Memories built by steel

The house that Carl Jacobson grew up in was a wooden home in Brownlee Woods.

But it was built by steel.

His dad worked the Youngstown mills, as did his uncles and neighbors.

Like many around here, he grew up with steel and he can rattle off the names of the mills, the parent companies, what was produced and where it went.

At age 19, he headed there, too. It was 1974.

“It was 76 stairs to the booth where I turned in my time card,” said Carl, now 58, and a world away from that place. But it’s a place he remembers well and fondly, and not just the 76 steps.

“We wore green denim outer gear. But you still had to wear long johns underneath to protect from burns. Big brown clouds just hung there in windless 95-degree buildings. Graphite from the molten iron stuck to you and smeared when you wiped your sweat.”

He remembers very well the last days of the retirees.

“I recall meeting guys who’d been there for 47 years. On their last day, they would not work. They did not put on their protective jackets. They would just walk around and shake hands all day — celebrating an end,” Carl said.

“Some day, I would make that same walk. That was my vision.”

Visions... .

They can be crisp and clear, decisive. And they can blur, fog, then fade.

Carl’s was the latter.

When the Valley steel industry crashed, so too did the plans for guys like Carl.

“I built a home in Austintown. I moved in in 1979. Less than a month later, the closing was announced.”

That last walk? It became a desperate dash for work. It took him to Sharon, to Lorain, to Ambridge, Pa. And then out of steel altogether.

That was then.

Now, he just remembers what was good about the times and the opportunities and what it built for him and the community, despite how harshly it was torn away.

What he recalls most is the camaraderie with the guys. And it’s with that in mind that he pioneered an idea that, by a little later today, we will know if it worked or not.

Carl partnered with the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor to create the Company Reunion Project.

Not just for workers; not just for bosses; but for everyone. Today is Day 2 of the gathering at the Wood Street center. Saturday was for U.S. Steel and Republic Steel. Today, starting at 11:30, is for Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Railroad workers will gather from 2 to 4 p.m.

It’s somewhat unprecedented and somewhat risky, given the wounds.

“At the time, everyone was angry — what a waste of machinery, buildings ... and people,” Carl said. “I would hope we can celebrate the people. As angry as we all were, I put it all behind. That’s just the way it went then. Where I am now — I thank God I’m healthy and I can still work. Everything’s changed, but those are all blessings.”

Nicole Marino is a Youngstown State University graduate assistant in public history and is helping Carl with the event.

“We’ll get the opportunity to relive the good memories,” said Marino, who leads tours at the museum.

“You can read on the faces of our guests what I refer to as ‘that scar.’ It’s healed, but it’s there. But when you get the guys talking about things like organized sports through the mills, the guys tell great tales. [Steel] is what everyone here did.”

And guys like Carl lost that chance and that last day of handshakes.

“You were trusting people with your life in a mill — and all of a sudden it was all over,” Carl said.

He said after the collapse, retirees had places such as the Sam Camens Center to share and reflect and continue that bond.

“There was nothing for [younger guys]. Just desperation.”

He said it was a tough way to part with guys you were with all day, every day.

“The camaraderie was there. But unlike a baseball team, it was not a game. It was real life.”

It was a fluke chat outside St. Patrick Church in March that launched an idea that had scratched Carl for many years, like that green denim.

“I watched online for any retiree groups and did not come up with anything. I thought, ‘The years are going by; if we’re ever going to do this, it has to be now.’ ”

So he’s hoping this weekend to meet others who’ve had that same itch for the last 30-plus years — something that started from a deep wound but is now just a faded scar. Saturday’s event with the U.S. Steel veterans was, at its 11 a.m. opening, a small group, but hardy, Carl said.

In the planning, he’s encountered one past colleague — a guy who would drive the ladle over Carl’s head, and who’s errant move could have cost Carl his life.

“I last talked to him in 1979. I looked up his number. I wasn’t sure if it was him. I called him, and when I heard him talk, I knew it was him.”

Thirty-four years later, it was a good voice to hear.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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