Last week, my Facebook page blew up.
A news story about a 97-year-old man who has worked for a Coca-Cola bottler for almost 80 years produced by 5NewsOnline, a Fort Smith, Arkansas news station, went viral and was picked up by media outlets around the world. Dozens of friends posted links to the story and tagging me.
Fred Kirkpatrick, or Mr. K as he prefers to be known, is now the musuem curator and archivist for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Fort Smith. As I watched the segment, I knew I had to meet Mr. K! So Coca-Cola Journey videographer Hannah Nemer and I quickly made plans to do just that.
As we flew to Arkansas on Monday to meet the living Coca-Cola legend, I did the math in my head. He started with the bottler in 1938, and our company archives was founded a year later... so he was around before Coca-Cola even had an archives!
Mr. K began his tenure at Fort Smith Coca-Cola as an office clerk, and after a three-and-a-half-year stint in the Army during World War II, returned to the plant to become office manager. He later became head of production and oversaw all bottling and delivery operations at the plant. When he reached retirement age, Mr. K continued to come to the plant to create a museum on the second floor of the facility.
Mr. K’s dedication to the space is obvious and he uses the artifacts to tell a wonderful chronological story of both Coca-Cola and the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Fort Smith. Coca-Cola began bottling in Ft. Smith in 1903, and the Meeks family has been the bottler since the beginning. Roger Meeks represents the fifth generation of the Meeks family to lead the business, and Mr. K told me that he recently had a photo made with Steven, Roger’s son, to say he had worked with all six generations of the family. Roger told me the family was proud to have had Mr. K’s knowledge available to them across the years.
During our conversation, Mr. K wove in stories on how the business has changed during his eight decades of selling Coca-Cola. It was fascinating to hear Mr. K tell me the stories about many of the business practices I had only been able to read about before our conversation. We covered topics like how he distributed the serving trays, yearly calendars -- now collectors' items -- and how they selected the advertising materials for the market each year.
Mr. K has one of the only complete set of personal Coca-Cola Service Pins I have seen. Every five years he was awarded a pin noting his years of service with a silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle. His set ends with his 50th anniversary pin, the highest number available. For his 60th anniversary, the Meeks arranged to have a very limited (fewer than 100 were made) commemorative Coca-Cola bottle made to honour Mr. K. The bottle also featured a representation of his signature.
I was excited when he gave me one to add to the Archives Collection. I have already begun to work on what we can give him to celebrate his 80th anniversary in January 2018.
Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.