Going with the Flow
You never miss the water until the well runs dry – or, if you’re living in a city, until the water main breaks. For many years in Sharon, it was the responsibility of Bill Evans to make sure that didn’t happen.
From the time Bill was quite young, fate seemed to prepare him to fulfill that responsibility. His father’s lungs were weakened by mustard gas during World War I, and he died of pneumonia when Bill was six years old. There were no Social Security or military disability benefits to help out the family. Bill’s mother had to do whatever it took to provide for her family.
“We moved in with my grandparents down on Penn Avenue,” he said, “My mother started working six days a week in a grocery store for $8.00 per week. She eventually got a job at the A&P store, which paid a little better. Then she got a job at Westinghouse. She worked there until she died.”
In such circumstances, kids generally grow up fast and learn to take on responsibilities other kids don’t have. Bill was no exception.
“I started working when I was about 14 years old. I worked at a couple of gas stations and delivered papers. During the summer I worked 10 hours a day six days a week for $15 a week. I was doing pretty well. I learned a lot, too. When you were lubricating cars you had to get underneath them and find all the connections and so forth. When I was sixteen, a customers took me out for a couple of driving lessons and let me use his car to take the test.”
The driver’s license opened up another opportunity
“There was a wealthy widow named Mrs. Ticnor on State Street. I chauffeured her around, mowed the grass, shoveled snow, washed windows, did all kinds of things.”
Bill was still in high school when he got the job that set the direction for the rest of his working life.
“The drafting teacher, Mr. Newton, knew I was good at mechanical drawing, so he told me that Mr. Girdwood, the manager at the Shenango Valley Water Company, wanted somebody to do map work for him. I started working with the engineer, measuring pipe lines and locating valve boxes, and putting them on the map.”
After graduating, Bill continued to work at the water company.
“I got into it pretty deep as time went on, because I knew the distribution system so well. I made some drawings for the pump station and filter plant. Then the filter operator got sick, so I took his place for about a month. In the course of operating the filters, I was coming in the lab with samples every hour. When the chemist got sick, I did his job for a month. After that, I substituted when the chemist couldn’t be there. I had to take care of my office stuff, too. Because I knew where all the water mains were and so forth, I was taking care of all of the people who had service problems.”
As a result, Bill became familiar with virtually every aspect of the water company’s operation.
He was drafted into the army in October, 1942. He ended up as a radio operator for artillery forward observers in Italy. They were the brave souls who ventured out in front of the front lines to direct artillery fire on the enemy. They had among the highest casualty rates of any job in the army.
“I can remember dozens of times when the shells were whizzing right over us. Fortunately nothing ever happened.”
One of his most frightening incidents was the result of “friendly” fire from Italians who were, by then, fighting with the Allies against the Germans.
“I was up in a church tower so I could look out in front. Some of the Italians happened to see me up in the tower and started shooting at me. The bullets banged off the bells like crazy. Finally a sergeant got them to stop.”
Bill’s unit fought northward through Italy all the way to the Austrian border. After the Germans surrendered on May 7, they returned to Florence to wait for transportation to come back home.
“The army brought over some American professors to give college classes. I went through the first four-week term. Two weeks into the second term I got the orders to come home. The commander suggested I stay another two weeks to finish the course. But I had the chance to go, so I went.”
Bill wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he got back home.
“But there was still a job for me at the water company. The old man that had been the manager died, and my boss had taken over as manager. So although I was not an engineer, I took over a whole lot of the things he used to do.”
In 1948, Bill married Jeannette Palmer. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1949.
Then in February, 1950, when Bill was just 29 years old, the water company manager resigned, and Bill was chosen to replace him. He remained in that position until he retired in 1981.
“The folks at the water company were wonderful. They helped a lot. So did a lot of other people like the folks in the Chamber of Commerce. I had so many people to help me I can’t claim much credit for myself.”
Bill and Jeannette had four more children: Suzy (born in 1952), Clifford (1954), Dave (1956), and Richard (1958).
“Jeannette married a humble draftsman in 1948,” Bill said, “and served as the Water Company’s First Lady until her death in 1983.”
In 1984, Bill made what he calls one of his better moves. He invited Vivian Johnson, the administrator of the Buhl-Henderson Library, out for dinner.
“I thought it wasn’t a bad idea,” Vivian said. “So I went and that was it. We were married on December 1, 1984.”
Vivian and Bill had known each other since they attended Sharon High School during the same years, 1934 to 1938.
“We weren’t in the same classes, and not in the same social circles,” Vivian said. “We were just barely aware of each other.”
After high school, Vivian went to the Shenango Valley Commercial Institute, then worked at a number of clerical jobs.
“Then in 1943 a girl friend wanted to leave town,” Vivian said. “It sounded kind of exciting. There was a terrific shortage of typists and stenographers in Washington, DC. A lot of young girls like myself went there. I got a job as stenographer for the Office of Scientific Research and Development.”
There was also a shortage of office space.
“My boss and I occupied one of the very small servant’s rooms at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown.”
After the war ended, Vivian came home and got a job as a secretary at Westinghouse. During some of her 17 years there, she went to night school at Youngstown College.
“After I got my degree in English, Westinghouse started to fall apart. My secretarial position was eliminated. I was 40 years old then, and I didn’t want to stay there until they push me out the door or make me a file clerk. I knew that there was a terrific shortage of librarians at that time, so I talked with the administrator of the Youngstown Public Library about getting a Masters Degree. He recommended I go to Western Reserve. So that’s what I did.”
When she came home in January, 1964, the public library, which was housed in the F. H. Buhl Club, hired her as its administrator.
“The former librarian’s health had been declining, so the library was in disarray. They had newspapers stacked up to the ceiling in the back room. People would ask for magazines. Half the time they weren’t there because so many of them had been lost or stolen. Hundreds of books were also missing. That was a very inefficient operation.”
Both the Buhl Club and the library needed more space, so new library facilities were built on the corner of State Street and Shenango Avenue, now home of Community Library of the Shenango Valley.
“I did a big part of the planning to move all the books to the new library,” Vivian said. “There were 90,000 books or so, maybe more. We moved in 1971. I stayed on as administrator until 1985.”
To preserve the memories of the heritage they helped build, Vivian wrote a history of the library, and Bill wrote a history of the water company.
In 2006, Bill was an honored guest at the Buhl Day celebrations, not just for keeping the water flowing for all those years, but also for his active role in so many organizations. He was a member of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce (president in 1960-61), Sharon Kiwanis Club (president in 1955), Shenango Inn Board of Directors, Shenango Valley Industrial Development Corporation director, Salvation Army Advisory Board, United Fund, and Oakwood Cemetery Association. He also did tax counseling for the elderly, and delivered Meals on Wheels.
Vivian was also very active in the community. She belonged to the Soroptimist Club, the Sharon Women’s club, the Hermitage Women’s Club, the College Club of Sharon, the League of Women Voters, the West Side Music and Literary Club, the Hermitage Women’s Golf League, and the Hermitage Women’s Bowling League.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008