In A Steel Town, A Father Who Defined Tough Love

Originally published on April 8, 2011 1:10 pm

George Lengel's family helped produce the steel wire ropes that support iconic structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the elevators at the Eiffel Tower. But it turned out that George's father had other plans for his son.

"My father, uncles, cousins, grandmother and mother worked in the mills," George says.

That was during the 1940s, in Roebling, N.J. And to George, one man stood above all others in a town full of tough men — his father.

"Every weekend, dad would drag me along everywhere he went," George says.

In particular, they would walk to a part of town known as The Row — named for the row of bars that lined the street.

"I was eight years old, sitting on bar stools, and listening to the stories of the men," George says. "They were so proud to work in that mill."

George's father was proud, as well. The son of Hungarian immigrants, he had worked at the John A. Roebling's Sons Steel and Wire Mills since 1924, when he was 15. By then, the Roebling name was already famous — the family patriarch had designed the Brooklyn Bridge in the 19th century.

"When we would go over a bridge, he'd say, 'See those wire ropes, boy? We made those ropes,'" George says. "And there was no doubt in my mind: I was going to work alongside my dad, my granddad, my uncles."

But then George told his father that he planned to quit school when he was 16, so he could work with the rest of the family at the mill.

"Well, my father decided to introduce my back to the living room wall," George says. "He placed his nose about six inches away from my nose, and told me that I was NOT going to quit school. I was NOT going to work in that mill.

George would not be a bolvan, his father told him.

"And I said, 'Dad, what does bolvan mean?'

"He said, 'Son, bolvan is a Slavish word. It means jackass. You're not going to be one. You're going to college.'"

As George recalls, "There is one word that I would never say to my dad. The word was 'why.'"

So when his father told George he would be going to college, that was the end of the discussion.

"I knew this was the right thing to do," he says. "I knew dad loved his work — but he didn't want me to do it. I was the first in my family to graduate from college."

George went on to become a history teacher; he worked in New Jersey's public schools for more than 30 years.

And thinking back to his teenage years, George says his father also had a tender side. When he was around 18 or 19, the two kept up a nightly ritual — whether they had gotten along that day or not.

"I'd be in bed, my father would walk in the room, he'd sit down on the bed next to me. He'd say, 'Good night, son. I love you.' And he'd kiss me on the cheek."

At 69, George is now retired from teaching — and he volunteers as a docent at the Roebling Museum, at the site of the old steel mill. His father, a smoker since the age of 11, died of lung cancer in 1972.

George says that when he knew his father had only a few days left, he started their old ritual again.

"I would go every night and I'd sit down on the bed, like he used to sit next to me," he says. "And I'd look at him and I'd say, 'Dad, I love you. And I'd kiss him on the cheek and leave."

"He was a tough man," George says. "But he was a good father."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Time now for StoryCorps, the project that collects stories from Americans across the country. Today we'll hear about a company town.

Mr. GEORGE LENGEL: My dad, my uncles, cousins, my grandmother, and my mother worked in the mills.

MONTAGNE: That's George Lengel remembering Roebling, New Jersey, where the Lengel family helped produce wire ropes that support the Golden Gate Bridge and the elevators at the Eiffel Tower. Here George talks about growing up in Roebling in the 1940s, and one man who stood above all others in a town full of tough men: his father.

Mr. LENGEL: Every weekend, Dad would drag me along everywhere he went. We walked to an area called The Row, and it was called The Row because it was a row of bars. I was eight years old sitting on bar stools and listening to the stories of the men. They were so proud to work in that mill. My father, when we go over a bridge, he says see those wire ropes, boy? We made those ropes.

And there was no doubt in my mind, I was going to work alongside my dad and my granddad, my uncles. But my father determined my future. We had a discussion one time. I mentioned that at 16 I wanted to quit school. I told him I wanted to go work in the mill. Well, my father decided to introduce my back to the living room wall. He placed his nose about six inches away from my nose and told me that I was not going to quit school, I was not going to work in that mill, that I was not going to be a bolvan, that he is a bolvan. And I said, Dad, what's this bolvan mean? He said, son, bolvan is a Slavish word. It means jackass. You're not going to be one. You're going to college.

There was one word that I would never say to my dad. The word was why. He'd say, son, cut the grass. Why? No, you didn't say that word. Son, you're going to college. I knew this was the right thing to do. I knew dad loved his work, but he didn't want me to do it.

I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and I remember, I was 18, 19 years old, and every night, even if he was mad at me, I'd be in bed, my father would walk in the room, he'd sit down on the bed next to me. He'd say, good night, son. I love you. And he'd kiss me on the cheek.

And I remember when Dad died of lung cancer. He was a smoker since he was 11 years old. I knew Dad was bad, he was on his way out, and I knew there was just a few days left. And I would go every night and I'd sit down on the bed like he used to sit next to me, and I'd look at him and I'd say, Dad, I love you, and I'd kiss him on the cheek and leave. He was a tough man, but he was a good father.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: George Lengel went on to become a history teacher and he taught in New Jersey public schools for more than 30 years. This interview will be archived with all the others at the library of Congress, and the podcast is at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.