'Old-timer': Adversity welded us together

(What was it like growing up in Johnstown In the 1930s? Where could you find a job? What were the schools like? Where did people shop? What was the cost of a newspaper? Donald Sabo, a lifelong Johnstowner talked about a wide range of topics in an interview at The Tribune-Democrat with Publisher Pamela Mayer; Todd Berkey, staff photographer; and Bruce Wissinger; editor of the editorial page.)


Position:Retired from The Tribune-Democrat as an offset pressman.
Age 86 1/2
Career:Born, raised and still resides in Brownstown Borough, a suburb of Johnstwon. A 1933 graduate of Johnstown Catholic High School. Retired in 1980 after 47 yers of service with The Tribune-Democrat. Active over the years in civic, union and fraternal activit8ies.In 1980's, he was known as The Old-timer, hosting "The Fantasy Ballroom"radio program that aired Saturday nights on what was WJNL-AM. Was a secretary of Brownstown Volunteer Fire Company for 14 years. Is a past president of Johnstown Club 1231 of Toastmasters International. Married former M. Catherine McGowan of Windber, who is deceased. Father of three children.
Quote:"My dad worked in the Bethlehem Steel axle plant but he only worked one-third of the time. He'd be laid off a third and he'd be on strike a third."

If someone would mention the 1930s, what would be the first thing that would come into your mind?
Getting a job, because there weren't any jobs, absolutely none. And the day after I graduated from Catholic High, I started looking for work. I wanted a steady job, so I came here: The daily newspaper was about as steady as you can get.

What were some of your friends doing? Did they have a hard time finding work?
Leona Reiser, a classmate, and I were the only two who found work. She got a job at Penelec. She is now living up at one of the manors.

What were your parents doing then?
My dad worked in the Bethlehem Steel axle plant but he only worked one-third of the time. He'd be laid off a third and he'd be on strike a third.

This was after the stock market crashed in '29 and we're getting into the '30s. How long did this period go on where things with the economy were really rough?
Well, the '36 flood sort of perked things up.

A lot of people who wrote in for our '30. tabloid talked about being hungry or talked about, in retrospect, not having enough food, but not really thinking about it. Can you remember detaIls about that?
We always had enough food. Mother and Dad were good providers and I was an only child. That helped. It wasn't that bad. In fact, now that I look back on it, it was pretty good.

Talk about recreation. What did you do for fun?
The young people in Brownstown Borough decided to build a tennis court.

Brownstown is on the side of a hill. How did you do that?
Picks and shovels and we kids were allowed to help. And we were just kid & this was in the mid-20s. We were allowed to play whenever the adults weren't there, so we played from 8 in the morning until 6 at night.

Is it still there?
No. The funny thing is, later two or three other guys and I bought the land and the court was still there. But now it's gone, all built up.

What was the base of the court?
Shale and clay.

Were sports really big for recreation like today?
Tennis was. It was great. The Tribune tournament, oh, man, that was something.

You didn't play at school, did you?
No, they didn't have tennis in school. Now they have tennis instead of forensics. It's a shame.

What was it like going to school in the '30s?
School chips for the streetcar were a nickel, but we walked unless it was pouring buckets. From Brownstown to Catholic High, it was four miles.

How about the kids at Johnstown High, did they all walk? Were there school buses?
I don't think they had school buses, but the streetcars were full. And when I say full, I mean packed. I'll never forget after I started work here, if the weather was bad, I'd walk over to the other side of the Franklin Street bridge and get on a streetcar because I had a few school chips left. The streetcar was so packed. And halfway through, I noticed a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty Oh, man, she really threw me. But I could never get close to her, not even within shouting distance.
I told my cousin who went to Johnstown High about her He said, oh, I know her Do you want a date? I said, she won't have a blind date, not her. Well, she did. So we made the date. I went down and knocked on the door. Never saw the girl before in my life.

That wasn't her!
Now comes the kicker. Forty years later, my wife and I were up at one of the restaurants on the hill and there she was, sitting next to me.

And you recognized her?
Oh, she looked the same. So I went over and she said, oh, I remember you. So I told her what had happened. She has since died.

How many students were In a classroom? Did you change classes? Were there a lot of courses?
We changed classes. And at Catholic High, the principal, Father Thomas Cawley, wouldn't let you take commercial unless you were a girl. Boys weren't allowed. But I had visions of going to college, so I went to him and he let me take commercial and academic.

Talk about employment and what it was like?
The mills were on strike half the time. Don't let anyone tell you that Johnstown is a union town. it isn't. But by necessity they embraced the unions. However, the '27 union strike didn't do any good. The '37 didn't do much. But eventually, we came around.
When I got a job at the Tribune, I was here almost a year when I found out I had to join a union, which didn't thrill me at all. But I was a stereotyper. The pressroom didn't want us, the compositors didn't want us. So eventually the pressroom got us.
There were only three of us. So we became pressmen, although the only thing we knew about the press was that the papers came out the one end. For 36 years, I was a stereotyper.

How were people buying newspapers then if they were so hardup for money?
They were only 2 cents.

Did you get them home delivered or were they all sold on the corner?
Home delivery

Did you listen to the radio?
Yes. Then in the early '50s, the Tribune had a deal with Cambria Equipment. We were able to buy televisions. Round screen. And we learned about “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” The kids loved it.

Talk about the grocery stores and where you shopped.
Thoroughfare, A&P. They were big markets. And I'll never forget, I was a coupon cutter and all the fellows would give me their coupons. I went out to the Thoroughfare one day and I said to the girl, I have a couple extra coupons. She said, I'll take all you got. I got three boxes of soup, about 60 cans. I still cut coupons.

Did your family have a car? When did you get your car?
No, the first car in my family came when I bought a '29 Chevy from Chevy Motors. It cost me $85. It had Chrysler headlights mounted on each fender. Klaxon horns and chromium steel wheels. Top speed, 55 miles an hour I traded it in '36 on a Ford and got $225. It was a good car.

Do you remember pumping gas? Was it full-servIce station?
The service stations took care of you. They shined your windshield, if there was a mark on the car, they'd even brush it. Totally unlike it is today.

What was the atmosphere like on Saturday mornings In downtown Johnstown?
I wouldn't know too much about Saturday mornings. But Saturday afternoons I was downtown because I'd go to the library every day. They had a rule that you could only takeout one book at a time. So I would walk down, get my book, walk home, read it and take it back the next afternoon. They had great books but not many of them. That's why they had the one-book rule. Now you see people coming out with bagfuls.

Were the streets downtown crowded on Saturdays?
On Saturday nights and during Christmas season, you couldn't move. They were packed from store front to the curb, packed. Now if I come downtown, it's empty.

What was it like It you needed medical care? Did you have to go to the hospital or did the doctor make house calls?
I remember this vaguely I was just a little kid. My mother took me to visit a friend of hers and her husband took me down in the basement to show me some sort of an apparatus that he had. And he said, do you want a drink of wine? I was just a youngster so I said, yeah.
Well, pretty soon I was dead drunk. He carried me upstairs and my mother grabbed me and rushed me home. My dad owned a revolver. He got it out. He said to my mother, I'm going to kill him. If he dies, I'm going to kill him. So they got Dr J.B. McAneny, a short fat guy - a beautiful man. He pulled me through.

He came to the house?
He came to the house about 11 o'clock at night. And later many years later, my dad was dying and his doctor was Jimmy McAneny and he came to the house.

Talk a little bit about your house when you were growing up. Did you have a garden? Did you have chickens?
My dad always had a big garden. And he was a florist. He had beautiful flowers. Another thing that I remember well, he'd have about 300 gladiolas. He'd give me a big bouquet and I'd take it over here on Walnut Street to Mrs. Shearer; Harry Shearer was
running the Cambria Theatre. And she'd tell me to go over to the theater and Harry would give me a pass. I remember seeing Harold Lloyd in “The Freshman” over there. That's a long way back.

How many theaters were there?
There was the Cambria, Majestic, Nemo, Embassy. Of course, the Park was the new Park and the old Park. Up at the corner of Clinton, that could have been called the Alhambra, I'm not sure.
But the Cambria got the stock companies in, Al G. Field Minstrels, burlesque shows. Of course, I was too young to go to burlesque shows. But I remember walking up and down Main Street on the opposite side, peeking surreptitiously over at the girls, who had more clothes on when they were stripped than the girls have on the street today.

Did you ride bikes, or did people just walk and take the streetcar?
We walked.

What was a typical Sunday like?
Our church had concrete steps down at the corner. So us kids would collect on the steps and watch the cars, guessing the names. Back then, Ford made Fords, Chevy Chevys and Plymouth Plymouths. Now they don't even know what they make. One great day we saw a Cord automobile. They were a rarity But we had fun.

What was church like? Did everybody dress up?
Oh, yeah. Our parish was German. We had a grumpy, grouchy, old German priest. He'd give a one-hour sermon in German, one-hour sermon repeated in English and church lasted another hour It was horrible.

There's so much emphasis now on ethnicity and people's ethnic traditions. And you just talked about the German church. Can you talk a little bit about that, remembering growing up with your friends or in your neighborhood?
We had a German church but we had all kind of people. We even had one Italian family up in Brownstown, just one. And everybody got along. Everybody helped everyone out. It was a compact little thriving community The flood was what put Brownstown on the map. No one knew Brownstown was there. But when the flood hit, people ran to Brownstown.

What ethnic group was Brownstown?
I'd hesitate to put any name on it.

Talk about the '36 flood. Were you at work?
Yes. I always walked to work. For 45 years I'd walk both ways, a mile and a quarter from my gate to the Tribune front door. Think of the money I saved. In '36 I was 19, 20. It rained the whole way to work. When we came in, we never thought of a flood. Finally, someone looked out the window and, holy cow, the water was rising in the Tribune alley. One of our stereotypers had just gotten a new car and brought it to work. He watched the water cover it. But it was exciting. Glosser Bros. Store helped us out. They sent food over And the printers made a little fire over on the makeup table and did some cooking.

Did the power go out?
We had lights most of the time.

Were you trapped in the buIlding?
Oh, yes. We were trapped until the next afternoon, about 5 o'clock.

What time was the height of the floodwaters?
I would say about 4 in the morning. It wasn't too far from reaching the second floor
And the Tribune has a piano and a pool table in the rec room. I was a two-bit piano player: I played all night long. When I'd get up, (Publisher) Walter Krebs would say, play, Don.

When you left work after the floodwaters receded, what was it like?
We left work about 5 o'clock/ The boss said to Harry and Sam, go home. I'll never forget Harry said, how about Don? He's been here all night, too. Oh, that's right, take him with you. I found out why. Harry wanted me to walk in front of him because the manhole covers were off. He figured if he was going to go down, I'd go first. No, I'm just saying that.

Were the telephones out? Was there no communication?

What was your phone like in the '30s?
We didn't have a phone but my Uncle Joe Huff had a telephone. And they let me call my high school girlfriend, which I did every day.

Donald Sabo graduated in 1933 from Johnstown Catholic High School. His yearbook said "Don is the life of the Senior Class. His orginality and unending chain of whitty stories have won him a host of friends. There are no dull moments when Don is around, for his 'pep' cannot be surpassed. He is good at helping others and we know he will succeed in being able to keep himself."

Did you have to call through the telephone operator?
You'd get the operator But it isn't like today (Son) Ken used to call me from Germany; Rusty calls me from anywhere. Life is different.

If you wanted to go swimming, where would you go?
Back in Stackhouse Park, unless you got sunburned. Which I did, so I didn't After I started here, I went over to the YMCA.

The ”Y” was downtown then?
Yeah, right over here on Market Street

Did a lot of people go there to swim?
Oh, yeah. So the first night that I went, there were about 40 fellows. Everybody is stark naked. And, oh, that bothered me. I was an only child. I wasn't naked ever. But the highlight of the year was the Tribune tennis tournament. That tournament was out of this world. Of course, the same guys always won.

Being from Brownstown, did you go to the golf course at Sunnehanna? Was golfing big as recreation?
I was in my junior year in high school Being an only child, I wasn't allowed to caddy at first Finally I persuaded my parents to let me caddy We got 75 cents for a round of 18 holes. We were vying with married men for caddying bags because the Depression was on.

At that time, the steel mills were going and the coal mines and, of course, you mentioned the Tribune. Who else was a big employer?
All the ladies worked at Penn Traffic or at Nathan's department store right over here on Main Street.

You mentioned your friend from high school got a job at Penelec. Was that a big employer?
Yeah. Down on Broad Street. It was a fine place to work. I don't think it is anymore. But she retired.

Were all the hospitals here then?
The one I remember most was Lee Homeopathic down where the Majestic Theatre was. It was a big hospital. Then there was the Mercy and Memorial. Those two seemed to be rivals even then. My wife was a nurse at Mercy so naturally I was prejudiced.

Did your wife quit when she got married?
Yes, she did for a while and then she went back to work because she was on call for the entire borough. I wouldn't be afraid to say that there wasn't a house in Brownstown that she didn't look in on, just because she was a good nurse. So she went back to work and eventually ended up working for the community nursing service. When she retired, she got a small pension and then she went to work for the state. She retired from there and she got a check for $7,000.

What was going on at the Point Stadium then?
The Point Stadium had a second floor of bleachers and we kids were allowed to go up there for nothing. So we watched the Middle Atlantic team with Chief Bender, Joe Cronin, all those guys. Every time they played, we were allowed upstairs.

What did it cost for an event?
I never paid. I remember when the Yankees came to town and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig stood at home plate and drove balls over the center field wall into the parking lot.

What was your wedding like?
We were married in Windber, which was always a nasty word to me until I met her

How did you meet her?
Through the hospital. My mother was a patient and Kate was a nurse. I was dating a friend of hers.

Can you describe what the trip from Johnstown to Windber was like, because Richland and all that suburbia was farms wasn't it?
That's right. You had the two-lane highway going to Windber. And Windber, in my opinion, was an alien nation. I hated it I hated the fact that I was dating someone from Windber. But love conquered all.
So we got married in Windber. I'll never forget, Father McDermott was the priest. And at the breakfast, he said, I'll tell you a funny story The last wedding I officiated at, the groom died within a week. Well, four days after we got married, our car turned over eight times in South Dakota. And we both almost died. I don't know if that was a premonition.

You drove to South Dakota?

How many days did it take you?
It was the fourth day when we were in the accident in South Dakota.

Where were you headed?
To California and then down to Mexico and across the southern tier and back up. Our car was demolished.

How did you get home?
Train. We had to leave because they'd have killed us if we'd have stayed there. Whenever we had our wreck, the car that caused it stopped and my wife went out the windshield and I crawled out the door and picked her up. There was a mass of blood. So naturally, I started walking toward their car and I remember they said, oh, we can't take you, we're full - and drove away
So another car came and he was full. But he got us in the back seat and took us into town. The doctor's office was in the back of a garage.

You were here for both the '36 flood and the '77 flood. How would you compare the recovery periods? Did it take as long in '36 for the economy to get back onto it's feet?
I would say it took longer for the '36 flood because it was more devastating. The one thing I remember about the '77 flood is that we were down in the pressroom starting to clean up - everybody cleaned up. All of a sudden, I looked and I saw this pair of legs standing there. Here it was your dad (Publisher Richard Mayer). And he said, Don, I thought you told me we weren't going to have any more floods. I said, I did. But I'm not going to tell you that again.

There is one issue that's come up a lot. If you could, talk about the nostalgia, that things were better for families then, and that there were more values in the '30s. What do you think might be missing today?
Well, in the '30s everybody stood together. Today I believe each family is a separate entity. Back then, we were welded together by adversity and a Depression.

You knew all your neighbors?
Oh, yeah. This one line from the church up to the top of the hill was all related slightly. But they stuck together like glue.

Were your grandparents here when you were growing up?
Oh, yeah. My grandfather was the last one to die. He was a tiny man and he was a fighter. He got in a fight with a policeman once in Cambria City He didn't go to jail because the policeman provoked the attack.

Was It safe then? Did you lock your doors?
You left your doors open. The insurance-man would knock on your door. If nobody answered, he'd open the door, go in, open the cupboard, reach up on the third shelf and get your book and money.

Was there much crime?
No. The only crime was City Hall. We had a circus with the mayors. I remember seeing Danny Shields, who was an imposing looking gentleman. He'd come through the park. And it didn't matter if he met a bag lady or a fancy lady, he'd say, good morning, ma'am. He whipped off his hat. But he and Eddie McCloskey it was a circus. Of course, then John Conway brought a little dignity and sobriety. Then we went into “Ned” Rose and we went back to where we were before.

Was there a lot of drinking In town?
I don't remember any. One thing I remember that really bothered me, the guys I worked with, they were chasers. My dad would run home from work, change clothes, work in the yard, eat dinner, work in the yard, go to bed. These guys were out all the time. That really bothered me tremendously. Of course, I was brought up on a farm.

Was there a big class distinction between people who had money and people who didn't? Was there ethnic distinction?
There weren't too many people who had money, and after the '29 market crash, a lot of them killed themselves.

Who were the top business leaders In the area then?
I'd say Dave Barry was the head of the banking. Mr. Krebs, naturally, the newspaper Sam Heckman, Penn Traffic. The Glosser boys.

Did you put your money In the bank or take It home?
I'd take it home.

What was Central Park like?
It was just like it is now green nothing in the middle except the flagpole. And there would be a lot of hookers in the park at night. I guess that hasn't changed.

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