A spicy life
If it’s true what they say about variety being the spice of life, Hubbard, Ohio, resident Anthony Ponzio’s work life has been spicy indeed. He has been a janitor, infantry soldier, military clerk, secretary, high school teacher, truck dealership bookkeeper, IRS enforcement agent, school board treasurer, floral delivery truck driver, and parking lot attendant.
He did very well at all those jobs, but each ended for reasons beyond his control. And whenever one door closed, Tony was willing and able to walk through whatever door opened – amazingly, always within a couple of days. He is justifiably proud that he has never been without a job.
Born in Youngstown in 1921, he graduated from East High School. Then he worked his way through Youngstown College (now YSU) to get a degree in business education. In the evenings he sang and played clarinet and sax with a dance band.
One of his musical “gigs” proved to be a very important one. He met a girl named Helen Christoff – his future wife.
“He was the guest singer at my graduation from Youngstown College,” Helen said. “He asked me to go with him. That was our first date.”
Helen was born in Farrell, PA, in 1922. Her father owned the Macedonian Bakery on Spearman in Farrell. Their home was nearby on the corner of Wallis and Stevenson.
“When Dad needed help, he would run through the alley and into the basement of our house and bang on the furnace pipes,” Helen said. “That was our signal for me and my sisters to go to work in the bakery.”
After Helen graduated with her associate degree in business, she worked as a stenographer for Carnegie Illinois Steel Corporation in Farrell. The plant made Sherman M4A4 tanks.
“I worked in the office, so I never saw the tanks,” Helen said. “I never saw one until I visited the World War II Vehicle Museum here in Hubbard a couple of years ago.”
While Tony was in college, he joined the enlisted reserves. He went on active duty a couple of days after finishing his degree in Business Education in 1943. The night of his commencement he was already at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. From there he went to Camp Walters, Texas, for infantry basic training.
Combat infantryman wasn’t his dream job, so he took exams and transferred to the Army Air Corps in September, 1943. He successfully completed four and half months of pre-flight training.
“One morning they called us all out,” Tony said. “They told us that at the convenience of the government we were being transferred into the infantry.”
For unit training he was sent to Camp Livingston near Alexandria, Louisiana.
“We never got to walk on the sidewalks in Alexandria. There were five camps and three air fields within a radius of 50 miles. All you could see from one end of Alexandria to the other was a solid mass of khaki.”
Next he went to California to train for amphibious combat in the South Pacific. In February, 1945, his unit headed out with all their tropical gear – not to the South Pacific, but to Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts.
“We got off the train in summer uniforms and stepped into snow up to our knees.”
From there Tony went to France as part of the 343rd Infantry Regiment, 86th Infantry Division. He carried a very heavy Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) all the way from France into southern Germany.
After Germany surrendered, Tony traded in his BAR for a typewriter. He worked in the regimental headquarters at the castle in Heidelberg updating personnel records in preparation for rotation back to the states.
When the Division arrived in New York on June 17, 1945, he got a thirty day leave. Tony took advantage of it to come back home and marry Helen. When Tony’s leave was over, she went with him to Oklahoma where his unit was training for assignment to the South Pacific. She came back to Youngstown when the division shipped out for the Philippines.
“We crossed the international dateline on my birthday,” Tony said, “so technically I didn’t have a birthday that year.”
Japan surrendered before they got to the Philippines.
“There were still Japanese soldiers in caves around Manilla. They didn’t know the war was over. We had to try to get them out of the caves.”
When he got out of the army early in April, 1946, he stopped in to see his college dean. “He asked me what I was going to do. I said, ‘I haven’t thought about it yet. I’ve only been home two days.’ He told me they had a center for testing returning veterans, and they needed someone to work in it. He said I could do that until I could get a teaching job in the fall. He put me to work that very day.”
As autumn approached, Tony couldn’t find a teaching job that would pay enough to provide the basic necessities for Helen and him. But as he always did when things didn’t go the way he expected, he moved forward in a different direction. The dean’s secretary was leaving, so Tony took that job until he could find an acceptable teaching job.
The following autumn he found a teaching position in Cortland, which he held for three years.
“They had 12 grades in one building, it was that small,” he said. “It was like private tutoring. I had three girls in my shorthand class and five in typing class.”
To supplement his teaching pay, Tony kept the records for John Yourga’s start-up GMC truck dealership in Sharon. John was married to Helen’s sister.
Helen helped financially by working as a secretary at Penn Power in Sharon until the birth of their daughter Phyliss in 1951. Their son Alan was born in 1953.
The Cortland School District was too small to afford a teacher who only taught business courses. So it didn’t surprise Tony when they replaced him with a woman who could teach home economics as well as business subjects. Instead of looking for another teaching job, he went to work full time as Yourga’s bookkeeper. But as fate would have it, Yourga’s GMC dealership never took off, so after five years Tony knew his job there was ending. But as always, a new opportunity presented itself to Tony.
“An agent came from the New Castle IRS office to check the records. I worked with him because I was the one who handled the records. He asked me if I had ever thought of applying for an IRS job. I told him I hadn’t. He said he would let me know the next time the tests were given.”
Tony passed the tests in January, 1955, and went to Cleveland for training. The head of the IRS Intelligence Division happened to be in the office at that moment. He told Tony there was an opening in Youngstown.
Thus Tony finally found himself in a long-term job. For 21 years he wore a badge and carried a gun as an IRS enforcement agent. He participated in raids on numbers operations; surveillance in “peep trucks” and hotel rooms; and security operations for presidential candidates George Wallace, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
“It was interesting work,” Tony said. “I looked forward to going to work every day. We were always doing something different.”
For ten years Helen worked as a secretary in Hubbard High School. She thoroughly enjoyed working around the kids.
Tony retired from the IRS in 1975, but he wasn’t about to quit working. He took the job as treasurer of the Hubbard School District and stayed with it for ten years. After that, he drove a delivery truck for Hulbert’s floral shop. When the floral shop went out of business, he took his current part-time job: parking cars for the Kelley-Robb Funeral Home in Hubbard.
Tony and Helen still enjoy the most important jobs of their lives: husband, wife, parents, grandparents of five, and great-grandparents of four.
Helen passed away on March 9, 2007, Tony on March 17, 2013
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007