A High School Reunion Reveals: When Steel Mills Fell Silent, Fates Got Flipped

Sep 3, 2018
Originally published on September 3, 2018 1:39 pm

The only high school in my hometown — Campbell, Ohio — was built on a hilltop just east of Youngstown.

Behind our football field, the earth sloped away, down to the Mahoning River valley where the Youngstown Sheet & Tube steel mills stretched out for miles.

Our school, our small town, the gritty air we breathed — they were inseparable from those blast furnaces.

For three generations of Campbell guys, seeking work at the mill was almost automatic. And smart: You were guaranteed great pay and union benefits.

"Go to the steel mills. That was my vision, go follow my father," my classmate Pete Nicolaou told me at his kitchen table when I returned to Youngstown recently for the Class of 1973 reunion.

My vision was different. Just: "Go."

Get away to college and then keep going.

But this summer, I went back to Campbell for my 45th high school reunion. I wanted to see old friends — and also to look back on the huge economic shifts that had reshaped our lives.

Last spring, I retired from full-time work at NPR. But I haven't stopped thinking about the economy, and I can see that the data show inequality is growing among retirees. What happened to Nicolaou and me can tell you a lot about what has changed in just one generation — and for millions of retirees, the changes aren't good.

That summer of 1973, Nicolaou started at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube mill. "I didn't know what I was walking into. I've never been where there was cranes going overhead and flames and heat. It was a scary thing for a while," he said. "Eventually you just grow into it."

As for me, I was heading off to Ohio State, hoping to become a writer. That seemed like a hit-or-miss option. Maybe I could get a good job, but maybe not. Certainly, a writer's retirement prospects didn't look as secure as a United Steelworkers' pension.

1973: An economic tipping point

Turns out, we were choosing our careers at a tipping point in economic history.

Behind us, there was the post-World War II boom that had sent factory jobs soaring. Ahead was a computer-driven economy — hungry for college grads.

That summer, Ohio was solidly in the old era — cranking out steel and autos and tires. It all felt so permanent.

But it wasn't. In October 1973, Egypt and Syria would launch a war against Israel. After the United States sided with Israel, Arab nations retaliated with an oil embargo, sending energy prices soaring — and dooming aging, inefficient steel mills.

Four years later, on Sept. 19, 1977, the Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced it would shut down — and instantly wipe out 5,000 jobs.

"They told us you're done," Nicolaou said. "They didn't give us no two-week notice, you didn't see nothing about it. They just come and told us goodbye."

And that's where our life stories really start to diverge. At the time, I had just finished an internship at the Dayton Journal Herald. When the mill-closing news hit, I ran back to Youngstown to write about it for the newspaper.

I got a front-page story in Dayton — and a $50 check for it.

I would go on to become a business-news journalist.

Moving in different directions

Over the years, I layered on a master's degree and built a good career. Even now, I'm making money from part-time editing and teaching.

As for my friend, he went on to work at a van plant — until that closed down — and then on to an auto plant. But the hard, physical work wrecked Nicolaou's knees and triggered other health problems. He had to retire at 56.

"I had quite a few disabilities," he said. "I got a staph infection after one of my surgeries. And that's what ended me. It ate my heart. It ate the valve off my heart. And they had to take my knee back out again."

Oh. And there was something else.

"I had cancer. They said it could a came from the mills from the asbestos," Nicolaou said. "I'm a 14-year survivor of that."

My friend's story is not uncommon for blue-collar baby boomers. Arthritis, diabetes, heart troubles, cancer and more — they make it impossible to work.

Despite his disabilities, Nicolaou and his wife live a good life on a pretty piece of land in a wooded area. "We got coyotes, we got bears," he said. On his living room walls, he displays deer heads and other reminders of a life filled with family and outdoor pursuits. He feels rooted here, and content with his choices.

As for me, I moved away to college, and then kept moving for opportunities. I have lived in Ohio, New York, Georgia, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and now back to Georgia.

Stay or go?

This new economy rewards people like me who get up and go. But it inflicts costs too. I wasn't in Campbell as much as I wanted to help my aging parents. I don't have that passion my friend feels for his land.

Still, when we look back, neither of us would have done things differently.

"I enjoyed the work as I did it," he said. "It was a good life. You felt good, you come out dirty, but I mean you did a good day's work and you felt good about it."

I felt good about being a journalist.

This is what's wrong

But here's what doesn't feel good: seeing those economic trend lines that show the people who worked in factories, cleaned houses, waited tables, planted fields, drove trucks — that their retirement prospects have been eroding.

Retirees' financial security actually rose in a fairly straight line from the end of World War II to about 1990, thanks to Social Security, Medicare, pensions, veterans benefits and rising home equity.

But that line stopped rising because of factors such as: skyrocketing medical costs; the foreclosure crisis; soaring rents; the evaporation of defined-benefit pension plans; the reduction in union benefits; longer lifespans — and even more need to care for grandchildren because of the opioid crisis.

Today, the rate of people 65 and older filing for bankruptcy is triple what it was in 1991, according to the Consumer Bankruptcy Project.

Some retirees are flourishing

Here's the cruel irony: Affluence is accelerating for retirees who had made it into the higher ranks of earners, such as business managers, doctors, accountants, lawyers — and even journalists at big news outlets. Census data show that people in the top one-fifth of households saw their inflation-adjusted incomes shoot up by nearly 80 percent between 1970 and 2016, compared with less than 18 percent for the bottom fifth.

So those who enjoyed the best income growth are now the retirees with the most savings in the stock market. Since early 2009, the S&P 500 stock index has more than quadrupled, helping those nest eggs swell.

And at a recent National Press Foundation training program on retirement issues, I learned about the rising positive indicators for white-collar retirees who are still earning paychecks to pad savings. Since the 1990s, labor force participation is up 11 percentage points for older workers, the data showed. To a large extent, that's because professionals can sit at desks and pile up paychecks well into their 60s and 70s.

That combination of higher earnings, longer careers and greater savings is allowing a slice of boomers to peel away from the majority of retirees. A recent analysis by HSBC Bank says companies should start creating more goods and services just for those affluent older consumers whose tastes "play a big role in driving global demand for a wave of new products."

Who really deserves the hat tip?

At the Nicolaou house, it was time for me to say goodbye and head to the reunion.

There, at an upscale, suburban restaurant, I would see old classmates. A disproportionate number of them would be the college grads who could afford the $45 dinner ticket. When we chatted, we would shake our heads in disbelief at how many jobs had simply disappeared from our hometown.

Truly, we did not see any of this coming in that summer of '73.

But before I left Pete's kitchen table, he said something that really touched me.

"I read an article you wrote one time and I was awful proud for knowing you," he said.

Hey Pete, I'm awfully proud for knowing you.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There is a big divide between older Americans who are ready for retirement and those who don't quite have the money. Our colleague Marilyn Geewax retired from her post as an NPR business editor, and then she attended her 45th high school reunion in the Youngstown, Ohio, area. It's a region where many old-style, middle-class jobs have disappeared, and that is now reflected in the lives of many retirees. Here's what Marilyn found at the reunion.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: The 1973 class of Memorial High School met at a nice restaurant in one of Youngstown's suburbs seven miles from the hard luck area where our high school stands. The classmates who showed up were, by and large, those who had gone to college and could afford the dinner - $45 a person, $90 a couple, plush your drinks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wait. There's Mary. Oh, my God. Good to see you.

GEEWAX: I caught up with friends, especially the ones who, like me, had moved away for degrees and jobs. I've lived in Ohio, New York, Georgia, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and now back to Georgia. My classmate, Pete Nicolaou, he was different. He stayed close to home, but he wasn't going to the class reunion, so I stopped by his house to see how he was adjusting to retirement. It's just a few miles from our high school in a rural area. He has woods in the backyard and a fish-stocked pond in the front.

PETE NICOLAOU: We cleared all the land that you see cleared. (Laughter) To do it now - I wouldn't be able to do it.

GEEWAX: He loves living in the country.

NICOLAOU: We got coyotes. We got bears.

GEEWAX: We went inside the house. The living room walls are decorated with mounted deer heads. We sat at the kitchen table and flipped through our old yearbook. In high school, I was a nerd focused on getting into Ohio State. Pete was a bit of a smart aleck but in a cool way.

NICOLAOU: Everybody's worried about me cussing and everything else. I thought I...

GEEWAX: You are, Pete...

NICOLAOU: I could have a civil tongue - yeah, me.

GEEWAX: ...Quite capable (laughter) of a civilized conversation.

Our high school sat on a hilltop. Behind it, the Earth sloped away down to the valley where the Youngstown Sheet and Tube mill stretched out for miles. Our school, our town, the air we breathe, they were inseparable from those blast furnaces.

NICOLAOU: When there was smoke coming out of that valley, people were being fed, and kids were being sent to school.

GEEWAX: At the time, I was the one moving in a riskier direction by trying to be a writer, a hit-or-miss job that may not provide a pension. Pete made what seemed like the more secure choice.

NICOLAOU: Go to the steel mills. That's my - that was my vision, to go work and follow my father.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEEL MILL MACHINERY)

GEEWAX: That's the sound of the Sheet and Tube mill captured in an old government documentary film. It's exactly the kind of noise that greeted Pete when he started working there that summer of 1973.

NICOLAOU: Didn't know what I was walking into - I've never been in the - where there was cranes going overhead and flames and heat.

GEEWAX: The job was dangerous but weirdly satisfying.

NICOLAOU: In the steel mill, I was ready to retire there. I was set. You felt good. You come out dirty (laughter) but, I mean, you did a good day's work, and you felt good about it.

GEEWAX: Then came what everyone here calls Black Monday, September 19, 1977. That was the day the Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it was shutting down. Five thousand people lost their job on that day, including Pete.

NICOLAOU: They walked in and told us you're done. They didn't give us no two-week notice. No - you didn't see nothing about it. They just come and told us goodbye.

GEEWAX: And here's where our life stories really start to diverge. I heard the news on the radio. I was in my black Plymouth Duster driving back to Ohio State after finishing up an internship at the Dayton newspaper. I called the Dayton editor and asked if I should go cover the steel mill shut down. He said, yes. I got a front-page story and a $50 check for it. I made money on my hometown's calamity. I'd go on to become a business news journalist. These days, I'm still editing and teaching part time. White-collar retirees can pad savings by doing sit-down jobs. As for Pete, after Black Monday, he worked in a van plant until that shut down, too, then an auto plant until he had to retire at 56 because of health problems.

NICOLAOU: I got a staph infection after one of my surgeries, and that's what ended me, and it ate my heart - ate the valve off my heart. And they had to take my knee back out again.

GEEWAX: Pete walks with a cane. He's also survived a cancer. He says his doctors tell him it's likely linked to asbestos in the mill. His wife works cleaning houses to help pay the bills. Still, Pete and his wife live a peaceful life. He's glad he stayed.

NICOLAOU: And I hunted and fished all I wanted around here. I did what I wanted to do, and I had a wife that supported me, and she understood it.

GEEWAX: So Pete is content, but here's what bothers me - seeing so many older Americans who worked hard like Pete facing mounting medical bills. Lawmakers are talking about raising the Social Security retirement age by two or three years. That could hit people like Pete, people who worked so hard their bodies won't let them continue earning into their late '50s.

It's funny how many of us knew people, relatives, that had a missing finger or missing - I had a - my father's cousin was missing his leg. A couple of guys from our church died in the mill. I mean, it was a tough life. It was...

NICOLAOU: But it was a good life that we'll never see again.

GEEWAX: Pete doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for him, and I respect that. As for me, when the reunion ended, I flew away, like always.

INSKEEP: Former NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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