Furnished with Knowledge
In Czarist Russia, being drafted into military service was like receiving a life sentence – or maybe a death sentence. The term was 25 years as a private, with no possibility of promotion. Very few survived those 25 years because of bad food, physical abuse, and miserable living conditions.
In 1906 an eighteen-year-old man named Simon Bolotin avoided that fate by coming to Youngstown, where his distant cousins had been living for 15 or 20 years. They were in the furniture business. They set him to peddling goods such as rag rugs and curtains house to house in Sharon.
Simon’s uncle had taught him to read before he left Russia, but he had no formal education. He read voraciously and educated himself. At age 18 he opened his own furniture store on Washington Street in Sharon, and later moved it to Sharpsville Avenue where the library parking lot is today.
“We lived on Spruce Street, on a dead end between Prindle and the boulevard,” Leon said. “That street was very quiet. In the summertime all the kids from four or five blocks around would come to play softball or touch football on the street because there weren’t many cars around.”
While in high school, he worked at his father’s furniture store making deliveries. During his Junior year, he met Harriett Bloch, a transfer student from Sharpsville.
“I remember him hanging off the back of the truck waving at me,” Harriett said.
Like Leon’s father, Harriett’s father was an immigrant who opened his own business.
“He came from Lithuania when he was in his teens,” Harriett said. “He and two brothers opened a clothing business in Sharpsville – Bloch’s Men’s Furnishings.”
The Blochs ran their store with a casual attitude that suited those times.
“He would have a slip of paper with just ‘Shorty’ on it,” Leon said. “The paper was yellow with age. ‘Who’s Shorty?’ I asked. My father-in-law answered, ‘Well, he’s that guy who used to come around here. He’ll pay me some day.’ That’s the way they ran that business.”
Nevertheless, they earned a decent living. Harriett, an only child, remembers that during the Depression they supported three or four other families.
“Growing up in Sharpsville, you knew everyone,” she said. “It wasn’t built up like it is now. The last house on 7th Street was at the top of the hill. There wasn’t anything past that. We used to walk to Buhl Park in the winter to ice skate. We would sled ride down 7th street. Nothing bad ever happened. It was a very nice community.”
While in high school, Harriett got to know Leon casually. Then came her sixteenth birthday party.
“I had invited a number of people, but I needed another fellow. I asked a friend, ‘If I invite Leon Bolotin, do you think he’d come?’ He said, ‘To a party? Sure, he’ll come!’ After that we went together off and on for a while. When he was a Senior and I was a Junior, he took me to Senior Prom.”
Leon graduated from high school in 1937, then went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.
“My father would make any sacrifice to see that all of his children could go to any school we wanted to,” Leon said. “Joe went to medical school at Western Reserve, Rose went to the University of Wisconsin, and Nathan went to Virginia Military Institute.”
While Leon was at Wharton, his future wife Harriett went to Penn State for one year. Then she came back to Sharon, attended business school, and got a job at Westinghouse.
“It was an interesting place to work,” she said. “Especially the people that worked at night. They used to tell how much sleep they could get. It was always funny. Word would get around that they were going to be checked tomorrow. Boy, they’d work hard then. Other than that it was very casual.”
After Leon returned from Wharton in the summer of 1941, he tried to enlist in the Air Corps, but they wouldn’t take him because of his eyes. So he started working with his father in the furniture store.
“I respected my father very much,” Leon said, “but we discovered that it wasn’t good for a father and son to work together in the same store. So we opened a store in Greenville in November, 1941, just a month before Pearl Harbor.”
He was drafted in June, 1942 – ironically, into the Air Corps. After basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, he was assigned to Gulfport, Mississippi.
“We were the first group on the new base,” he said. “They needed people for the office work. They asked if I could type. I said yes. I hated sitting in an office pounding a typewriter for eight hours a day. I said I’ve got to get out of here. They needed radio repairmen, so they asked what I knew about radio. I said I knew how to turn one on. I went and bought a The Radio Amateur’s Handbook. I studied it at nights.”
He learned enough to get transferred to the radio section which maintained communications equipment on aircraft. He enjoyed the work, but there were few planes there, and thus not much to do. They had an officer, a warrant officer, three sergeants, and ten enlisted men, but according to Leon, one guy could have done the job
In 1943 Leon married Harriett, and she moved to Gulfport where she got a civilian job with the army. In the beginning of 1945, Leon was sent to New Mexico to learn how to maintain radios on the B-29s, which were just coming on line. Then he was assigned to a fighter base in India, where there were no B-29s.
Leon says that the most dangerous thing he had to do during the war was to fly occasionally as radio operator into Calcutta so the officers could pick up ice for the drinks in the officers’ club.
“Rumors were flying that we were going to be sent to establish a base in China. I remember very distinctly standing in the chow line, and there was a radio there, and President Truman announced that the bomb was dropped on Japan.”
The unit was reassigned to occupational duties in Shanghai, where they had virtually no duties other than to be there. They lived comfortably in a building that had been built as a hospital, and spent a lot of time enjoying the Shanghai restaurants.
After the war, Leon went back to the furniture store in Greenville. Their first son Mark was born in 1946, and Howard in 1950. When his father retired, Leon took over the management of the Sharon store.
He remembers how different it was in those days.
“After the Westinghouse payday on Friday, there would be hundreds of men walking by our store. Some would come in, and there would be a line of people in the office of people making their weekly payments.”
Leon eventually built a new store in Hermitage and closed the Sharon store. From time to time he opened other stores in other places, usually in response to the needs of family members. In 1971, he opened an Ethan Allen store in Canton, which his son Howard took over after he graduated from college. Howard ran that store until he moved to California.
Mark studied at MIT and Ohio State, pursuing a doctorate in pure mathematics, but there wasn’t much of a demand for math teachers.
“We had opened a La-Z-Boy store in Pittsburgh about the time Mark was sending out applications for a job,” Leon said. “The story came back to him that if they got a hundred applications, they only opened one of them. None of his friends could get jobs. So he ran our stores in Pittsburgh about six years, and then went to Washington to run our stores there for about 12 years. In 2000, when I wanted to get out of the business and take things easy, he came up here and took over the Hermitage store.”
Although he had opened quite a few stores, Leon had no interest in establishing a chain of stores.
“Whenever we opened a store, we had a family member there,” Leon said. “When the family member left, I wanted nothing to do with the stores. We closed them up. I found it difficult to be miles away and have somebody else run it. Ours have been family businesses all the way.”
In retirement, Leon continues to go to the Hermitage store frequently. His main passion, however, remains what it has always been: reading. He is interested in all phases of history, from the ancient times to contemporary issues. He not only reads; he also listens to recorded audio books, even on his I-Pod.
This passion certainly stems from the intellectual legacy of his father.
“When I was growing up, we had a room in the house for a library. Dad read whenever he could, especially at night. When I was in college, he talked with the dean to see how his son was doing. The next day the dean called me and said that he had a very interesting chat with my father. He asked what university my father attended. When I told him Dad had absolutely no formal education, he couldn’t believe it.”
It’s a legacy he is passing on to his grandchildren. Mark and his wife Lynn have two children, Michael and Lisa. Howard has two children, Sarah and Stephen, and two stepchildren, David and Shanna.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009