Today is Fathers’ Day. It’s been almost 20 years since my Dad, James L. Powers, Sr., passed away… far too young.
Many of you have heard my speeches about my Dad’s unwavering support for the United Steelworkers. He was a long-time member and an officer in his local in Lorain County. That is… until the last strike when Thew Shovel closed the plant in Ohio and moved to the south for cheaper, non-union labor. As a vice president, grievance man and a contract negotiator, Dad was a strong fighter for working men and women, and he argued politics and unions with everyone, particularly his father (my grandpa).
Dad, the Working Man
Dad was one of those boisterous, in-your-face union guys that you see in the movies. He was a third-generation electrician, a Navy vet, an NRA member, an avid outdoorsman, a hunter, a John Wayne aficionado, a great dancer, a quirky style icon, a ham radio nut, and a Republican, until Nixon broke his heart and he changed his registration to Democrat after Watergate. He drank to much, fought in bars, won and lost rings and watches playing craps, and carried a switchblade and sometimes brass knuckles. (Truth be told: he may have won those two prizes shooting dice. Jimmy and I were always fascinated to see his winnings in the morning.)
Thew Shovel was in South Lorain, a grungy, hard-scrabble place with economic immigrants from all over the US and the world. “Hillbillies” from Kentucky and West Virginia worked alongside Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Hungarians, Poles, Italians, and workers from the earlier immigration waves like the Germans, English, and Irish. Lorain is called the “International City” because so many nationalities lived there and worked in the factories of Northern Ohio– US Steel, the shipyards, the Ford plant, the GM plant, BF Goodrich, Moen, Nordson, and many others– all gone or, at least, greatly diminished now. Unionized factory jobs made Northern Ohio a true melting pot of ethnicities in the 20th century.
I remember going to Thew once or twice with Mom to pick Dad up when his car didn’t start. (Since both of my parents worked, they always had two vehicles. Mom drove the “good car”, and Dad always drove some rusty rattletrap that was held together with shade tree mechanics and cooled with a Thermos of iced tea on a hot summer day. I remember driving to Lorain once with Dad and my younger brother Jim, who was a toddler at the time. The floor boards on the passenger side of his car were completely rusted out, and I could see the road whizzing by beneath us. Being maybe five years old or so, I remember expressing concern to Dad that Jim and I may fall out onto the pavement and be run down by the cars behind us. There were no seat belts or car seat back then. Dad said, “You’re OK. Don’t look down” and kept driving. There was an “emergency” at radio station, where he was a part-time engineer, and he had to take us along. He left us in the car for what seemed like forever while he went inside to get the station back on the air. It’s a wonder some of us survived our childhoods.)
I have vivid mental picture of the Thew Shovel factory– smelly, noisy, dark, dirty, and stifling hot, and I remember thinking, “Wow. This is where Dad goes everyday.” Life for a working man in the industrialized north was hard. Lorain and Lake Erie were extremely polluted in the 1960s, before the EPA. The air was thick and dirty. The beaches were strewn with dead Lake Erie perch. The sky and the houses were pink with dust from the steel mills. With a job like that, it’s no wonder Dad loved camping, hunting and fishing. (And it’s no wonder he fought so hard for benefits and better working conditions for USW workers.)
My Dad, the Gun Owner
I have been thinking a lot about my Dad during this past week– not so much because of Fathers’ Day– but because of the mass shooting a week ago in Orlando, Florida and the gun control debate that has followed.