Embracing both worlds
Some people migrate to the United States and try to keep their lives as they were in the old country. They refuse to learn English, and they have as little as possible to do with American life.
Others come here and leave everything behind – their language, culture, and traditions.
Then there are people like Fran Nespor, who live life to the fullest, embrace both the old and the new.
Fran was born on August 12, 1912, in the village of Pornova Vas, Slovenia. When she was just two months old, her father came to the United States, intending to stay here three years, then go back to get his family. But World War I broke out, and traveling became out of the question.
Fran, her mother, and her siblings had no choice but to endure the dangers and the horrors of the war alone. The three years grew to 11 years before her father was able to bring his family to Farrell.
“I remember saying to my father,” she said, “back home they all said in America there was gold on the trees. He said no, there isn’t, but it’s a very nice place to live.”
For Fran and her siblings, it wasn’t so nice at first.
“In Slovenia, I was in fifth grade,” she said, “but here I had to start over in first grade. The kids were so bad. They used to push and shove us and call us Hunkies. The only one who was nice to us was a black girl who lived next door to us. When the teacher found out, she told all the boys and girls, ‘She’s here trying to learn the American language and all. You should be nice to her.’ After that, the kids were good to us and I loved school.”
Before long a bit of Slovenia sprung up not far from her home.
“I was a little girl when they were building Slovenian Hall on the corner of French and Baldwin Avenue in Sharon. We used to go there and jump down into the cellar when they were digging the ground. When I came home I was all dirty from the mud.”
That mixture of American soil and Slovenian tradition symbolizes Fran’s whole life. The Slovenian Hall became what Fran calls her second home. It was a place where she and her family could sing Slovenian songs, perform traditional dances, and savor the foods of their homeland.
“In my family we were all singers. My mother and father used to sing duets when they were young, going to school. We sang in singing clubs, church groups, and orchestras. My sister was a wonderful singer. We even recorded several phonograph LPs with orchestras. ”
Since the streets of America weren’t paved with gold, Fran had to work hard, but she did so with gusto. She was only 15 when her father got her a job at the American Sheet and Plate, known as the Farrell Tin Mill. When they found out how young she was, they let her go.
It was hard for her to find another job here because of the Depression. Fran’s cousin got her a job at the Seiberling Rubber Company in Akron. She worked so hard for such long hours that it affected her health. Finally she was able to get a job here at the Sharon Hardware Manufacturing Company
. After nine years there, she got a job at Westinghouse, where she and her sister Millie became known as the singing sisters because they sang while they worked. Fran worked her way up to the position of group leader on the midnight shift.
Through all those years, the Slovenian Hall played an important role in her life. There she met a man named Joseph Nespor, who was eight or nine years older than her.
“Joe was married. He and his wife had three children, two boys and a girl – Billy, Joe Jr., and Rosemarie. He found out his wife was unfaithful, so he divorced her. Then he married Theresa Yaklevich, a girl friend of mine from Slovenia, who was living in Girard, Ohio. They had a son, Ron, but Theresa died when he was very young. I took care of him while he was growing up.”
Joe and Fran were married in 1948 and had two children within a few years, Francine and John. She is still very close to them and to Joe’s other children.
Joe shared Fran’s love of travel. In the early 1950s, they went to Europe on the cruise ship Andrea Doria.
“My husband owned the Penn Auto Body Shop on Budd Street. He sold Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. So we took our Cadillac on the Andrea Doria, and took it off in Genoa, Italy. We drove around Europe for three months.”
The Andrea Doria, launched on January 14, 1953, sank three and a half years later after being struck by a Swedish ship in a heavy fog near Nantucket Lighthouse.
Joe also shared Fran’s love of music and singing.
“He belonged to the Strossmayer Singing Society. We bought the Strossmayer Croatian Center and picnic grounds near Vienna, Ohio. I worked so hard up there for many years. I was a member of the Society for 63 years. Joe was president, I was vice president, and then I was treasurer for 18 years.”
Fran has always been very active in the SNPJ, the Slovenian National Benefit Society. For over 60 years she was youth director, teaching music and the arts to children from ages 5 to 18. She was president of the SNPJ Lodge 755 for about 45 years and recording secretary of the Slovene Home in Sharon. She still holds both of these offices. She has been a member of the Slovene Ladies Auxiliary since March, 1934. Since 1940 she has been a writer for Prosveta, the Slovene weekly paper of the SNPJ published in Pittsburgh. She has won many awards and prizes for her writing. She has been a delegate to five SNPJ national conventions.
Her biggest joy every year is the SNPJ’s Slovenefest held in Enon Valley.
“It is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Thousands of people come there. I could never miss it. They usually have four or five orchestras on stages outside and inside. My sister Mary and I used to have our own place for cooking. We taught a lot of women how to cook Slovenian and different kinds of food.”
Fran was chairlady for the Slovenefest for two consecutive years.
While accomplishing so much in Slovenian organizations and activities, Fran was equally active in the American way of life. During World War II, she was chairlady for Bond Sales, which resulted in the sale of $30,000 worth of bonds. She was a member of the Hermitage Women’s Democratic Club, and was its president for two years. She worked at voting polls as majority inspector for 25 years. She is a member of the Hermitage Women’s Club since its founding, and was active in its drama and its bowling league. She belonged to the Buhl Club and played on its basketball team.
Fran has continued to live her dynamic life even after her husband died in 1973. She has visited Europe a total of eight times, including twice in the last five years. During her trip in 2001, she met the former Slovenian president Milan Kucan.
“He couldn’t believe I was 88. He hollered for his buddies to come down, saying I want you to see what kind of a woman lives in America.”
Today, at 93 years of age, Fran is still a young lady who works out several times a week on the fitness machines at the Hermitage YMCA. Nevertheless, because she is always thinking ahead, she has pre-planned her own funeral.
“When I die, I don’t want to lay down at a funeral home. I want to lay at Slovenian Hall. Up there, there will be the kind of music I want. All the people can come in and do what they want, sing and dance, and stay as long as they want to. All the women know, when I die, they have to be baking and making a lot of food.”
Though it probably won’t happen for years, Fran’s funeral will be a joyful celebration of her life. Until then, you can be sure that she will continue to enjoy life to the fullest, just as she always has.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007