Funerals were the family business
It’s very common for high school students to work part-time in their family’s business. It’s just a little bit different, however, when your father owns a funeral home. That was the case with Mildred Podolsky, more commonly known as Midge.
Her father, Andrew J. Podolsky, was born in Pittsburgh in 1898; her mother Elizabeth Roskos in Mt. Carmel a year later. Both were from Czechoslovakian families, and ended up in Farrell.
“My mother worked at the Tin Mill,” Midge said. “I don’t know how they met, but they eloped to get married in Columbus, Ohio. She told my grandma that she was going to the dentist that day. I don’t know how they got to Columbus because all we had was streetcars in those days.”
Andrew served in the Rainbow Division during World War I. He was gassed at Chateau Thierry. Midge was born right after the war, in 1919, the first of five girls. Her sisters were Ellen, Betty Jane, Marian, and Audrey.
“Because of Dad being gassed,” Midge said, “the government sent him to embalming school in Philadelphia. Then he did an internship at Pustinger’s Funeral Home on Fruit Avenue. Their sons and grandsons now have the funeral home on Idaho Street.”
In 1923, Andrew opened a funeral director service on the corner of Fruit and Hamilton in Farrell. There was a big window on the side. On it was painted in Slovak, ‘A.J. Podolsky, Slovak Undertaker.’
As one might expect, Midge’s friends were a little uncomfortable about her living above a funeral parlor and about her father being an undertaker. For Midge, of course, it was just a normal part of her life.
“Some of the kids were kinda scared,” she said. “One time I had a birthday party. I don’t remember this, but the kids told me that I climbed into one of the caskets to show them how my father laid people in there. I can’t believe I did that.”
Mike Klotz, her father’s hearse driver, taught Midge how to drive before she was 16.
“At 16 I started driving the funeral home’s panel truck,” Midge said. “We didn’t have a chapel or visiting rooms in the funeral home. We did the funerals in the people’s homes. I drove the equipment to the house, and the flowers to the cemetery. We had to empty out the people’s living room and bring in the bier and set everything up. The people sometimes stayed all night.”
Through the years, the funeral home underwent many facelifts, expansions, and remodeling.
“Our building was enlarged. The garages and the second floor were added. People started having funerals there rather than in their homes. The men would still sometimes sit there overnight. My mother was a nervous wreck because we lived upstairs, the men would be smoking, and she was always afraid they might fall asleep and set a fire. But later that stopped and people didn’t stay all night.”
When Midge graduated from Farrell High School in 1938, she enrolled at Westminster College.
“I was only there one year because I wanted to take shorthand, typing, stuff like that,” Midge said. “They said I had to take all these extra courses. I didn’t want all that other stuff, so I went to Youngstown College for business courses. I didn’t graduate because there was an opening in the Farrell Junior High School office, so I got that job.”
In August 1941, Midge married Ed Niec, and gave birth to her son Eddie in September 1942. The war was on, and both her husband Ed and the hearse driver Mike went into the service. Midge took over the hearse driving.
“I was probably the only woman hearse driver around,” she said.
Midge’s sister Ellen became a nurse and served as a lieutenant during the war.
All of the “Podolsky girls,” as they came to be known, got married. Ellen married James Hall and had three children. Betty Jane and husband Len Kritchko had one son and three daughters. Marian married John Palisin and had two sons. Audrey, who was the Farrell Jubilee Queen, married Frank Lombardi and had one son and three daughters.
After the war, when Ed Niec and Mike Klotz came back from the war Midge’s life changed dramatically. Her marriage to Ed had fallen apart. They got divorced in early 1946, and later that year she married Mike.
Mike had worked for a while at Wheatland Tube before the war, so he started working there again. While working at Wheatland, he and Midge took on a long-term project that prepared him for a new business and her for a hobby.
“My dad had bought this house when I was still going to school,” Midge said. “He had rented it out. When Mike and I were married, we lived with Mom and Dad above the funeral parlor and my sister Marian lived here with her husband, John Palisin. Then my father was ill with heart trouble, so they moved up there and Mike and I moved down here.”
There was nothing much in the house – no furnace, no bathroom, and nothing but a sink on a wall in the kitchen.
“There was just a toilet down in the basement. The floor down there was just ashes, not cement. The house was heated by an old stove in the dining room. There was a hole in the ceiling over it to allow some heat to go upstairs.”
Over the years, Mike and Midge completely remodeled the house. There were three bedrooms upstairs. Mike divided one into a long walk-in closet and a bathroom. He built kitchen cabinets and furniture pieces. He put in new windows and new ceilings. Midge helped him with everything, and did all the painting and wallpapering.
“At Wheatland Tube, he was a pipe bundler,” Midge said. “He worked there for 20 years. At that time they had to lift the pipes by hand. It affected his back so he had to quit.”
Equipped with the carpentry and remodeling skills he developed while working on their home, Mike started doing carpentry work for others. He had a workshop in the garage behind their house.
“He made kitchen cupboards, cabinets, and vanities for Ivor Lee and for home builders,” Midge said.
After her father died in 1956, her mother got a widow’s license and continued to operate the home for several years as the Andrew J. Podolsky Funeral Home.
“Meanwhile, Marian’s husband, John Palisin, became an undertaker. He bought the business, but not the building, from my mother and continued to operate it under his own name.”
Midge continued to drive hearse and ambulance for the funeral home, even after John Palisin took it over. She also worked at the Mercer County Crippled Children’s Center from 1961 to 1977.
Marian died when she was only 39 years old. John remarried, and eventually moved his funeral business to Maple Drive in Hermitage.
“Then Tom Podlyon rented the building from us and ran the funeral home under his name. My mother still lived upstairs until she passed away in 1977.”
Not long after that, Mike became ill with colon problems. He was unable to work after having an ileostomy. Then he came down with Alzheimer’s.
“I had to care for him at home for about three years,” she said.
Midge had a problem of her own which forced her to find a place where others could take care of Mike. She had to have brain surgery for what is called syringomyelia bulli. Doctors told her it was caused either by a virus or a fall. Midge believes it was the latter.
“I was wallpapering my neighbor’s dining room for their 50th anniversary. I was up on a ladder and leaned back too far. I fell and hit my head on a window seat.”
The surgery in Allegheny General Hospital was successful, but it left her without full use of her right hand and arm.
Mike lived at an Alzheimer’s care facility in Columbiana until he passed away in 1993. After he died, Midge took up a hobby in spite of the limitations caused by her surgery.
“I started taking woodworking classes up at Farrell High School,” Midge said. “They had them for senior citizens. I did that for four or five years. The last year I was the only female with all the men. It was fantastic. I made a telephone stand for my kitchen, a cabinet for my daughter’s bathroom, and cradles for my great grandsons. Then the classes were discontinued because they couldn’t get enough people for them. I gave all of my machinery to my son.”
Midge’s son Eddie lives in Tennessee after serving 28 years in the U.S. Navy. He retired as a lieutenant commander. He has two daughters, Michelle Elizabeth and Kimberly Elizabeth. Kimberly as two sons, Andrew and Devon. Midge’s daughter Elizabeth graduated from Thiel College in 1970 and became a teacher. She married Kenneth Smith in 1974. They have no children.
Midge is a past president of the Thiel Women’s Club in the valley, which has since disbanded. She was also the first president of the Dorcas Society at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Hermitage. She continues to be one of the “Classy Ladies” of the Red Hat Society.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009