EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another installment in our twice-monthly series “Life Stories,” profiles of everyday people who lend us insight into life and times in Mercer County.

WAR, TORNADOES, snowstorms, floods – Jack Leyde has seen them all and survived, but just barely. The flood of 1959 almost took him out, although the water wasn’t his main problem.

Jack was born at home on Elm Avenue on July 10, 1925.

“It was wonderful growing up in Sharon,” Jack said. “We had a lot of fun. We did the pranks that other normal kids did at Halloween. We soaped windows, of course. And we would put cans on each side of the sidewalk with a string tied to each of them. We filled the cans with water and covered them with leaves. People would come along and trip the string and get their feet wet. We did other things like that, harmless fun.”

In high school, Jack worked after school and on Saturdays at Leyde Automotive, the company his father, Frank, had started in 1918. It was a wholesale and retail auto parts store on Main Street in downtown Sharon, about where Pizza Joe’s is now. It also had a shop for machining replacement parts.

Working there gave him some extra money and a bit of fun.

“I had to do a science project in school,” Jack said. “I got a vibrator coil from my dad. That’s what the old-time cars had instead of distributors. I wired it up to a candy box with a push button underneath the box. You would go to hand the box to somebody and touch the button, and a shock would go clear up their arm.”

He even shocked the assistant principal.

“I was leaving the school, and the assistant principal, Stan Courier, met me in the front hall. He was a good guy. He knew my parents real well. He said, ‘What have you got there, Jack?’ I said, ‘This was my science project.’ He said, ‘Let me see it.’ So I handed it to him and hit the button. He said, ‘Now, Jack, you take that home and don’t ever bring it back to school or I’m going to have a talk with your parents.’ That did it. I never took it back to school.”

In high school, Jack went out for football but never played a down.

“I went out because during the summer we got to go to football camp at Camp Fitch, up on Lake Erie.”

The fun and games were over the day Jack finished high school in 1943. Before he even got his diploma, he left to join the Coast Guard.

“I wanted to go into the Air Corps, but at that time they were taking a beating, so my mother said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘Then I’ll try the Marines.’ But they were taking a beating in the Pacific. So finally I said, ‘I’ll join the Coast Guard.’ She said, ‘OK, you’ll guard the coast.’ ’’

As it turned out, Jack saw the coast only briefly about every six weeks. He was a motor machinist mate on the USS Peterson, a destroyer escort ship that escorted convoys of 40 to 50 tankers, occasionally with a troop ship in the middle, between New York and Europe.

“There were six destroyer escorts that looked for submarines. On our first trip, two ships collided on the first day out, and a German sub put a torpedo into one of them. We were assigned to escort it back to New York.”

While they were on their way, a frantic search was under way to find the sub. But the Pete didn’t miss any of the action.

“As we were coming back out, we ran right over top of the sub with our sound gear. Our ship and another ship dropped depth charges. That brought it to the surface. We started shooting and they started shooting. The sub put a cannon blast through our smokestack.”

When the sub sank, the Pete’s sister ship, the Joyce, picked up survivors, including the captain – a very surprised captain. He had been told that the Germans destroyed most of our ships. He was amazed when he saw 40 or 50 big ships coming out of New York Harbor.

The Peterson made eight round trips between New York and Europe. Each trip took about six weeks. When the war in Europe was over, the Pete was sent to the Pacific. They had gotten as far as Hawaii when the Japanese surrendered. They continued on to escort landing craft to Japan before heading back to the States.

After being discharged from the Coast Guard in 1946, Jack started working again at Leyde Automotive. A short time later he met Margaret Saunders.

“We double-dated. I was with Jack’s buddy, and Jack was with a girlfriend of mine,” Margaret said. “We went to Yankee Lake. The next time we went out, we switched dates.”

In 1947 Margaret bought a new Pontiac at Jack Ward’s on Budd Street in Sharon. Before she had a chance to pick it up, the big tornado on June 7 collapsed the roof of the dealership right on top of it.

Jack and Margaret were married on March 27, 1948. On Nov. 24, 1950, not long after the birth of their son John T., Sharon was covered by more than 4 feet of snow.

“I heard on the radio that they wanted volunteers to shovel the snow off the roof of Hickory High School because they were afraid it was going to collapse,” John said. “We lived on Cohasset Drive. I walked out to State Street with my snow shovel. Up State Street came an Army 6-by-6. I jumped on and went to shovel off the roof.”

By the next day, the roads were cleared enough for Jack to get to work.

“Our machine shop was run by shafts on the roof with drive belts down to the machines,” Jack said. “The roof had sagged from the weight of the snow. The belts were too loose to run the machines. We shoveled off the roof and it went back up.”

Through the 1950s, Jack continued to work at Leyde Automotive. During that decade their other two children were born: Margaret Jean (1953) and Elizabeth Ann (1955).

Then on Jan. 20, 1959, 5 inches of snow plus 3 inches of rain caused the Shenango River to overflow.

“On Tuesday evening my dad, my brother, our shop foreman and I went to the shop because we knew that it was coming,” Jack said. “We wanted to put the stock up higher. The water came in through the basement furnace room. There was no way you could block it off. We sandbagged everything else. We had 17 inches of water inside the front door. I didn’t get home until Thursday night.”

After doing as much as they could, they waited in an old loft on the second floor for the water to recede.

“We had a gasoline-driven water pump operating on the first floor. We weren’t aware that the exhaust fumes were drifting up. Our shop foreman and I got very sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. Finally somebody came down in a little rowboat with an outboard motor, and they put a big old ladder up there. My brother and my dad were as healthy as all get-out.”

Jack worked with his father and brother through the 1960s. He also volunteered for the Community Chest fundraising drives, and served on the Hermitage School Board for about 20 years, starting in the late 1960s.

In the mid-1970s Leyde Automotive moved away from the river, but not because of potential flooding. The Shenango Dam, built in 1965, had put a stop to that. But a new redevelopment plan for Sharon forced them out.

“They had big plans, such as Sharon has had so many times,” Jack said. “We got moved out to East State Street in Hermitage, where Rice Pool is now.”

The Leydes enjoyed boating and water skiing on Shenango River Lake.

“I inherited an old boat from my dad. The kids enjoyed it, and we did too, so I bought a nice inboard-outboard boat while the kids were still around here. We had a lot of fun with that.”

Leyde Automotive continued to operate until 1993. When it closed, Jack retired.

“I was home for three weeks without anything to do,” he said. “I was getting on Margaret’s nerves. Then my one daughter came to the rescue. She told me to get down to the hospital and become a volunteer. I did, and I have been doing it ever since, two days a week. We take incoming patients to their rooms, discharge patients from their rooms, deliver flowers and mail, and just try to be nice to people.”

Jack must have been very nice, because two years ago he was the first man ever to be named Volunteer of the Year at the hospital.

Jack and Margaret were both active in First Methodist Church in Sharon. Jack has been on the board of trustees for many years.

They have three granddaughters, one grandson, a great-grandson and two great-granddaughters.

Joe Zentis is a freelance writer from Hermitage. Contact him with suggestions for Life Stories at: joezentis@verizon.net or call 724-347-1209.

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