In the presence of heroes
In 1929, Henry Lowe was seriously injured in a steel mill accident in Aliquippa. He was black, so no hospital in Aliquippa would treat him. By the time he arrived at a hospital in Pittsburgh, it was too late to save his life.
That left his wife Fannie as a black single mother of Ruth, a seven-year-old daughter. and George, a five-year-old son. From a tough situation like this, you might expect the boy to get into trouble and spend 30 years in prison. Not in the case. The boy, George Lowe, grew up to serve in the army during World War II, go to college, become a dentist, get married, raise a family, work for civil rights, and spend thirty years – not in prison – but on the Board of Directors of the First National Bank.
There’s no secret to his success – no Daddy Warbucks, no good luck, no magic. Just goals, determination, good decisions, and hard work.
George summed up his childhood with the simplest of statements: “It was tough, but when you’re young, you can do anything.”
Everything was indeed tough, even things most kids take for granted today.
“Movies back then cost five cents,” he said. “It was a burden when it went up to six cents, because you had to work hard for that extra penny.”
He earned those pennies by picking up bottle caps and broken glass in the streets of Aliquippa and selling them.
Hard work was a constant theme in every phase of his life. While he was in high school, he worked weekends and summers in a steel mill.
“It was so hot you needed special shoes, gloves, and clothes,” he said, “and it was so loud you had to stuff cotton in your ears. You had to use signals to make people understand. It was so greasy and nasty that when your shift was over you went to a big vat and cleaned that grease off your arms with gasoline or kerosene.”
At times, George had three jobs. He worked in the steel mill, delivered mail, and served as a life guard. But even with all this work, he found time to pursue his passion: baseball.
Towards the end of World War II, he went into the army and served with a black quartermaster battalion in several European combat areas. He take advantage of the GI Bill to attend the University of Denver, where he studied hard – and played baseball. When he graduated, he was offered a minor league contract. It was a couple of years after Jackie Robinson had become the first black major league player, so the potential was there for George to make it big.
He chose, instead, to go to dental school at the University of Pittsburgh. He couldn’t afford to live in Pittsburgh, so he commuted from Aliquippa – an hour and a half each way by train and trolley.
He was the only black person in his class. That made difficult, but it gave him one advantage.
“White dental students didn’t want to deal with black patients because their teeth were known to have longer roots,” said George’s daughter Tamara, who is now a dentist. “They gave all the black patients to my father, so he got lots of practice extracting teeth.”
Graduation day from dental school in 1952 was a great day, for more reasons than the degree. A woman in the audience named Cleo Peters, who was graduating Cum Laude that year from Pitt, was impressed with what she saw in George. She continued on to get her Master’s Degree in Education from Pitt. Then she and George were married on December 11, 1955.
George traveled around to look for a place to practice.
“Farrell reminded me of Aliquippa,” he said. “The only black dentist in Farrell had died shortly before. So I set up my office in a commercial building on Darr Avenue and we lived above it.”
Starting up the practice from scratch was another struggle.
“It was a matter of putting your time in and waiting for your practice to grow,” he said.
It was also a matter of accepting whatever patients could pay – chickens, a wrist watch, or maybe $5 for an extraction. And he treated lots of people for free.
Cleo taught until she became pregnant with Tamara in 1960. Back then women who started to show pregnancy could no longer teach, so she had to quit. That was a sacrifice in some ways, but one she never regretted. Edmund, her second child, was born in 1965.
As George’s practice grew, he moved his office to Idaho Street, then to its present location on Sharon-New Castle Road.
“My dad was a pioneer, being an African American professional person,” Tamara said. “When he went to dental school there was maybe one black person in each class in medical and dental school, so there weren’t many black professionals anywhere in the states.”
He was more than a black professional. He was a father who taught his kids by example.
“If there’s a definition of a family man, it’s him,” Tamara said. “He always put his family first. He worked and worked and worked, and made us work and work and work. When I see a piece of paper around I pick it up because he taught me it’s your community, so pick it up. He instilled in us that fact that you’ve got to work hard. He put me through Harvard undergrad and Pitt Dental School, and my brother Edmund through Purdue to get a degree in marketing.”
George’s love for his family motivated him to be active in the civil rights movement. He didn’t want his children and grandchildren to endure humiliation because of the color of their skin.
“In Pittsburgh a black could go into a clothing store, but couldn’t try anything on,” Tamara said. “Black people, usually from the custodial staff, had to wait on you – even if you had a Masters Degree like my mother. They had black and white drinking fountains. There was a swimming pool in Aliquippa for whites. The black kids looked through the fence at the white kids swimming, but they couldn’t go in. When the court ordered desegregation, they closed the pool rather than allow blacks in.”
George worked for change in the way he did everything else – with quiet, steady determination. He joined organizations such as the NAACP, and participated in marches in Farrell aimed at getting African Americans into positions of importance.
“Being in the presence of my father and his contemporaries is to be in the presence of heroes,” Tamara said. “They suffered indignities so we could have the things we have today. As a man standing there with your family and be called ‘boy,’ I think that’s so demoralizing. It’s a tribute to the human spirit and the tenacity of my father and people like him who persevered so their children could grow up in a better world. They made it possible for me to be a dentist, and to send my son to a military school in Virginia.”
In April, 2004, George’s son Edmund died of kidney failure. But at age 81, Dr. George Lowe goes to work every day in the office suite he shares with his daughter, Dr. Tamara Lowe.
“My dad still does medical assistance,” Tamara said, “which is a losing proposition all around, business-wise. He does it as a community service. Without my father, a lot of people would miss getting their teeth done.”
Cleo, an antique dealer, goes to work every day, too. She has two booths in the Valley View Antique mall. Her specialty is glassware – in fact, it’s her passion.
George still has goals, like proving that when even you’re older, everything is still possible. Maybe not everything, but more than most people think.
“I went to the Penn Relays 45 years in a row,” he said. “When I was 65 I really felt good. I still had that spring. But as I approached 75, the body starts caving in a bit, you see, and my physician advised me to stop. The last time I attended the relays, there was a man who was 100 years old in the starting blocks. So I still have hopes of participating. One of my classmates at our 50th year reunion from dental school said, ‘George, when you’re 100 years old and win that race, be sure to let me know.’”
Don’t be surprised if that happens.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007