My Dad, A Superman of Steel

My Dad, A Superman of Steel
Like Jerry Seinfeld, I am fascinated with Superman. I am also deeply indebted to a Superman of sorts.

No, he never flew in the sky with the aid of a cape. Nor did he wear tights and change his clothes in a phone booth. He was neither as fast as a speeding bullet nor as powerful as a locomotive. But he truly was one of many Supermen who earned a living in the mills in Johnstown. He was a Superman of Steel and I can proudly proclaim that he was also my dad.

For nearly forty years he logged the miles from the Beaverdale-Sidman area to the guarded gates at the Moxham plant of the US Steel Corporation in Johnstown. With his steel-toed protective work boots, black lunch bucket, thermos bottle, and bag of clean clothes, he made his way to the locker area and then on to the drill press.

There he spent a good portion of his life, drilling steel to fit the specifications outlined in front of him. Although he no doubt had his share of bad days at work and may have let his feelings known to my mom, I can honestly say I never once heard him complain about his job. How many of us can say that today? His perseverance was simply super.

He was not alone in his resolve. A sundry set of steel workers with varying ages and diverse backgrounds made the same commitment day after day, year after year in the mills. Most continued employment until the day when they could retire. They too, exhibited a loyalty that was super.

Uncle Pete (Potchak) worked in the shipping department of the same plant. Uncle Mike (Potchak) was an electrician there. Uncle George (Stupi) made the same daily trek but his destination was the Bethlehem Plant.

These men, like the coal miners of central Pennsylvania and countless other mill workers, were mostly content just to have jobs following WWII. Their attitude remained undaunted through their mundane daily routine. Crazy shift work, holiday assignments, overtime, and only two weeks of vacation did not faze them in anyway. Their appreciation of the job was again, super.

With a blue-collar work ethic second to none, they gave one hundred percent of their muscle and mind to the production of steel. Like coke placed in the open-hearth, like iron in the alloy, their spirit was embedded in the steel – as was the welfare of their families. These supermen rarely saw the final product, but they felt daily how important its production was to their loved ones.

A religious man of the Byzantine Catholic faith, Dad accepted his job assignments with the same attitude as he accepted his beliefs. Not one to argue with a boss or defy authority, he also never felt the need to dispute his religion – even if its customs at times made his hours in the mill even more unpleasant. On Fridays, tuna fish or peanut butter and jelly would replace his customary cold cuts. During Lent, I can remember Mom packing fried potato sandwiches in his lunch bucket. And he would drink his coffee black, because dairy products were forbidden at times too. With a super attitude, he accepted it all.

Once at the cocky age of eighteen, I challenged Superman to an arm-wrestling match just to see if those bulging biceps were as powerful as they looked. Dad locked his hand in mine and in a calm Clark Kent voice asked, "How long do you want this to last?"

Before I could fully reply with "I'm ready," my knuckles were slammed to the table under his powerful hand. His giggle was followed with some advice. "You're not ready for this. Maybe when you're older," he suggested. No gloating - he was super-humble too.

I got my chance to play superman one summer too, but I hardly felt like some kind of hero. Dad saw to it that I worked there for a few months following my graduation from college. Dad was also a super-educator, and had his own subtle ways of teaching. Without a formal education, he had no trouble getting his point across to his college-educated son. And the lessons stuck with me for a lifetime.

Those brief months in the mill seemed more like an eternity. I learned to value not only my teaching degree, but also to appreciate what the Supermen did on a daily basis. Dad knew what he was doing by suggesting that I work there, if only for a short stint. Like all men of his generation, he wanted a better life for his kids. He wanted me to realize how important schooling is. He was and still is a super teacher, himself.

A wish for a better life for his children - Isn't that dream alone, super? Isn't that method of teaching indicative of super-tough love? Could you say he and his contemporaries were super-steel-willed – true Supermen? Yes, on all counts.

Chances are very good that you too, know a Superman of Steel – particularly if you grew up in Johnstown or the surrounding area. Like me, you may owe much of your existence today, to a man of steel.

Pittsburgh may have had the bragging rights to the Super Bowl Steelers, but Johnstown can boast of some Super Steel men of its own.

By Dave Potchak

- written for and published with permission from Johnstown Magazine

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