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May 3, 2013

Sharon Steel Retirees group punches out

SHARON — Like the steelmaker they used to work for, Sharon Steel Retirees group has decided it’s time to fold.

Composed of former hourly workers and their spouses of the defunct Farrell plant, the organization held its last meeting Thursday afternoon at Sharon American Legion. Created in the early 1970s, this fellowship once boasted 700 members and would frequently organize trips to casinos in Atlantic City and elsewhere.

There were carefree days of softball games, card playing and other adventures.

But when the company closed its doors for good in 1992 after filing for bankruptcy for the second time in less than six years, that ended the possibility of more future retirees. Membership steadily dwindled over the years to its current 30 or so active members.

“A lot of us died off, are in nursing homes or are just too old to get around anymore,’’ said Pete DuMars, vice president and a former president of the group.

Employing 2,700 when it closed, Sharon Steel was the last of the big heavy industrial employers which provided multiple thousands of jobs. NLMK-Pennsylvania Corp., which occupies the site along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, employs around 650.

Lunching together for the last time, members talked of the old days at the plant and about families. Retirees played bingo and talked about what their grandkids are into.

While acting like a club with elected officers, the group never called itself by that name.

“It’s just a social thing,’’ said DuMars, a former millwright. “It was where husbands and wives could get together and do things.’’

Judy Mischick, retirees’ president, never worked a day in the mill. It was her husband that put in the long hours for more than 34 years – mostly as a grinder. As the job title suggests, he ground steel.

Seated together at a table, the two remembered it wasn’t always easy.

“I had all my toes broken once when steel fell on it,’’ recalled Robert Mischick, now 84. “I couldn’t walk.’’

His wife well remembers the day, because the police drove him home.

“His foot hurt so bad he couldn’t drive,’’ she said.

Still, he returned to work the next day.

“They didn’t want anyone to be out sick,’’ Robert said. “So I got myself inside and just sat there.’’

Sharon Steel’s closing still leaves a strong memory for many. With more than 40 years under his belt at the mill, Ed Gibowicz recalled the plant’s final day.

“It was Nov. 9, 1992,’’ Gibowicz said. “When they shut down, I shut down.’’

Joining the company after graduating from Sharon High School in 1950, he first worked in the masonry department, then in its boiler shop. While a mason, much of his time was spent replacing bricks in Kaldo furnaces where steel was cooked to molten temperatures.

“You never could tell how long the bricks would last,’’ he recalled. “The oxygen in the furnaces really burned them out.’’

He also remembered the open hearths, where men had to feed the furnaces with shovels. In the summer the searing heat was beyond brutal.

“They used to give the guys salt tablets because they were burning up so much water inside their bodies,’’ Gibowicz said.

Almost like graduation night for high schoolers, there were long last looks Thursday among the group.

While the organization is disbanding, retirees talked of meeting sometime in the future.

Although the doors of Sharon Steel and its retirees group have closed, the mill and its workers live on in the artwork of famed illustrator Norman Rockwell.

In 1966 Sharon Steel commissioned Rockwell to create 14 paintings of the mill. Then 72 years old, Rockwell and his third wife toured the Farrell mill for four days in April of that year.

Rockwell painted the figures only; the backgrounds were created by Tony Dennison, a Cleveland illustrator.

Dick Tonks of Sharpsville has loaned six commemorative paper prints of the Rockwell paintings to Community Library of the Shenango Valley in Sharon.

They are not the original paintings, which Sharon Steel had to sell in its second bankruptcy – one turned up missing. Rather, they are commemorative editions published on paper that were recently fetching between $40 to $50 each on eBay.  The prints will be unveiled at a brief ceremony at 11 a.m. May 20 at the library. The event is free to the public. It’s hoped when the Sharon Heritage Society gets a center, the prints will permanently be based there.

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