Born with a gift
In fourth grade, Anne Puskar organized a contest to play jacks because she expected to win. It was the beginning of a long and glorious career.
Not a career as a jacks champion. She didn’t win that contest. Instead, it was a career as an organizer that took her a very long way – even as far as Rome – and provided her with opportunities to rub shoulders with governors, politicians, and celebrities such as Eddie Arnold and Dick Gregory.
“Everyone is born with a gift,” she says. “Mine was the ability to organize.”
It was a long, hard road from Masury to Rome and back again. Anne’s parents were Croatian immigrants Pepa & Lodre Puskar. Lodre, who worked at Sharon Steel, was a dominant, old-world paterfamilias who allowed his family to speak only Croatian at home. He deprived Pepa of the most important thing in her life: her religion. He had become bitter at the age of 12 when he discovered the local priest having bacon and eggs for breakfast on a Friday. He never allowed Pepa to pray or go to church.
One good thing did come from Lodre’s old-world connections when Anne was in fourth grade.
“Mother and father were godparents to a boy named John Fister in West Middlesex whose parents were from the same village in Croatia,” she said. “Once, when John and I were out for a walk on their farm, he took me by the hand to help me across a creek. I looked into his blue eyes, and I fell in love.”
By the time Anne got to high school, the Depression was in full stagnation. Her father wanted her to quit school and get a job.
“He wouldn’t buy me clothes for school,” she said, “but Mother earned some money by selling the cottage cheese she made. She gave me two dollars to buy a dress. I bought two for 98 cents each, and wore them the whole school year.”
In the autumn of her senior year, Pepa sat Anne down and extracted a solemn promise from her.
“She said, ‘I’m not going to live through the winter. Promise me you will go to Mass every Sunday for a year and pray for me. I’ll tell God that I’m willing to go to Purgatory for a year if I can go to heaven when my daughter finishes the year of prayer.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it, but you’re not going to die.’ But she did die in February.”
Still living in her father’s house, there was no way for Anne to fulfill that promise.
After Pepa’s death, Lodre started drinking more heavily.
“One day my older brother Louie and sister Mary told my father that if he didn’t cut back on drinking, they would take us away from him. Father shouted, ‘I’ll give them to you. Take them! All of you, get out!’”
Anne lived with a neighbor until she could get a job as a live-in housekeeper and nanny, earning $3.00 a week. She only had Sunday afternoons off, so she still couldn’t fulfill her promise to her mother.
In 1940, she married the love of her life, John Fister.
“I thought I’d finally be able to fulfill my promise. We’d go to church, but we’d miss some Sundays. I still never told anyone about the promise.”
Deferred from military service because of his job as a welder at Sharpsville Steel Fabricators, John worked hard to build a home for his family. After the war, he bought half of a barracks building at Camp Reynolds and used the lumber to build a two-room house on an acre of ground in Brookfield. He kept adding on to it until they had a nice three-bedroom home.
Anne’s organizational skills proved to be very useful. She sold Stanley products, recruited other women to sell, and was promoted to area manager. That income really helped when John’s company went on strike.
“John wanted to open an auto repair shop in a three-car garage on South Irvine Avenue,” Anne said. “He said if it didn’t work out by the time the strike was over, he would be willing to give it up. He borrowed $500, and did very well.”
Anne learned of a gas station for rent on the corner of Route 318 and Wet Track Road. They moved into a small living quarters in the back of it, and the business became truly a family affair.
“He worked in the garage, and I pumped gas,” Anne said. “During the day I would drive a big dump truck to get coal. John would deliver it to customers in the evening. Our neighbors suggested that we sell at least milk and bread, so I started a little grocery store. We wanted to buy the station, but they wanted too much for it, so we sold our house in Brookfield and bought four acres on the other side of Route 318. John worked in the garage during the day, and in the evening put up a building that became a gas station, auto repair garage, grocery store, and home.”
Before long, Anne’s talent for organization benefited the community. Ten families from the neighborhood got together to buy the closed one-room Elliott School. They called it the Wet Track Country Club.
“We used it for voting, parties, boy scout and girl scout meetings, all kinds of things,” Anne said.
Things were going quite well for the family – but not for Anne herself.
“I became very depressed, but I had no idea why. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, was in and out of the hospital. I even came to the point of contemplating suicide.”
Not knowing where else to turn, Anne talked with Fr. Obenrader, who had started Christ the King parish in the Flats because there were no Catholic churches in the area to serve African Americans.
“I figured if he was sensitive and caring enough to do that, he would help me.”
Nobody knew much about depression then, so all they could do was treat the symptoms. Fr. Obenrader send Anne to Kneipp Springs, a sanitarium run by a German order of nuns in Indiana. They treated patients with wrappings soaked in water from springs that were thought to have curative properties. Anne got better, but the key was probably not the water, but words.
“I was talking with a nun about my childhood, and I broke down. I realized that my problem was the broken promise to my mother.”
When she came back home, she fulfilled her promise by attending Fr. Obenrader’s church every Sunday for a year. Then, using her talent for organization, she went far beyond that promise.
“Fr. Obenrader suggested that we try to start a Catholic church in West Middlesex. I knew only one Catholic in West Middlesex, Henrietta Jazwinski. I scheduled a meeting, and we called everyone we knew who was Catholic, and had them call everyone they knew.”
About 50 people showed up for that meeting. They formed a Catholic Action Committee, which presented the idea to the bishop in Erie. They held fundraisers, bought land next to the high school, and built a recreation building where Masses were said until the church was completed.
“I want to write a book,” Anne said. “I’d call it, Mama, I Built You a Church.”
Although helping to establish Church of the Good Shepherd gives Anne her greatest satisfaction, it is only one of many organizational achievements, starting right at home, where she raised four children: Stephen, Jonathan, and Priscilla, plus Alphonse, the son of one of John’s cousins, whom they adopted. While doing that, she worked with her husband pumping gas, going after parts, and doing whatever else was needed. She also developed several successful businesses, including a grocery store, then an antique shop in the large room in their building.
When the antique store closed, she opened the Yana Mara Yoga Studio there with Mary Vulchak. She also taught yoga at two colleges, at Sharon Regional for doctors’ wives, and on a half-hour TV show. She established a drop-in center in the studio for kids with drug problems, and organized Youth Who Care.
All this was before Priscilla, her youngest, left for college. Then Anne got a job establishing elder nutrition centers for the Multi-County Consortium throughout Mercer, Venango, Crawford, Forest, Warren, Clarion, and Lawrence Counties. These evolved into the Agency on Aging in each of those counties.
Along with that, she became a coordinator for the organization known as Bread for the World. She was a delegate to a world conference on hunger, in Rome, where she met George McGovern, Eddie Arnold, `governors, and other influential people. She presented a paper there that was included in the conference’s official record.
She was very active in Democratic politics as a local organizer with the campaigns of Joe Vigorito, Mark Lincoln Marks, Al Gore, George McGovern, and others. She herself served in government as the first woman Shenango Township supervisor.
In her spare time, she organized the Skinny Minnie weight loss club, a huge civil war centennial celebration, her daughter’s very Croatian wedding, among myriad other events and activities.
Today, July 13, 2009, is her 90th birthday. She still is active in an antique business in the Treasure Cove Antique Mall with a partner, Cheryl Babcock. All of her children are active in politics and civic service; they will surely pass her legacy on to her ten grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Who would have thought that a fourth-grade jacks contest could have such a lasting impact on the world?
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010