West Middlesex, PA
To boldly go . . .
“To boldly go where no man has gone before. . . .”
That was the mission of the Star Trek’s fictional starship Enterprise, as any Trekky knows. Even most non-Trekkies know that, since the phrase has become integrated into our modern culture.
Okay, so how about, “To boldly go where no woman has gone before?” Not surprisingly, this variant has been used in many contexts, such as the tag line of a brief 1990s TV series called “Almost Perfect.” It told the tale of a fictional woman TV producer struggling to make it in a profession dominated by men.
Remember that one? No problem. Neither does anyone else.
However, the variation of the Star Trek phrase is an accurate description of the commitment of real-life women who have boldly entered traditionally male-dominated bastions, such as educational and political organizations. Now, that might not sound as romantic or exotic as exploring imaginary planets in a fictional universe, but it takes a lot more serious courage and determination – and it’s a lot more important.
Take, for example, Yvonne Hassell of West Middlesex, who, in the early 1970s, ran for election to the all-male West Middlesex School Board. That happened because she had – and still has – a simple, fundamental, internal drive.
“If I see something wrong, I’ve got to speak up,” she says. “I can’t let it go.”
In fact, she has taken the initiative when things weren’t necessarily wrong, but just not as good as they could be, such as West Middlesex High School’s football field.
Yvonne was born in Wheatland in 1931. Her father, Frank Karr, was Chief of Police at the Carnegie Steel plant. Her family lived in company housing by the curve in Broadway, across from the old railroad roundhouse.
“We moved to Sharon when I was going to start first grade and my brother was going to start high school,” she said. “It was a long walk from our house to Farrell High School.”
Perhaps it was in school during World War II that Yvonne developed a willingness to be involved in community service.
“We were allowed to get out of school to aid in the war effort,” she said. “We went up and down the streets pulling a wagon, loading up the scrap that people put out.”
In high school, she belonged to Tri-Hi-Y, the YMCA club that conducts local service projects that meet local needs. Typical club activities include community trash pickup, sponsoring teacher appreciation week, distributing voting reminders, Toys for Tots drive at Christmas, assisting the blood mobile, school clean-up, providing invocations at ball games and other special occasions, and raising and lowering the flag at school.
On a blind date in 1948, Yvonne met (William) Paul Hassell, a 1945 Hickory High graduate who had just returned from the service. Paul had served as a military policeman in Germany right after World War II, which ended when Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. While in high school, he had worked part-time at Westinghouse, and went back to work there after he got back from Germany.
After Yvonne graduated from Sharon High School in 1949, she started working for the state.
“They were getting ready to put the interstate highway in,” she said. “State employees went out to different highways to ask people where they were going and so forth. They would bring it back to the office where I worked, and we would record all the results.”
The job didn’t last very long.
“They were only in town for a short time, three months or so during the summer. I could have transferred with them to the next section, but I was dating Paul, and I didn’t want to leave the area.”
Yvonne and Paul got married on June 10, 1950. Paul continued to work at Westinghouse, and Yvonne worked night turn in the Central Supply section of the Sharon Hospital until she became pregnant with their first child.
In 1951, Paul built a new home in Shenango Township, just outside of West Middlesex. That same year, Yvonne gave birth to Craig, the first of their sons. Reid followed in 1952, Douglas in 1953, and Brian in 1956.
“I was building a family while he was building the house,” Yvonne said. “He could look at anything and build it, I think.”
As the boys grew up, they were involved in sports, including midget football, Little League baseball, and high school sports.
“We spent a lot of time at games,” Yvonne said.
Yvonne’s involvement with their sports led to her first major community project.
“We just had an old field that was sub-par,” she said. “I started going to the booster meetings, and I thought ‘I can get this job done, I can get us a new field.’ I volunteered to become president of the boosters. The committees I had working with me were great.”
The community was solid in its support, but sometimes it took a little prodding.
“I spent many hours going to different businesses and groups asking for help and raising money. I think every man in town hated to see me coming because they knew I was going to ask them for something.”
The whole town helped. Students would go out during gym time and rake the field. People loaned semis to go pick up the sod. The First National Bank donated a scoreboard.
“We had to put the pitch in the middle of the field, lay all the sod, and build the stands. We would take a barbecue grill down to the field on Saturdays to cook for the fellows while they worked.”
Yvonne’s interests in her son’s school activities went far beyond sports.
“I attended school board meetings for several years. I think I only missed one meeting one time. Then I decided to run. As far as I know, I was the first lady to be elected to the West Middlesex School Board. I was the only woman on it for quite a few years. Since then, a lot of other women have started to run. Maybe I gave them the desire to run for school board. I was on for ten years. When I first went on the term was six years. The then it was changed to four years.”
Yvonne worked for years in the anesthesia department at Sharon Regional.
“I did a little bit of everything in that department,” she said.
Meanwhile, Paul worked at Westinghouse, for a total of 41 years. During 17 of those years, he also served as part-time police officer in Shenango Township.
Even though both Paul and Yvonne both worked full-time, they always made time for the important things in life.
“We were a very close family,” Yvonne said. “We did everything together.”
Paul kept involved in his sons’ sports, helping with midget football and attending more sporting events than you could count.
For 27 summers, their family life centered around camping at Pymatuning Lake.
“We would take the trailer up there at the beginning of summer,” Yvonne said. We would come home to work during the week, then spend the week-ends up there.”
That activity grew beyond their immediate family.
“There were four other couples that we ran around with,” Yvonne said. “We were the first ones to start camping, and they saw how much fun it was. They all bought trailers, and we camped together. We had a very close relationship with them all those years. Our kids grew up together.”
After Paul retired from Westinghouse, he worked in security for Sharon Regional. During an ongoing exercise program there in 1995, he started feeling heaviness in his chest. He had a catheterization done at Sharon Regional and needed to go to Pittsburgh for angioplasty. During the procedure, he had a massive heart attack and died on the operating table.
Since then, Yvonne has continued to be involved in community affairs.
“We have a beautiful park right behind the municipal building,” she said. “I’ve been chairman of that since it started, which was back when I was on the school board. About five years ago the township got a $40,000 grant to build a walkway around the park. But the township had to put up $20, 000 matching funds, and the supervisors decided the cost would be too much. So we decided to put in a basketball court, but that also fell through. Now we’ve finally come to the place where I think we can get some restrooms built.”
She has also served on the Mercer County Juvenile Community Court for the past ten years.
And much to the consternation of certain men, she still attends meetings of the school board, township supervisors, and the sewer authority. And if she sees things wrong, or if she sees a good direction for the community to move, she still speaks up and refuses to back down.
“I enjoy going to the meetings because they do give you a chance to say what you have to say. At least ours does. I encourage people to go so that they know what’s going on. They’re spending your money, and you need to find out how they’re doing it.”
She is now actively involved in advocating the proposed merger of West Middlesex and Shenango Township. She laments the fact that the two political entities can’t seem to get together, even though they are really one community with a common post office, school system, and police force.
In other words, who needs Klingons and other fictional enemies in outer space when you have family and neighbors right here at home?
But Yvonne Hassell, for one, knows that the stakes are much higher here in real life. That’s why she continues to boldly go where no woman (or at least few women) have gone before.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009