Lives led by the Spirit
John Robb’s parents, Howard and Elizabeth, were living in tiny Argentine, PA, about 50 miles east of Sharon, PA. Howard worked in the mines there. When John was about three years old, Howard and his brother heard that Westinghouse in Sharon was hiring.
“They came up here,” John said, “and they were hired on the spot. They worked a day or so, and on the weekend went back home to get their families. They moved into a company house on Sharpsville Avenue.”
But Howard got more than a job there. He got a new life. He and Elizabeth had attended church in Argentine and Elizabeth’s hometown Annisville. They didn’t get established in a church in Sharon until Howard’s group leader at Westinghouse invited him to an evangelistic service at the First Presbyterian Church, which was right by their home.
“The guest speaker delivered a salvation message,” John said, “and Dad went forward and had a born-again experience. The preacher said, ‘Did you get it?’ Dad said yes. The preacher said, ‘How do you know?’ Dad replied, ‘Because I love everybody.’ The old man said, ‘You got it!’”
Of course, such an experience doesn’t pass automatically from father to son. John had to wait many years for his life-changing experience, which came under very different circumstances: not in a crowded church, but in solitude in the open air.
Howard had always lived out in the country, so he was uncomfortable in the urban Westinghouse neighborhood. He bought a house on Longview Road, just up the hill from Bobby Run, with acres of woods out behind. It was a great place for John to grow up.
“I loved the outdoors,” John said. “When I was a kid we followed Bobby Run from the source up near Maple Drive, down across Swamp Road, and all the way to where it hit the river. We thought we were pretty smart.”
His dad was a hunter, so John learned that from him.
“Then I picked up trapping,” he said. “You could get a pretty good price for opossum and muskrat skins, so I earned my spending money by trapping them.”
But trapping had its occasional risks.
“You could get skunks in the traps. You had to be very careful not to get into trouble with them.”
For grades one through seven, John attended a one-room school up on Spangler Road. Then he went to Hickory High School. He graduated in 1940 at the age of 17, too young to get a job. That gave him what many teenagers dream of – free time to enjoy life, with out any responsibilities. It should have been the best of times, but it turned out to be the worst of times – and that turned out to be a very good thing.
“I had too much idle time,” John said. “It seemed like they were pushing me out into the world and I didn’t know what they expected of me. I got so depressed I walked out here into the woods one day and just fell on my knees in tears. I cried out into the trees. Instantly the despair went away, and a peace came on me that was so obvious. I knew it had to be that God they were telling me about.”
When he turned 18, he started working as a coil winder at Westinghouse. Not long after that, he met a Sharon High School senior named Catherine Frazier.
“Her sister Eleanor and husband were living in a trailer down near Bobby’s Corner (the intersection of Route18 and Longview Road). I used to see this girl coming out of that trailer. I thought she was cute. I’d speak to her once in a while. Finally one day I had my bike there, it was a nice day, and I got brave and asked her if she wanted to go on a bike ride with me. She said, ‘Let me ask my sister.’ I took her down to the golf course and brought her back. I asked her if she would be allowed to go to the Stoneboro Fair tomorrow. That was our first real date.”
John dated Catherine until he was drafted into the Combat Military Police branch of the army. His unit, the 502nd CMP Company, was sent to India. General Stillwell was directing the construction of the Ledo Road, from Assam in India to Bhamo on the legendary Burma Road.
The Ledo Road was intended to be the major supply route from India to China. The first 103 mile section was started in December, 1942. It had to be built through thick rain forests and over the mountains, sometimes as high as 4,500 feet, with hairpin curves and switchbacks, in places needing the removal of 100,000 cubic feet of earth per mile.
That first section took a full year to complete. When linked up with the Burma Road, the supply line extended over 1,000 miles. It wasn’t completed until January, 1945, costing $150 million, 1,100 American lives, and the lives of a greater number of civilian workers.
“They needed special Military Police,” John said. “A lot of our job was traffic control. Our company was spread out every hundred miles or so, but we got to travel once in a while to meet each other.”
For John, it was a perfect opportunity to grow spiritually.
“It was great that I had that experience with the Lord before I went into the service. I was reading my Bible, a New Testament paperback, I read that whole New Testament the three years I was in the service.”
John deepened his understanding of the Bible and his spirituality by expressing his thoughts in the letters he wrote home.
“I was growing spiritually by leaps and bounds,” he said.
While John was in the service, Catherine trained to become a nurse.
“There was an opportunity to join the cadet nurses,” John said. “That worried me, because I figured about the time I got back she would be sent overseas. But she never had to go. It helped her with her financial situation. She ended up doing the rest of her training in New Castle at Jameson.”
Because he had been sent overseas relatively early in the war, he was able to come home before the end of it. He went back to work at Westinghouse, and he married Catherine in 1946. They moved into a house on Mercer-Clarksville Road. Catherine worked as a nurse at Cottage Hospital in Mercer. Their daughter, Jonine, was born while they lived there. When she was ready to enter first grade, they started building a house on the family’s land on Longview Road, behind his father’s house. They finished the basement completely before starting on the construction of the house itself.
“I had it figured out ahead to have a place for a shower and sink and everything so I knew we could live down there and I could take my time up here. The house was precut. They brought it in on two loads. They sent you the first load so you could get the frame erected. You would let them know when you finished that. Then they sent in the second load everything else you needed. Everything was marked, and you had good prints. I had Dad help me some, too.”
Catherine switched from Cottage Hospital to Sharon General Hospital. John continued to work at Westinghouse.
“I started out as a coil winder, then I became what they called a checker. If the section I was working in needed something from another section, they would write a requisition for it, and I would go to get it. I was a “C” clerk then. I saw job postings for “B” clerks in Aisle H, the big aisle where they built the big transformers. They called them Engineer Letter Runners. Sometimes the engineers had to write pretty lengthy letters supporting material for making changes. They had to have somebody get that material in as fast as they could. It was interesting. I would get from one end of the plant to the other. I stayed on that for many years.”
Their son Craig was born in 1953. He and Jonine thoroughly enjoyed growing up in their new house.
“The woods was our playground,” Jonine said. “There were vines that hung from the trees, pretty solid ones, and we’d use them to swing on. Dad built us a tree house. We’d lay up there for hours. ”
John and Catherine continued to be active in the First Presbyterian Church.
“Pastor Jack Chisholm picked me as an elder,” John said. “That was in the seventies and eighties. The charismatic movement was going on. He knew the Spirit was working in me probably more than I did. I grew by leaps and bounds in my faith. And I never stopped.”
In the spring of 1992, Catherine was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“As soon as they would let her, she wanted out of the hospital and to come home,” John said. “That was all right because she knew I would help her all I could. What I didn’t know how to do, she could tell me. That was precious to me that I could do that. We had a double bed that was actually twin beds attached together. I pulled them apart with the heads at opposite ends so we could see each other’s face and we could touch hands. When I woke up, I could see pretty well what was going on with her. Or she could reach over and wake me. It worked out great.”
Catherine’s sister, Eleanor, helped John take care of her. Catherine passed away in October of that year.
John still lives in the house he built with his own hands. Jonine lives in Sharpsville with her husband Gary Flowers, and works with him at Flowers Radio and TV. Craig is a truck driver living in Florida.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009