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By ASHLEY POWERS



Published: Sun, June 17, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ASHLEY POWERS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

AUSTINTOWN -- Even his name is commonplace: Bob Price.

Two syllables. No fancy pronunciations. And as Bob points out, the first half is spelled exactly the same backward and forward.

Like many nearing his age, Bob's hair is slightly graying, and the onset of a belly peeks over his belt. His 51 years are beginning to show on his face, in laugh-induced crevices and around eyes that reflect the wisdom and weight of age.

His life on paper is less a thriller than a narrative, a series of anecdotes of the sort he dabbles in during his spare time.

But there's something about Bob, some personal attribute that makes this ordinary man extraordinary to those around him.

Maybe it's his almost 32-year marriage to Kathleen, a woman he met at age 16 as they scrubbed dishes part time at St. Elizabeth's Health Center. Maybe it's their daughters, each with a strong Irish name and, Bob says, stronger Irish character. Maybe it's Bob's four diplomas -- one degree for each daughter.

But it's likely Bob's humility, his appreciation for each day and each degree and each child that merits admiration as he, along with fathers across the country, celebrate being dads.

"He's not just a father on Father's Day," Kathleen says. "Every moment he's a father."

His dreams: Growing up on the East Side of Youngstown and then in Struthers, the son of Bob and Evelyn Price yearned for a college education, maybe law school, and a tightly bonded family like his own. It turns out the dishwasher next to him, the one he found beautiful and vibrant and self-assured, had similar ideas.

The older woman -- Kathleen was 17 to Bob's 16 -- readily accepted his offer of a night at the Boardman Rollercade.

He rattles off the details of their engagement without pause, recalling how Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" scored the evening. "You remember these things," he says, softly.

Some were skeptical when the pair married at 19, especially since Kathleen, who had battled the reproductive system disease endometriosis, was told she'd never have children.

Bob accepted that they might never get to pluck a baby name off the lists they jokingly made in high school. But then came Bridget.

About four months after their wedding, Kathleen announced her supposedly impossible pregnancy. Nine months later, the pair gave the baby the birth name of Kathleen's grandmother.

Bridget was a godsend, they say.

And so were Shannon, now 28, Jennifer, 26, and Noreen, 24.

Though the only man in the white, split-level house, Bob says he wasn't holding out for a boy: All his children were little miracles.

Wanted to learn: Bob still ached for an education, though. He had first enrolled at Youngstown State in the fall of 1969. "Then there would be gaps," he says. "The gaps were generally named Bridget, Shannon, Jennifer and Noreen."

Three months before Bridget was born, he began tirelessly laboring on the Lordstown assembly line. His job qualified him for a tuition assistance program in which General Motors would reimburse the money he spent on schooling.

But the registration bills for spring often arrived near December. "When you're a young father, you either have Christmas or you pay the tuition," he says. "No brainer."

Sometimes he took only three credit hours a quarter, studying during the time he wasn't needed as a father, husband, friend or employee.

"At least he wasn't sitting in front of the TV watching 'Jeopardy,' grumbling about what he should do," Kathleen recalls.

Mission accomplished: In 1983 -- 13 years after starting college -- he received his associate's degree in labor relations. The other degrees from YSU came more rapidly: a bachelor's degree in human resources in 1986 and a master's of business administration in finance in 1993.

Meanwhile, he was Dad to four teen-agers; at one point the girls were 13, 15, 17 and 19, respectively.

"At least we all wore the same size," Shannon offers.

The similarities ended there.

If Bridget handled something one way, "I would probably have done the exact opposite," Shannon says.

Bob shakes his head. "Four different girls, four completely unique personalities."

Bridget vividly recalls attending union meetings and college classes with her young father; Shannon remembers the older version as Santa Claus at her former workplace, the nursing home Assumption Village.

"Every time he'd say, 'Ho, ho, ho,' this resident there would say, 'Ho, ho, ho' and then a profanity," she says, laughing. "So then my dad's yelling, 'Ho, ho -- how you guys doin'?' "

One of life's joys, Bob says, was watching the girls mature.

"At each stage of a child's life, they're special. When they're infants, they're precious. When they're toddlers, they're funny. When they're teen-agers, they're becoming adults. And then when they become adults, maybe that's the best part of all."

By the time he would embark upon the University of Akron Law School to fulfill his boyhood dream, Bob was 47, with four grown girls and a union position at GM. He will take the Ohio bar exam next month.

"Everybody made sacrifices," he says. "In my office, I've got four degrees hanging on my wall with one name on each of them, which is mine. There really should be six names."

It is a muggy, sticky day, with the kind of weather that crawls over the neck and back, soaking the nose and forehead. Seated on the couch of the house she grew up in, Shannon is glowing from either the intense humidity or her impending labor; her son, Bob and Kathleen's third grandchild, is due any day now.

Story time: She's pressing Bob to retell what he terms his "greatest man in the world" story, the same story he told a group of Assumption Village residents on a Father's Day long ago.

"You might think it's the president of the United States or the Pope or some spiritual leader, or somebody important or something like that," he begins with a sheepish smile, "but it depends upon where you're at and what you're doing.

"If you're a father of four kids, to those four kids, you're the greatest man in the world.

"But it works the other way around, because they're the greatest people in the world to you."

apowers@vindy.com




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