Steel photographer recalls a heavy mission
By Kalea Hall
Sheet & Tube photographer on Black Monday
Percy Kelty, former photographer at Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co., speaks about the mission assigned to him on Black Monday.
Percy Kelty can sure tell a story. One story in particular almost tells itself.
Kelty, 93 of Youngstown, worked as the corporate photographer at Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co..
His job was to take pictures of the company’s plants here and elsewhere for S&T promotional use.
VIDEO: Sheet & Tube photographer on Black Monday
He often would travel to New York for work and fun, which the company knew.
He was a good employee, which the company knew.
For those reasons, and maybe more, Kelty was given a mission.
One day he was to go to New York City and stay in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. A cab would pick him up and take him around town to several media outlets.
He was to hand out letters given to him by the president at YS&T, Jennings R. Lambeth, to each outlet and watch someone from the outlet read the letter.
“Of course I wasn’t allowed to open them,” he said.
But curiosity led Kelty to open a letter before he started his mission Sept. 19, 1977.
The letter detailed what is now referred to as Black Monday when Sheet & Tube announced the end of an era with a majority of its steel operations at Campbell Works ending, idling 5,000 workers.
“I thought, ‘All hell is gonna break loose,’ and people are going to lose their jobs, but I just kept my mouth shut,” Kelty said. “I was feeling for the people.”
The media’s reaction: “Goodbye, Youngstown.”
“One fella said, ‘Where do I sit down,’” Kelty said. “It was hard on me knowing all those people were going to lose their jobs and the company wasn’t going to go to pot. That was hard.”
Kelty had some concern, but he knew the resilience of the area.
The Ellwood City, Pa., native is a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Force as a bomber pilot until Army officials found out he could shoot pictures and made him an aerial photographer.
His job as a photographer landed him a gig at Sheet & Tube after the war as a mill photographer.
Inside Kelty’s home, some of the pictures he took there still hang on the walls.
“You have to be careful when you shoot something like this. If you overexpose it, then you will not get this stream,” he said, pointing out a stream of red hot elements pouring into an open hearth to make steel.
The mills, Kelty said, were dirty and noisy and not easy to photograph. But he absolutely loved them.
After the local operations closed, Kelty continued working in Chicago taking steel-mill pictures. He shot scenes at the mills for at least 50 years.
His photos went in 600,000 calendars that were sent to Sheet & Tube’s customers and in 8,000 employee calendars. He also did the portraits of the company officials.
“I used to love taking my fancy clothes off and putting on my coveralls,” he said. “Every time I turned around there was a wonderful photograph. It was kind of difficult to make it because it was so noisy in there.
“The people really helped me. They were wonderful.”