Knowing where home really is
You’ve probably heard the old joke about a kid being away from home and the parents moving without leaving a forwarding address. That’s sort of what happened to Kevin McElhinny of Greenville – but not quite.
Kevin was born in Pittsburgh on May 21, 1926. The oldest of ten children, he graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1943, just after he turned 17. He worked for a defense contractor for a couple of months making brass fittings for a virtually forgotten apparatus called the Momson Lung. It was a predecessor of the aqua lung, designed to enable submariners to escape from a sunken vessel. It was not a great success.
“I’m sure there are piles and piles of those fittings lying around somewhere,” Kevin said.
In 1944, after completing one year of pre-med at St. Vincent’s College, Kevin joined the navy as a medical corpsman. It was a choice he has never regretted.
“It was a wonderful experience, overall. I have a host of good memories – doing everything from traveling across the United States from Boston to San Diego by train with a bunch of other guys, doing all the shenanigans while crossing the International Date Line, and sailing through the Panama Canal. Of course there were some bad moments, such as being caught in a typhoon in the Philippine Sea and getting attacked by a Japanese suicide plane.”
Kevin served on three different ships. The first was the U.S.S. Goodhue, an attack transport that carried troops and landing craft for combat landings. The second was an old destroyer named the U.S.S. Preble.
“They called it a hooligan navy, because officers and men lived side by side and you had a lot more freedom than on a big ship.”
He also experienced the polar opposite of that relaxed atmosphere aboard the U.S.S. Midway, which at the time was a brand new aircraft carrier. Life on it was very regimented and disciplined.
Some of the “bad moments” Kevin experienced were scary indeed. On April 2, 1945, while preparing for a landing on an island near Okinawa, the Goodhue was hit by a kamikaze plane. Anti-aircraft fire from the Goodhue deflected the plane enough to cause it to missed the bridge. But it hit the main mast and the bomb it was carrying exploded, killing 21 and wounding about 50.
During the typhoon in the Philippine Sea, Kevin was on the Preble.
“The ship pitched so much that the propellers would come clear out of the water. Three destroyers capsized during that storm.”
Kevin’s service ended as a medical corpsman in the marine corps at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
While he was overseas, his father moved the family from Pittsburgh to a 100-acre farm in Crawford County, near Hartstown. When Kevin came home from the navy, he took a bus to Hartstown, but had no idea how to find the McElhinny farm.
A lady at the bus stop said she knew where it was. “It’s right in the direction I’m going,” she said. Kevin picked up his bags and walked with her a couple of miles. She pointed to a farm house and said, “That’s what you’re looking for.”
He knocked on the door. It was opened by a stranger because it was the wrong house.
“But apparently everyone around there had heard that someone from Pittsburgh with a lot of kids had moved into a nearby farm, so they drove me home.”
Kevin started working as a carpenter in his father’s construction business.
“In 1946 there were many construction projects going on. I really wasn’t qualified to be a carpenter, but there was a desperate shortage of manpower. They made me a journeyman carpenter just on my father’s say-so. We belonged to the union, and worked in Meadville, Ashtabula, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indiana, all over the place for a few years.”
Kevin met Letha Britton at St. Philip’s Roman Catholic Church in Linesville. They were married in that church on August 5, 1950. That’s when they began another kind of adventure.
“We lived in a mobile home that was seven feet wide and 31 feet long,” Kevin said. “We towed it around from job to job.”
“The trailer was lovely, and it was fun for a while,” Letha said. “It was interesting, and we were young. I don’t think young people would do that today. We had a washer, but we hung the clothes to dry. In the winter they froze on the line.”
Their first son, Joe, was born in 1952, second son Chris in 1954, and third son Patrick in 1955.
“After the third child there wasn’t room for anything in the trailer,” Letha said. “Patrick had to sleep on a hassock.”
So they built a house in Crawford County, near Westford, and Kevin continued to work as a union carpenter until 1966.
“I wanted to be my own boss,” he said, “so I started my own construction company. Living out in the country didn’t provide a good base to work from, so we bought a house on South Mercer Street in Greenville. It was our home and our business. It’s still the headquarters for the company, McElhinny Brothers.”
There was another important reason for the move to Greenville.
“My wife had also been hauling the kids into Greenville to go to St. Michael’s School. That was a big reason. And our oldest boy graduated from eighth grade and got a hundred dollar scholarship to Kennedy.”
“That was a hard move,” Letha said. “We had built a nice big house on three acres, and the boys could build tree houses and camp out. You didn’t have to worry about them. We were right near his family. My sister married Kevin’s brother, and they lived down on the other corner. My sister and I would load the kids up in our pickup and go visit our mother in Linesville. We were very close. That was nice.”
At first Kevin’s business was what he calls a one-man show.
“As my boys grew older, they all worked with me in the summer times and on weekends,” Kevin said. “Letha was the bookkeeper manager, phone answerer, whatever.”
As the business grew, so did their family. Their son Andy was born in 1968, and only daughter Abigail in 1969.
The McElhinnys balanced their work and family with a strong commitment to their church – especially the Cursillo movement within the Roman Catholic Church. The name Cursillo means “little course” because it was originally centered on three-day retreats during which people could learn more about their faith and renew their spirituality. The movement still organizes these retreats, but has expanded to help enhance their relationship with God throughout the year.
“At one time we were coordinators of Mercer County, and we helped put on the Cursillos at Kennedy every summer.”
For recreation, the family owned some property by Pymatuning Lake. They loved to picnic and camp there whenever they could. Kevin bought a hunting camp near Sheffield, in Warren County, where he enjoyed hunting and hiking, especially with his boys. For the past 17 years, Letha has kept fit at the Wellness Center that is now run by UPMC.
“I used to go six days a week,” she said. “Now I usually go three.”
Kevin and Letha are justifiably proud of their children. All of them graduated from Kennedy Catholic. Joe is a neuropsychologist with a Ph.D. in Montana; Chris manages McElhinny Brothers Construction; Patrick was recently promoted to Chief of Police in Hermitage; Andy earned an MBA, and is a partner in a software firm in State College; Abigail has a Ph.D. in cell biology.
But wherever they live and whatever they do, they remain a close family. Kevin and Letha have moved from the home their children grew up in, but they all still know where home really is.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007