Country Boy Meets City Girl
Harold J. Bowers was a country boy born to an Irish family; Vi Conte was a city girl of Italian descent; so maybe it’s true that opposites attract.
Harold grew up on a farm near Leesburg, in Mercer County, PA. He was a teen during the depression. It was a difficult time , but it was tempered by the diversions his family and neighbors created for themselves. They hunted and fished as much for the food as for the fun.
And there were more exotic forms of excitement. Harold’s father raised fighting chickens, and had a pit for cock fights in his barn. On Saturday evenings all the men in the vicinity would gather and watch the feathers fly (and probably some money, too).
There were tragedies, too. Two nights before his high school graduation, when Harold was all dressed and ready to go to the prom, news came from Number 2 Mine that his father had been killed in a cave-in.
After graduation, Harold started drove trucks for his sister Viola’s husband, Stanley Cotton, until he entered the Army Air Corps during World War II. He served in the Caribbean. When he returned, he went back to driving trucks.
Vi Conte was born in Farrell, PA. When she was in seventh grade, her family moved to Sharon. Like other students, she supported the war effort through the scrap drives and other activities at Sharon High School. After graduating in 1943, she did her “Rosie the Riveter” stint as a coil winder at Westinghouse.
She also did her bit to cheer up the troops who were headed overseas. She went to dances at the USO in Sharon and at nearby Camp Reynolds replacement depot, where new soldiers awaited overseas deployment.
“My cousin was Mayor Nevant’s wife,” Vi said. “She took busloads of us up to Camp Reynolds so we could dance with the soldiers and get back home. It was fun. It was a ship-out camp. They were thrilled to have us.”
Harold and Vi met at a New Year’s Eve party on December 31, 1945, in the Mercer American Legion.
“Harold was a great Irishman, very handsome and intelligent,” Vi said. “He didn’t like to talk about himself. His high school class voted him the best-dressed man, but he never told me about it. I learned that from a friend.”
On dates they would go out with other couples to night clubs.
“There were some really nice night clubs back then,” Vi said. “Melody Lane, the Clover Club, the Gray Wolf. And they had floor shows. Sometimes we would go to Conneaut Lake or Idora Park. Well-known big bands used to come there.”
They also went to the many movie theaters in downtown Sharon – all of which have gone out of business long ago.
“The Columbia was classy. We got all dressed up to go there. The Liberty was on Vine Street across from where the Sky Bank is now. There was the Nuluna, where Donna’s Diner is now. And the Gables, by the tracks. When a train would go by, the whole building would shake.”
On August 11, 1946, Harold and Vi got married.
“Harold had just gotten out of the army, and we couldn’t afford much, so we lived in Cotton Row in Leesburg,” Vi said. “That was six houses owned by Stanley Cotton. They had outside toilets. That’s the first time I knew about outside toilets.”
On September 29, 1947, their only child Shirley was born in Mercer Cottage Hospital. Shirley was delivered by a local living legend, Dr. Harvey Cotton, the aforementioned Stanley Cotton’s father.
“Dr. Cotton delivered most of the children around there,” Vi said. “His office was in his home – the mansion in Leesburg. He would make house calls with his horse and buggy. Everyone knew Dr. Cotton.”
Vi encouraged Harold to get a job at Westinghouse. When he did, the family moved to an apartment in Mercer. In 1953, they bought a house on Fisher Hill in Sharon. Then, in December 1955, the Westinghouse workers started a strike that lasted more than six months.
“Harold was one of them who would go down there and tip over cars, to get out the scabs,” Vi said. “I said, ‘You’re going to get shot doing this kind of stuff.’ They would give them food to bring home, like cheese, because they would be down there manning the gates.”
They had to keep up house payments, so Vi got a job at The Sharon Store. She kept working there after Harold went back to work at Westinghouse. In 1958 Harold had a heart attack, and Westinghouse refused to continue his employment. He went to work at Fessler Machine Company, where he worked until he retired in 1982.
“Harold was a great outdoorsman,” Vi said. “He would go to Canada to fish, and we would eat fish all year long. He’d shoot a deer every year, and pheasant and rabbits.”
Vi, meanwhile, turned her employment into an impressive career in retailing. When The May Company took over the Sharon Store. Sherman Jubilirer personally invited her to work at Whitmer-Smith. She worked there until she retired in 1982. After that, she worked part-time at Cohen’s clothing store.
“When we were clerks, we were somebody,” Vi said. “When I started at The Sharon Store, I had to go to a salesmanship school for nearly a month. We were classy. We wore black dresses and high-heel shoes. That was a profession then – not like now.”
Vi was among the best of the best. She was selected twice as retailer of the year by secret shoppers from the Sharon Business Association.
During all those years, she walked to work and back in high heels – a mile and a quarter each way. Over the years, that added up to nearly 20,000 miles.
Vi cherishes her memories of downtown Sharon during the years she worked there.
“There were many beautiful stores,” she said. “The Sharon Store, Garrick’s, Grouton’s, Fitzpatrick’s, Trautman’s, the Boston Store, Shontz & Myers Men’s Store, Kirsch & Griffith Men’s Store. Every building was full. It was just beautiful at Christmas. Things started to change when the Hickory Plaza opened, the Grant’s and JC Penney’s. Then came the Shenango Valley Mall. The May Company moved there. Then Garrick’s couldn’t make it anymore, so they left. Trautman’s left. One by one they all left.”
As if work and family weren’t enough, Vi served for many years as a volunteer at Sharon Regional Hospital, where she earned honors as “neighbor of the year.”
She was also active in many organizations, including the American Business Women’s Association, Hermitage Women’s Club, Shenango Valley Interfaith, St. Joseph’s Guild, Catholic Daughters of America, and the Shenango Valley Walking Club.
Harold’s and Vi’s daughter, Shirley Bowers Donak, has nothing but good memories of their family life.
“My mom was one of the original ‘career women’ when that concept wasn’t as popular as it is today,” she said. “But somehow she was able to juggle it all. She knew about ‘quality time’ even back then, and she spent a great deal of time with me teaching. listening, counseling, and guiding. She hosted many birthday parties, summer backyard barbeques, and slumber parties for me and my friends.”
Harold J. Bowers passed away of an apparent heart attack on August 12, 2000. Vi still lives in their home and continues to be active in the community.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007