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December 18, 2007
SILVER SPRINGS - It's Christmas as usual in Leon Cheatom's house. He and his wife have ornaments, lights, tinsel and mistletoe in every room. Not one wall is bare.
Of course, Cheatom says, there is more time to decorate when you lose your job. Cheatom, 69, lost his in November.
"I stay pretty busy," Cheatom said. "I was used to working six days a week."
After working at the Silver Springs theme park for 55 years, Cheatom was let go the Friday before Thanksgiving. Silver Springs laid off Cheatom and three others in November, cutting back on full-time employees - from 39 to 35 - to fit a new business plan, general manager Terry Turner said.
"We have to be more efficient, and unfortunately people get affected by cost savings," Turner said. "We went through the whole organization, and Leon's position was one that was eliminated."
Cutting employees loose is just another step that Silver Springs, managed by California-based Palace Entertainment, is taking to turn a bigger profit. Earlier this year, the park announced it would close Monday through Wednesday from Dec. 31 to Feb. 6.
"We've got a new business model," Turner said. "We should be getting better financial results."
If you ask Cheatom, he wasn't laid off and he's not retired.
"They didn't lay me off. They fired me," he said. "It sounded like they didn't trust me. That's what hurts the most."
Cheatom said this is the first time the park is not a part of his life. His family worked at the park long before he started in the 1950s. As a wedding present in 1959, Colonel Tooey, who then was the park's co-owner, gave Cheatom the lot his house sits on, just a bike ride away from the park.
He started sweeping sidewalks and cleaning glass-bottom boats, but moved through the ranks quickly. In 55 years at the park, Cheatom has been a boat captain, animal show host, head of the wildlife department, manager of Wild Waters, assistant operations manager and head diver. He has worked with an endless list of production crews for movies, TV shows, commercials and documentaries at the park.
Bim Ray remembers Cheatom as being his father's right-hand man when the Ray family owned the park. Ray was shocked when he found out Cheatom had lost his job.
"That's the biggest damn mistake they'll ever make. They've messed up big doing that," Ray said. "Leon knows more about Silver Springs than anyone alive."
It's knowledge Cheatom passed along to many employees past and present at Silver Springs that'll be missed. A month after leaving the park, Cheatom has a drawer full of thank-you letters and cards.
"I want you to somehow know that you touched so many lives and are truly missed by many," reads one card from a current employee. "Words can't begin to describe how we all feel about the change in your life and ours."
The support Cheatom has received, he said, has made the transition to a Spring-less life a little easier. He has 50-plus years of memories that are his alone, and he says he has artifacts in the Silver Springs museum that he will get back. Those will go to the nearby Silver River Museum, which isn't affiliated with the theme park.
"It's the river that does it for me," he said. "I'd do anything for that river, and I did."
He understands his loss is the cost of big business. That doesn't mean he accepts it. Given the choice between working at what has been his 55-year home or taking a severance package, Cheatom said he'd be on his bike to work tomorrow if he had the chance.
"Big business has to realize the people who have built the place all together, the people who have their heart into it," he said. "I mean, I've had a great life there, but I wanted it to go on a little while longer."
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