Sunday, September 17, 2017
RELATED: What brought on steel industry’s demise? Signs of trouble were there
By KALEA HALL
Current and former Vindicator staff remember Black Monday, the day that shook the Valley.
Frank Castro was frustrated.
He knew his job at Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s Campbell Works would be over soon.
VIDEO: Remembering Black Monday
VIDEO SET: Steel industry in the Valley
Jennings R. Lambeth, president of YS&T, announced 40 years ago this week the company would lay off thousands of steelworkers as it ended basic steel operations that included the open hearth furnaces, the blooming mill and all hot- and cold-rolled sheet and strip mills.
That announcement floored Castro. Shock gave way to anger.
“I was disgusted with this place,” he said.
Castro had safety protocols to follow when he worked to repair machines. In a bout of frustration – on this one day, on this one machine – he decided to forgo the process.
Frank, now 72, says he is lucky because what happened next could have been much worse.
“The part came down and crushed my finger,” he said, displaying the place his missing index finger used to occupy on his left hand.
The event changed Frank’s frustration to acceptance.
“Well, they are closing. What can you do?” Frank said.
Forty years later, a roast simmers in the Castro kitchen. It’s a well-kept Poland house with homey decor and family photos throughout.
Joey, the family Shih Tzu, greets guests as they enter.
Frank worked many hours of overtime for this home, time spent so his family could enjoy a roast dinner in peace and comfort.
That American Dream of a home filled with a family and a hot meal was realized by many steelworkers.
Then came Sept. 19, 1977, now known as Black Monday. That was the beginning of the end of an era with Lambeth’s Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. announcement.
By 1980, YS&T’s Brier Hill plant closed, and U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works in Youngstown and McDonald Works in McDonald followed. With them went 10,000 steel jobs and thousands of other jobs affected by the loss.
Youngstown would lose a lot of its identity.
But it wouldn’t lose it all.
Steel was the lifeblood of Youngstown.
Together, YS&T’s Campbell Works and Brier
Hill Works and U.S. Steel in Youngstown
The mills were a literal melting pot of longtime residents and immigrants who came to the United States for a better life. That life included a good-paying job with benefits that provided for a family.
When children in the family grew up, they did what they knew: They went to the mills.
Frank’s father and grandfather worked at Sheet & Tube in Campbell, and so did his father-in-law.
“Most of them didn’t have cars, so they all walked over the hill,” Frank said.
The sky would light up red while the mills were going. A blast of air would echo and graphite would fall like snow.
People might complain of the noise and the smog and soot that the mills created, but everyone in town knew what they provided.
In one summer at Campbell Works, Frank made $5,000 and that changed his mind about becoming a teacher.
Luckily, he was given a job in maintenance, learning mechanical know-how that would continue to benefit him.
Mill life, he knew, would be hard, dirty work.
“It was always hot,” he said. “The work was hard, hot and dirty. I used to buy my clothes used and wear them for three to four days and throw them away.”
As a maintenance worker, Frank’s responsibility was to keep the machines running.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, business for Sheet & Tube seemed to be booming, Frank recalled.
“We always worked overtime,” Frank said. “We worked 16-hour days.”
Days turned into months and months turned into years and soon Frank had 13 years under his belt.
One night after getting off the midnight shift, Frank came home and went to sleep. He awoke to find his wife crying.
Janice Castro had seen a breaking news bulletin announcing the Campbell Works would close its strip steel mill and lay off 5,000 workers.
“I believed it, and I woke him up,” Janice said.
But Frank didn’t believe it. He had just started to install new parts in the machinery.
Then he went into work and saw the sign that told workers to pick a future: retirement, severance or layoff.
“That’s when it hit me,” he said. “It really hit me in the face. It was just a business decision. Everyone else worked here and retired! Why shouldn’t I?”
Frank and his wife had just built a house and their boys were still young.
“I was scared,” Janice said.
Frank got lucky and quickly got another steel job before the place closed. His maintenance background helped him land a job at Republic Steel in Canton.
And then a job at an aluminum plant in Indiana. And then a job at Republic in Warren.
Eventually, Frank settled into a job for 20-plus years at Packard Electric.
“Some guys maybe never got a job because they never got a skilled trade,” Frank said. “Packard was still here and General Motors was still here and Warren [Republic] was still going. In my world it was kind of normal.”
Stephan Soltis, now 61, graduated from Campbell Memorial High School and at 20 years old got a job at Sheet & Tube’s Campbell Works.
Steel is what Soltis knew. His grandfather, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, worked in steel, and so did his father.
He thought the job would be permanent, but a year after he started, the unthinkable happened: Black Monday.
Soltis worked in the seamless hot mill maintenance group and his father, Steve Soltis, was a blooming mill operator working in the strip-steel mill.
The announcement came as a shock that the hourly workers didn’t expect.
“Most of them heard it on the news,” Soltis said.
As the layoffs followed, workers left with everything still in their lockers from hard hats to steel-toed boots.
When Soltis went home and saw his dad, a wave of guilt hit him.
His father’s job was gone, but his job wasn’t – yet. The company exempted Campbell’s seamless hot mill from its massive closing.
But five years after his dad lost his job, Soltis lost his job, too.
“You went into it for the money, to have a family and a house,” he said. “It was Youngstown’s dream.”
After the dream ended, Soltis went to school for air conditioning and then did other jobs around town and in New York.
Then, something happened.
The market picked up and the Brier Hill plant was going to have a revival, then called North Star Steel.
The plant would produce steel billets.
“I wanted to come back home,” Soltis said. “Everybody who is from Youngstown, I think loves Youngstown. It’s where your memories are.”
Home wasn’t just Youngstown; it was steel.
In 1987, Stephen got hired at North Star.
“The first pipe went through on Groundhog Day in 1988,” he said. “It was a celebration; a rebirth.”
Once again, he could work 10 minutes from home, raise his family where he was raised and grow his town’s economy with his own sweat.
“I think everyone who started here at that time knew that Youngstown wasn’t going to be a super city again,” he said.
But resilient it was and remains.
Soltis is now a rolling mill team leader at Vallourec Star where seamless steel pipe is made for the oil and gas industry. Vallourec purchased North Star Steel in a joint venture with Sumitomo Corp. of America and it became V&M Star and later Vallourec Star.
Soltis sees himself retiring at 66, but his steel stories, and his father’s and grandfather’s steel stories, will continue.
“It was a good life,” he said. “It’s been a good life.”