Stable, harmonious life
Tom Fiedler was shocked into this world on Monday, November 10, 1924.
“I wasn’t due for another month,” Tom said, “but the Sunday before I was born, my grandmother was walking to church and got her foot stuck in the railroad tracks, and was killed. It was such a shock for my mother that I was born the next day.”
Despite the traumatic beginning, but Tom was actually born in a stable, harmonious environment –literally. He was born at home, in an apartment above a former livery stable, in the middle of Harmony, Pennsylvania.
“Dad had turned it in to two stores, side by side,” Tom said. “One was a barber shop because he was a barber. He rented the other to a grocer. Behind the barber shop he had two pool tables. Behind that was a garden that I hated to work in. Our living quarters were over top of the stores.”
The Fiedler family was deeply rooted in the community. About 1798, Daniel Fiedler migrated from Germany to Lancaster County, PA, then moved to the present site of Zelienople in 1803. That was two years before George Rapp led the Harmonite religious sect from Germany to Butler County. They built the town of Harmony from scratch, settling there in 1805.
Father Rapp wanted his community to be isolated, but within nine years many settlers had moved into the surrounding area. So in 1814 he sold the whole town to Abraham Ziegler and moved all his people to Indiana, where they built New Harmony.
“Abraham Ziegler is one of my ancestors,” Tom said.
Daniel Fiedler moved from Zelienople to Harmony in 1840. He and his descendents have played important roles in the community ever since – in commerce, politics, and the Lutheran church.
Tom Fiedler went to elementary school in Harmony. While attending high school in Zelienople, he took some National Defense courses in Ellwood City, including drafting.
“I was 17 when I graduated,” Tom said. “One of my friends got me a drafting job at Jones and Laughlin, a steel company in Pittsburgh.”
Before Tom turned 18, he took some tests that qualified him for the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which was intended to create a specialized corps of Army officers to enhance the conduct of the war and the restoration of civilian governments in Europe after the war. Its participants were enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States.
“After infantry basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, I was sent to Westminster College. But they terminated the program after the first semester. Since I had infantry training, I was sent to join the 95th Infantry Division at Indiantown Gap, PA. They were getting ready to go overseas.”
The division received about 4,000 soldiers from the curtailed ASTP program.
By September, the Division was in Normandy preparing for a move to the front.
“They asked if anyone had driven trucks before,” Tom said. “I said yes, so they put me as a driver on the Red Ball Express.”
The Red Ball Express was a continuous convoy of 2½ ton trucks hauling fuel in 5-gallon jerry cans from Normandy to Paris to keep General Patton’s fast-moving tanks supplied with fuel.
“They stacked the trucks so high with jerry cans that they had to stick something through the handles to keep them from falling off. Still some fell off, but you didn’t stop to pick them up.”
The trucks sometimes carried ammunition.
“One time I was driving a load of artillery shells. The truck in front of me stopped, and I stopped, but the truck behind me didn’t. He plowed into the back of my truck.”
Tom’s Red Ball Express days ended when he moved up to the front with the 95th Division. And his combat days ended about three weeks later when he was wounded.
“Some shrapnel from a mortar or artillery round hit me on the outside of my arm. Most went through, but there was still a piece left inside. I was going to go ahead, but when I went to grab my rifle, I couldn’t because my hand was stiff.”
That was the day before his birthday.
“They sent me back to an aid station. About six o’clock the next morning somebody shook me awake. I looked up, and there were the chickens on his collar, a colonel. He said, “Is your name Thomas Fiedler?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Here’s your purple heart.’ That was my ceremony, and my birthday present.”
Tom ended up in a hospital in England, where they removed the shrapnel. After several months there, he was returned to limited service at a redeployment camp in France, where they processed soldiers to return home. He got back home to Harmony in March, 1946, with his Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
“My girl friend, Lois Jane Cline, was an accountant, and it was tax season, so she was really busy. I went back to Jones and Laughlin and worked there until I started college in the fall. I married Jane on November 16, my parents’ 30th anniversary. She continued to work as an accountant while I was in school.”
By taking courses all year round, Tom finished the four-year engineering program in two and three-quarter years. Engineering jobs were scarce, but because of his academic excellence he was one of only six Pitt graduates hired by Westinghouse that year.
Newly hired engineers participated in a student course for six months to a year, then found employment at one of the Westinghouse facilities. Tom was happy to end up in Sharon.
“When we moved here, Jane decided not to go back to work. She got pregnant, but fibroids growing in her womb pushed the baby out before it was able to survive. She had to have a hysterectomy, so we couldn’t have any children of our own.”
In the mid-1950s, Tom and Jane adopted a son, naming him Brian Thomas Fiedler.
After working in several different shops in the Sharon plant and conducting some training, Tom went into sales.
“Three of us went all over the country making presentations about Westinghouse’s new voltage regulator. We had a station wagon loaded up with a movie projector and all kinds of equipment. One of us would be on the road for two weeks. We’d park the car in an airport parking lot, make a map of where the car was parked, then fly home and give the next person the map and car keys. After two weeks, they’d do the same thing.”
That system worked well until Tom encountered a glitch in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“I parked at the motel right across from the airport. During the night someone stole the car. The motel was in the city, and the airport in the county, and the two police forces didn’t communicate very well. They couldn’t find the car, so I flew home. The thief had wrecked the car in the county probably a few hours after he stole it, rolling it over into a little creek against a tree.”
Little that was in the car was usable, but fortunately, they had a backup set of manuals and equipment. They bought a new station wagon and projector, and continued on with the program.
Westinghouse sent Tom and several other employees to Penn State to take Business and Management courses. He completed 24 credits, and only needed to write a thesis to complete the Masters Degree.
“But Westinghouse didn’t think we needed to do that.”
Tom was approaching 60 when the Sharon Westinghouse plant closed. He and Jane liked it here, so he took a lump sum retirement.
“We started traveling, and for 20 years we traveled much of the world. We would generally go three weeks at a time, two or three trips a year. We went on some river cruises, including one in Russia, where they served us raw bacon for breakfast every morning. They didn’t even warm it up.”
Tom joined the Rotary Club, and served as president of the Shenango Valley Coin Club for about ten years.
“ At one time I think we were probably the biggest coin club in the country, maybe in the world. We would have 500 or 600 people at our monthly meetings. Membership was close to 1000.”
He is a past president of the local AARP chapter, a 60-year Mason (32nd degree) and Shiner, and a 50-year member of the Sharon Presbyterian Church, where he served as deacon, elder, and trustee.
A year after he retired, Tom started doing tax counseling for the elderly.
“For years, Ed Hopkins and I were the only instructors,” Tom said. “A few years ago they decided we should use computers to do the returns. I had never used a computer before. Ed had done computer programming at Westinghouse, but he was just about as lost as I was. But we learned how to use them. Then Jim Leone’s wife, who was interested in computers, got into instructing with us, and so did a guy from Grove City. So then there were four of us.
While Tom participated in activities such as bowling and golf, Jane enjoyed staying at home, doing some church work, and cooking.
“She could read a recipe and tell whether or not I would like it. She was an excellent cook.”
Tom and Jane’s son Brian died about ten years ago, and Jane passed away a little over three years ago.
Tom continues his stable, harmonious life by remaining active in Rotary, tax counseling, the Senior Center, and the Farmers Food Voucher program.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010