans come to fruition — how he worked hard to build their Cromwell property, but never got to see it finished.
June has since sold the family properties, both in Esko and Cromwell, and is now living in a senior living facility following a major stroke last year.
“It is what it is,” she said. “What we have endured, that’s a thing of the past.”