From instability to security
Does instability during childhood necessarily result in an unstable adulthood? Let’s consider the life of Bob Pryor, of Hermitage. His family moved nine times before he graduated from high school. He had to switched schools five times while he was in the elementary grades, and twice more during high school.
He was born in Clintonville, PA, in 1922, to George and Bertha (Sloan) Pryor. He was the middle child between an older sister, Averal, and a younger brother, Virgil. George worked on the railroad gang repairing tracks and in the coal mines, and had to move wherever he could find work. Their first move was to Grove City before Bob started school. After a couple of years in Grove City, the family moved to Branchton, PA.
“Bessemer, Branchton, Forestville, Harrisville, and Grove City were stops on the Bessemer and Ohio Railroad,” Bob said.
He attended first grade in a one-room school in Branchton. About that time the Depression hit, and George couldn’t find work. So the Pryor family moved to Hermitage to live with Bob’s aunt and uncle. His aunt found work for Bertha as a house cleaner. Bob attended second grade in a Hermitage one-room school.
“Then my mother got a job in a hotel in Branchton, so we moved back there,” Bob said.
He spent third grade in the same school he attended for first grade. But it was back to Hermitage for fourth grade.
“Then my grandfather who lived just outside of Clintonville got sick, so we moved there to take care of him. I went to a one-room country school for fifth grade. My aunt and uncle moved into a house next to my grandfather, and we moved uptown into Clintonville.”
Finally Bob was able to stay in one school for more than a year. He attended the Clintonville school from sixth grade through the first six weeks of his Freshman year. His mother got a job as a cook in a Grove City hotel, so they moved back there. Bob finished his Freshman and Sophomore years there.
Then his aunt and uncle moved away from Clintonville, so the family moved back there to take care of his grandfather.
“I finished high school there and graduated in 1940. I wonder how I ever made it through school. My sister couldn’t take it, so she quit school when she was 16 and got a job. But my brother, who was two years younger than me, skipped a grade and graduated just a year after I did.”
Bob could only find temporary work in Clintonville. Fortunately Bob had two uncles that worked at Westinghouse in Sharon. One of them invited Bob to stay with them and look for a job. He moved here in February, 1941.
“I put in applications in Westinghouse, Sharon Steel, the gas company, any place that might be hiring. I would go down to Westinghouse every day. Twenty or thirty guys would be standing around the gate looking for work. Somebody would come out and say, ‘Anybody here got experience as an electrician or welder?’ Maybe one guy would put his hand up, and they’d say, ‘Okay come on in.’ If you didn’t have experience, you didn’t get in. I went out about three weeks in February, in the cold, but I was anxious to get a job so I didn’t care.”
Then Bob’s uncle came to the rescue. He came home with a pass so Bob could get into the plant. Bob started working the very next day.
That turned Bob’s entire life around by giving him the stability he never had before. Except for about three years in the army air corps during World War II, a brief layoff, and two strikes, he worked at Westinghouse until he retired on February 29, 1983.
Pretty soon his life turned around in another way. He saw a girl named Lillian Gahagan at a party. But she was going out with someone else.
“One night a while later my brother came home and said, ‘You remember that girl that you were interested in? She broke up with her boyfriend. Now is the time to move in.’ I said, ‘Naw, she just broke up with somebody. She’s probably not interested in somebody else.’ He said, You might as well take a chance. All she can do is say no.’”
But she said yes. They dated on Wednesday evenings and Sundays until Bob left for the service on February 29, 1943.
“The whole time I was in the service she wrote to me every day. Sometimes I’d be moving and I’d get six or seven letters at a time. I tried my best to answer them all. I kept all her letters, and she kept all of mine.”
Bob was sent to basic training in, of all places, Atlantic City. The air corps had taken over all the hotels near the Boardwalk to house the trainees.
“We marched up and down the Boardwalk and lived in nice hotel rooms. Then a bunch of air cadets came in and they had priority for the rooms. So I was sent to Seymour Johnson field in North Carolina.”
Bob was eventually assigned to the 87th Aerodrome Squadron. He went with them to Hawaii, where the unit spent four months training for beach landings. Then they sailed in small, flat-bottomed LSTs (Tank Landing Ships) to the Marshall Islands.
“It took ten days. Luckily we didn’t hit much rough water. If you stood in the stern looking toward the bow, when it hit a swell, you could actually see the boat twisting.”
The mission of Bob’s unit was to build airbases on captured islands after the engineers and Seabees finished building or improving the runways. Then they were supposed to move on to the next island and do the same thing.
The first island was Kwajalein, an atoll in the Marshall Islands. It turned out that the unit stayed there until they were relieved and flown back to Hawaii early in 1945. That trip in an old B-24 was a real adventure.
“Shortly after we took off, smoke started coming into the fuselage. All of a sudden there was this explosion. An inboard engine had lost its oil, overheated, blew a piston, and caught on fire. It seemed like a long time, but maybe it was only a few seconds until they got the fire out. There was a full load of fuel in the wing tanks. If they hadn’t gotten the fire out, we would have blown up. We turned back, and when we were approaching the landing strip, the crew chief looked out and saw that the one landing gear was not down. They had to crank it down by hand.”
Bob served in Hawaii for eight months before coming back to the states in November, 1945. He was discharged at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and got back to Hermitage on December 15.
“I was raised Methodist, but the first Sunday I was home I learned that the Methodist Church was way across town. I didn’t have a car. So I walked to Covenant Presbyterian Church, which was nearby. I was very impressed with the pastor, Dr. Meyers, so I decided to join that church. I have attended there ever since. I was Deacon for three terms, and I like to help out there any way I can.”
It was Dr. Meyers who married Bob and Lillian.
“She wanted a June wedding. We got married on June 29, 1946 – barely under the wire for a June wedding.
Their first daughter, Linda (now Dixon), was born on June 6, 1948. Diane (now Cochenour) followed on July 21, 1954.
After living in several apartments, Bob and his family moved into their own house in January, 1956.
“Lillian was good cook. Her father had a heart attack when she was nine or ten, and he had to quit working. Her mother had to go to work, so when Lillian came home from school, she got supper ready. So she learned early how to cook. She sewed clothes when our kids were younger. She loved to crochet, and probably made twenty afghans.”
Lillian didn’t work outside the home until Linda entered college. She started working at Hicks Stationery Store, where she had worked while Bob was in the service. She applied to work at JC Penney, but her mother was working there, and it was there policy at that time not to hire relatives of current employees. When her mother retired, Lillian got a job at Penney’s. She worked there until she retired six years later.
Lillian was very healthy most of her life. Bob said she never even had a family doctor. But in 1996, she suffered from uterine prolapse. When she was operated on, the doctors found that she also had ovarian cancer. Her health continued to decline until she passed away on August 29, 2000.
Since getting married in 1946, Bob has attended the same church for 61 years, worked for the same company for almost 40 years until he retired, was married for 54 years, and still lives in the house he bought 51 years ago. That’s a remarkably steady life for anyone, much less for someone whose childhood was virtually itinerant.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008