Blue Collar Workers

Blue Collar Workers: Step Into Their Boots

Written for and Published by Johnstown Magazine 
by Dave Potchak



Today’s employment opportunities seem to revolve around computers, technology and the health care fields.  But let us not forget our area’s blue-collar workers and what they do daily in helping our region prosper.  We seldom give them any thought, but where would we be without them and their willingness to don the blue? 


 Busting Butt in Blistering Heat



“I’ll be fit for hell when I go,” jests Ray Single of Dunlo.  The former Baltimore City Fire Fighter “couldn’t wait to relocate back home” when he signed on with the Bethlehem Steele Corporation almost twenty-eight years ago.  “I fought fires in the city, then stepped into a job where I was forging (shaping) steel at temperatures around 2350 degrees Fahrenheit,” explained the recently retired mill worker.   “I always joke with my wife that I will be ready for whatever the after-life has to offer.”

Ray has experienced the long metamorphosis in the mills and mines during his career.  “My family worked in the mines around this area for many years,” added the 66-year- old.  “I saw the miners work with mules when I was young, and I witnessed steel mill workers, shaping the car (railroad) axles by hand.” 


“Later, the forging was mostly done with automation.  But when machines broke down, the job was far from easy – someone had to get in there and fix the problem, or the whole assembly line would shut down.  That someone was usually me, and when I was off work, I was still on-call, 24/7.  I had to get back there, and get it fixed.  Steel companies cannot tolerate a shut-down for long.”


“Even though I was a foreman toward the end of my career, I couldn’t expect the workers to get in there (the oven) and make repairs, without showing them that I should be in there too.  At times, I really wasn’t allowed to make the manual repairs, but I did anyway.  I never could expect my crew to do something I wouldn’t do myself,” he said humbly.


With 12 years at Bethlehem and another 14 years at Standard Forged Products, of Johnstown, Ray realizes the importance of an education regarding today’s employment opportunities.  “I wish I would have been smarter,” when I was young, Ray jokes.  “I never really had the opportunity to go to college, but I did receive training when I could.  I trained with the fire fighters in the city, and I enrolled in classes back here when I could, to help me out with my work.”


“I saw it (steel making) change from the slow and old, to a quicker way with new techniques.  It’s faster and more efficient today.”  Then Ray emphasizes again, “The only way to keep up with the technology is to go to school.”

Like most blue-collar workers of Single’s era, he advised his own children to get that education that Ray, the father, missed.  “I have three grown children and each of them has a college degree from UPJ,” he boasts.  “There are few jobs around here today that you can get without some kind of training.  Although I have no regrets as to how I earned my living, I wouldn’t want my kids to do what I did.”


“My dad and uncles were life-long miners.  My brother and I were miners, then mill workers later.  Working around the goofy swing-turn shift assignments, the shut downs and lay-offs was not easy.  I am happy that my kids won’t ever have to do that for a living.”

All three of the Single children have spent some time in the steel mills.  One of the boys is an engineer and still in a mill today.   “He’s a mill worker too, but not like his dad,” Ray said.  “He’s used his education.” 

Now, in his recent but long-anticipated retirement, this self-proclaimed “country boy” is very content.  “I’ve never been the city type,” says Ray with an infectious grin.  “I was happy to find work and come back home.  I have no regrets at all.”

“Your favorite hobbies now that you are retired?” I inquired. 


“I like to hunt, work around the house, do some maintenance and work with the earth,” he explains.   “I like gardening a little and enjoy small landscaping projects too.” 
Suspicions about this man and his inability to ever slow down are confirmed by his recollection of vacations.  Laughing out loud, he says, “I built my own home when I was on vacation once.  I kind of like to keep busy.”


There’s an old saying that dates back to Chaucer in the twelfth century, “Idle hands are the devil's workshop.”  If true, you could bet your pension that Ray’s butt-busting work ethic will prevent him from ever experiencing the blistering heat in the hereafter.

 Bold and Beautiful 


“My parents always knew I wasn’t the office type,” Frieden’s Marya McCool proudly proclaims. An employee of New Enterprise Stone and Lime Company, the graduate of Point Park College has a degree in English Journalism and a minor in Dance.  “There are times when I wish I would have pursued my first love, becoming a sports broadcaster,” adds the road construction worker.  “But, I honestly can say that I love my job.  There is something new each and every day.”


Accustomed to long hours in the summer months, twelve-hour days are the norm for this single mom.  “I have already worked many 15-hour days with a two-hour commute (each way) attached on - but you are working outside, making money and enjoying the day.  What more could you ask for?”

During her shift, this bold lady works and associates with men most of the time.  “As a female on the job, I feel like I have to prove to the ‘man's world’ that I belong out there, with them.  I work hard and try to learn something everyday…but all things considered, I enjoy the people I work with. You spend more time with those people than you do with your own family.  Your fellow employees become your family.”


“I started out flagging on a blacktop and dirt crew.  It is the toughest job assignment, in my opinion.  You’re out in the hot sun, with your hard hat, standing on 400-degree blacktop, trying to dodge traffic.  Most times, it’s neither safe nor fun.”


Trained to operate heavy machinery too, Marya can boast of qualification and experience in using a “flat wheel roller, compactor, wacker and bowmag.” 


The working vocabulary and terminology flow fluently from this blue-collar beauty, but she can be as feminine as any other lady with ease.  “I have always been bold and independent.  My father used to say to me, ‘Know when to open your mouth, but always remember when to keep it shut,’ and I’ve always tried to follow this advice.”


Besides the hot flagging assignment, another dreaded duty is,  “running the compactor when you're on a rock fill. You get beat up a little.  And you have no legs when you get off – it’s numbing.”


Despite being in good physical shape, “there are times when I feel like I'm 20 again and other days when I feel like I am 70!  Construction is a tough job with long days, and little time off when the weather is nice.” 


McCool, whose name could not possibly suit her any better, is also a certified Concrete Technician (testing concrete strength), an Aggregate Technician (testing stone) and a Nuclear Compaction Technician (testing dirt for compaction on a fill or in a pipe).


Attempting to leave her work at the site, Marya’s thoughts on the way home typically involve “what I’ll cook for dinner and what I have to get done before I retire for the evening.  I come home, get a shower, pack the bucket, spend some time with my son, get dinner prepared and then get cleaned up and go to bed.   It's usually dark when I go to work and usually dark when I get home.  All the  running around gets put off till the weekend.”

When not working or during the lay-off months, Marya enjoys “kickin’ back and chillin’ out!”  Her hobbies include, “spending time with friends and family, riding motorcycles, watching basketball during March Madness and working out when I have time.”


Somehow she manages to squeeze in a shore vacation now and then, and she loves “the biker rally in South Dakota,” too.   But her favorite gratification comes from “spending time with my son.”

Today, Marya’s mother and siblings, “see me and accept me in my job, doing what I am doing right now.  I was a jock in high school and college, but I also could be a lady when I had to be.  They all know that I will try anything at least once.”


A scholarship basketball player at Point Park, Marya has experimented with a few other jobs since graduation too.  She served a brief stint on WWIZ Radio in Sharon, PA, has tended bar, taught dance, and recently coached the Lady Rockets High School basketball team in Rockwood, Somerset County. 


Although perfectly content in her current employment, this unique lady keeps the hinges oiled and the door wide open regarding her future.  “I can always pursue my original dream of becoming a sports broadcaster – you know - down there, on the football field, interviewing the players and coaches - maybe even coaching a small college women’s basketball team.” 


“It’s never too late.” 

 Bent to Burrow Beneath the Surface 


Choosing to work in a manual labor field came naturally to Marlin Minor.  “My father was a miner and my mother was a stay-at-home mom,” says Marlin.


“I grew up in a house with seven brothers and seven sisters,” he adds.  “Going to college just wasn’t an option that I ever considered.”


Today, Marlin is employed part-time with the CVS Distribution Center as a mechanic, but his work history and resume are quite impressive.  “I worked briefly with ACME Markets and Bethlehem Steele, but it’s the 23 years in the mine that is most memorable,” admits Minor.  “Even though the job has changed much through the years, it is still very tough, back breaking work.”


There are still many locations in modern mines where workers cannot stand up straight for hours at a time.  “I have worked in seams of coal as low as 30 inches to 60 inches high, “ says Marlin, with his head bent slightly forward, peering under his brow.  “In 30-inch seams, you crawl all the time.  And in 60-inch seams, you work bent-over, all the time.”

Mining has a well-documented history of being a dangerous job.   Marlin recalled one particularly frightening experience early in his mining career. 


“We had to work on the first day of deer season after a contract strike.  And we were the first crew to go into this new section to set up for working operations.  A very good personal friend and I were supposed to get a roof-bolter ready for use.   He went to the power center to plug the bolter in and I went up to the entry towards the bolter when a seven-ton shuttle car started to run.   It came right toward both of us and I jumped on top of a pile of roof- support timbers and yelled for my buddy, to warn him.   The heavy car crushed him and he died on his way to the hospital. 


“Another time, we were attempting to recover all the available coal as we retreated out of a section of the mine.  This causes the mine roof to fall, in a controlled way.  One day the roof started to cave in early.  We
were backing the continuous-miner out – trying to make it to a safe place.   A piece of the coal rib unexpectedly blew off.  It hit me on the legs, knocking me to the ground.  At that same time a large piece of roof-rock fell on top of the continuous miner next to me.  It covered over half of the machine.  I did not get covered, but I was still rattled quite a bit.  When I got to my feet, my legs were shaking.



“Another cave-in, in a pillar-section, caused the shafts to be filled with a large amount of methane gas.  It is very explosive and dangerous.  So, we shut off all power to that area and used a lot of fresh air ventilation to let the gas out and to allow good air to return.  Everyone was evacuated from the mine except those needed to vent that area.  And no one was permitted to return until the mine became safe and stable to work in.”


Marlin, who has “developed asthma since I began working in the mines,” explains the stress that accompanies some blue-collar jobs.  “Yes, there is plenty of stress at times, but coal miners learn to deal with it.  You can’t let it get to you.  It’s simply part of the job.”

Minor’s blue-collar background has given him experience with various kinds of machinery, including “roof bolters, continuous miners, shuttle cars, front-end loaders, and various forklifts.”  He also feels right at home with “most shop machines, welder/burners, and a variety of both small and large industrial tools.” 


Familiarity with such a variety of equipment provided Marlin with a natural path to learning how to maintain and repair the same tools.  “After high school, I found myself taking courses to be certified in various types of mechanical repair,” he says.  “These courses prepared me for maintenance work both in the mines, and as a warehouse mechanic.  Trying to keep up with the technical aspects of the repairs can be tough, but I enjoy it.”   


“By nature, the dangers in my work and the circumstances surrounding the numerous layoffs and cutbacks, and uncertainties about the future of coal have given me some things to ponder through the years.  But I have no regrets with my choices of employment,” Minor continues. “I enjoy working with my hands, tearing things apart and rebuilding them.  I would not change anything now, even if I could.”


Like Ray Single, Minor too, prefers that his own children get a good education and hopes they seek career choices different from his.  He and his wife Dee, proud parents of two sons and a daughter, can boast that all three will have a college degree. 


Minor enjoys gardening, fishing and hunting, when not working.  “I feel good about what I have accomplished and yeah, I would do it all over again,” he concludes.  “Sure, winning the lottery would be nice, but basically, I feel very fortunate and blessed daily, in what I do and in what I’ve done.”

 Back Breaking work


“I would call about eighty percent of my job ‘back breaking’ but I also feel blessed in so many ways,” explains Dan Perich of Beaverdale.  “I actually like getting up early and seeing what the day is going to bring.  My back, knees, and shoulders do not necessarily want to follow, but they get there eventually.”


Perich holds a degree in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.  Other than a one-year position in a finance firm, he has worked in the construction field for over 33 years, and has no regrets. 


“I love working with my hands and building in general.  And I get so much personal satisfaction out of my work, trying to make a finished product that everyone (builder and customer) will be proud of,” proclaims Dan.


“As I am getting older, with all of the years of beating up my body with physical work, it is starting to wear out my body parts.  Still, I always feel blessed – blessed for my job, my wife and for life in general.”


Dan’s working season knows no end.  He’s always been busy and plans to continue to stay that way.


“I formed my own company and ran it for eighteen years,” reflects Perich.  “I basically wore myself out in my own endeavors. When you are self-employed you end up working 24/7 for very little pay. It's a tough business.”


Dan moved on to a managerial position at Johnstown Custom Woodworks for four years, then to Major Builders as a foreman.  He has remained there for the last eleven years and enjoys his change in position immensely.  “Even though I have to supervise crews and lean towards a position as a foreman (and less as a carpenter), there is still plenty to keep me interested in my work,” adds Dan.  “I am perfectly happy in what I do and my family has always been supportive because they know I love it.”


Dan’s love of labor comes naturally.  “My father started working in the mines at age 13,” cautions Dan.  “He lost his leg in a mining accident and had to switch careers, so he became the local tax collector, in Beaverdale.” 


“In my profession, injuries are an inevitable.  But I have had only two major accidents. The first was when a backhoe crushed the scaffold I was standing on and I fell approximately 20 feet and landed on my back.  My head landed on a concrete block wall. I spent the day in a hospital in Waynesburg, PA and went through four months of therapy for my back. The next accident was just a few months later and involved me crushing one of my fingers with a jackhammer. So far, I have managed to survive without any loss of life or limb.”


In addition to his black-and-blue medical history, Dan is also a heart attack survivor.  And it would take another drastic and radical incident to alter his plans to continue to work.  “Honestly, I will probably work until I die. Hopefully, that will not be soon,” Dan says with a laugh.   “But I have to admit, I am too old to do ‘roofing’ any more.”


Common with many who don the blue-collar, the personal drive to keep active does not end when he pulls into the driveway following work.  When not on-the-job, “I look forward to my wife, my music and even my church life,” concludes Dan.  “I have been a cantor at St. Mary's Church in Beaverdale for over 41 years and I still enjoy playing my trumpet in a local band.  I have always enjoyed music.  And as long as I have my work and my interests, I am perfectly content.”

A Barn Full of Blessings and Bounty


“I am the fifth generation to own and operate this farm.  My kids, Aaron and Kendy will be the sixth,” announces Berneta Snider Gable of New Enterprise.  “Some days we put over 2000 bales in the barn.  Farming is hard work, but we
have chosen to do this.”

Each and every morning on the Snider Homestead Farm, the family is graced with a rising sun, rolling hills and peaceful pastures.  “I feel very blessed in the fact that not only have I had the opportunity to work side by side with my children as they grew up - but with a number of nieces and nephews, too.  I have a closeness
with them that is very special,” explains Berneta.  “We all have a real appreciation of what this farm represents.”


“When I'm out in the fields working, I see the splendor of God's work and how he provides us with every thing we need.  And if I seek some additional help, they (the family) are here any time I need it,” she adds.  “I would not change a thing.”

Berneta, who holds a degree from Penn State University in Health and Physical Education, made the decision to take on and operate the family farm soon after she married her husband Brad, 28 years ago.  “This farm has been in the family since 1892,” asserts Berneta.  “I feel an obligation to keep it going.”


“Sure, you have those days when you think, ‘If I would have taught school I would soon be ready to retire,’ and I’d be able to have time off in the summer,“ Bernita admits. 


But at other times, she remembers her childhood. “Since the time I was big enough to carry a bucket I have worked on this farm and I have always wanted to continue to run it.” 


“After graduation from high school, I went to college to be a teacher because running a farm just wasn't something women did back then. Of course women have always been a major factor on farms but being the main operator wasn't so common.  


“When I first started I had so much to learn.   I had to learn from my mistakes many times.  But, I have gained a lot of confidence in what I do and say over the years  - because I have been there and done that here on the farm, daily.”

”I am fortunate to have had the chance to do something for a living, that I love. How many people out there
can truly say that?”

”Many people ask me how I can keep doing the same thing over and over every day.  They also can't understand how I cope with the long hours.  I just tell them straight that I have a love for this land and I feel an obligation to continue what my forefathers dreamed of over 100 years ago.  I feel my place on this earth is to be a good steward of the land and a caretaker to these wonderful animals.”


Berneta’s world-renowned showmanship and salesmanship shows through as she adds, “and these animals produce nature’s most perfect food, wholesome milk. 


“I have the enjoyment of seeing the birth of new-born calves, of smelling newly-plowed ground, and fresh
mown hay. I had the opportunity to raise my children in an environment, where they learned to work hard, and respect the land and the animals.  And my entire family has been very supportive.”


“My brothers and sisters and their families all live within a mile of the farm and have all contributed to it in some way.  I may not have been able to do all I have done without them. I think they all value the fact that even though
Brad and I have our names in the paper (numerous times, showing champion Guernsey Cows)  - it will always
be OUR family farm.  And I feel very strongly in having them know that the place where we grew up will always
be their home.” 


With regard to the immediate family, “Brad, Aaron and Kendy have all been great.  They have never questioned the fact that they have had to work long hours.  It’s just a fact – we just accept it and we do it.


“Getting rich has never been in the game plan for me. When we bought the farm from my father, it needed updated so we put most of the money that we made right back into it. I am fortunate to have a supportive husband who has a good job with good benefits. We have lived a comfortable life but I think the real benefit comes from the satisfaction of going to bed each night knowing that you have done an honest day’s work.” 

Even Grandma, Betty Snider, accepts her part in the Snider Homestead chore list.  “Mom is 83 and still drives up here daily and washes the towels we use to keep the udders clean on the cows,” says Berneta.  “She also bakes her pies every Saturday for us.”  Berneta’s brother Birch also lends a hand in the backbreaking field work.  “This is truly a family farm and everyone willingly pitches in.”


“Aaron’s’ wife, Amy helps in the evenings,” adds Berneta.  “Cows need milked seven days a week.  There are no days off, or sick-days in farming. “


“This makes it very tough for all of us to get away (on vacation) together, so that doesn’t happen very often.”


“Brad and Aaron are crazy for fishing and hunting. They take a fishing trip to Canada every year, and Brad goes to Colorado every other year to hunt.” 


“My vacation is also my hobby, showing cows.  Kendy and Aaron help out there too.  These are our vacations. It works out well since at least one of us has to be at home all of the time.”
If you live in the Johnstown area, chances are good that you have consumed some of the abundant bounty of the Snider Homestead Farm.  “We ship our milk to Galliker’s Dairy in Johnstown,” says Berneta.  “We take pride in doing the best we can to ship a quality product (milk) to the dairy each day.   We feel too, that we are doing a small part of the large job of feeding the people in the world.”

 Common Thread 


A common blue thread seems to be woven tightly in both the shirt fabric and in the personalities of all the workers mentioned and interviewed in this article.  There is no doubt that those who still stylishly sport the blue-collar, feel that they have been bestowed with an abundance of blessings.  They all feel fortunate - even lucky.  None have the slightest regret.  And they all possess a blue-collar bliss and contentment.


Let us hope too, that future laborers will find similar fulfillment and pride in their career choices – with their heads held high, supported by a rigid collar of blue. 


by Dave Potchak

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA