A High School Reunion Reveals: When Steel Mills Fell Silent, Fates Got Flipped Marilyn Geewax, who recently retired as an NPR business editor, returned to Ohio for her class's 45th reunion. The visit showed how things changed dramatically for retirees in just one generation.

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

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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.


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.

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