New Wilmington, PA
How can you have a dozen or so people think of you as mother or father if you’ve never given birth to any babies, nor adopted any children? Long-time New Wilmington residents George and Jean Marshall Robinson did it by being caring members of a caring church in a college community.
“We had no children,” George said, “but through our little Methodist church, we could ‘adopt’ Westminster College students to provide them with a home away from home. They lived in the dorm, but we’d have them down for a hot dog, or take them out for spaghetti, or have a picnic out in the back yard. We have remained close to many of them.”
George mentioned two special “daughters” from Milford, Indiana, with whom they have remained close for 20 years or more. He also mentioned a “son” named Jack.
“He was from Harborcreek,” George said. “His dad and mother were good friends of ours, and he was coming to Westminster. But about this time of year, his father had open heart surgery. He didn’t make it. Now that was traumatic. Then Jack was going away from home for the first time. That was also traumatic. He spent a lot of time with us.”
So what prepared George and Jean for the role of surrogate parents? Just a fairly typical life in a good, basic, middle American community. Fairly typical means hard work; an entrepreneurial bent; a reverence fostered by a small-town church; a willingness to serve not only their community, but also their country; the fortitude to overcome adversity – and an ever-present sense of humor.
George was born in Volant in 1921.
“There were four boys and four girls in my family. I was the baby,” George said.
A few years later, the family moved to the New Wilmington area. From grades one through eight, George attended a one-room school near the intersection of Routes 18 and 218. That building later became the original Cheese House.
While in high school, George worked summers on a farm. “I got three dollars a week and my keep,” he said. “It was nine to five, but I enjoyed it.”
After high school, George worked in Grove City as an apprentice to become a journeyman tool and die maker.
“As soon as I got my qualifications over there,” he said, “I went into the Navy. I never told them I was a journeyman tool and die maker. I thought they’d have me training these kids, but I wanted to be at sea. They sent me to school – I was number 7 in a class of 200, averaged 91% . They said I should be a petty officer aboard ship, which eventually I was. I had a great job. I was called oil king.”
An oil king was responsible for the loading and disposition of all fuel, lubricants, and fresh water on the ship.
“ I didn’t have to do the work. I’d say, ‘I need you, you, and you – You take that hose off and hook it onto a water plug.’ Everybody was glad to work with me, because most of the ports where we tied up were within a block of the beer joints. And you could get off the ship and on without any trouble. But we never abused that.”
George was part of the crew of the USS Tantalus from the time it was launched in Seneca, Illinois, on January 2, 1945. Built as an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) and launched on January 2, 1945, it was converted to a Landing Craft Repair Ship at Jacksonville, Florida. After a shakedown cruise on the Atlantic coast, it sailed through the Panama Canal for service in the Pacific fleet. She left San Diego on August 14, 1945, the very day that Japan surrendered, and called at Pearl Harbor, Eniwetok, Guam, the Philippines, and China, where she was decommissioned.
When George came back from the service, he got a job as a tool and die maker at a mill in New Castle.
“In 1946, I was making $100 a week,” he said. “That was very good money in those days.”
In 1947, George married Jean Marshall, a native of Leesburg.
“We were doing okay on $100 a week,” George said, “and we built this house [in New Wilmington]. About that time I took a test for a job at the post office. Evidently, I got a good grade, because the postmaster, who was a friend of mine, called and said he had a full-time job for me.”
That job paid 99 cents an hour for 40 hours a week – less than half of what he was earning as a tool and die maker.
“Everybody advised me to take the post office job, so I did,” George said. “Security doesn’t pay too many bills. But I’m a firm believer in the Good Lord guiding us some way or another. A friend who had a construction business stopped one day and said, ‘George, do you suppose Jean would keep books for me for a couple of weeks? My bookkeeper has to go into the hospital.’ Money was not discussed at all. At the end of the first week, she came home with a check for $75. And the two weeks turned into two years. It really helped us over the hump.”
George worked in the New Wilmington Post Office for about ten years, then became a rural mail carrier out of Mercer.
“I always wanted a rural route. You’re by yourself, your own boss, and if you do your work you have no problems. I carried mail for 21 years. I-79 and I-80 were built during that time. That meant some old country roads were cut off. I drove 100 miles every day. I always took the time to say hello, even got groceries for some of them. Now you’d get fired for doing that. People were very nice. At Christmas time they would leave me goodies in the mail box.”
“I never baked anything at Christmas time,” Jean said. “He’d come home loaded with them.”
Jean worked outside the home for several relatively short periods. She also tended to the greenhouse George had built behind their house. Every year they raised from seed and sold about 15,000 plants, such as lettuce, cabbage, and tomatoes.
“There weren’t any other greenhouses around back then,” George said. “We were going to get independently wealthy.”
“That’s why we’re so rich now,” Jean joked.
Early in 1974, life became more difficult for the Robinsons.
“On January 14, I came home from work,” George said. “Jean was in bed. I asked what was the matter. She had a terrible headache, and thought it was the flu, which was going around. But it was a stroke. I took her to the hospital in New Castle. Then on January 19 she was transferred to Northside Youngstown, where she was in intensive care for ten days. On February 14, she was moved to a rehab center in Warren, Ohio. We finally got her back home on April 5th. I drove about 6000 miles in those 82 days. Thank God gas wasn’t $2.75 in those days. She recovered, and took therapy, and walked and got along.”
Today, she still has a hard time getting around, but maintains the same positive attitude that carried her through her illness.
Three years after Jean’s stroke, George retired from the post office. During the intervening 33 years, the Robinsons traveled quite a bit – to such places as Florida, New Mexico, and Alaska. They also continued to pursue their recreational passions. Both love antiques, so they spent a lot of time searching for interesting items and restoring some of them. George also loved the outdoors.
“All my life I went hunting,” George said, “mostly grouse, a couple of deer, an elk, and a moose. I’ve hunted in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Kansas, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming. We always rode horses. Thank God we did, because we were nine miles back in the woods when I shot the elk. Half of it went on my horse, and half on my buddy’s horse. Two other guys gave us their horses because we were the oldest, and they walked out.”
George and Jean have seen a lot of changes in New Wilmington during their years there.
“The original Tavern was at the corner of New Castle and Beechwood Streets,” George said. “I remember when there were six grocery stores in town. Now there’s only one. Shortstop Inn was a grocery store. There was a dentist in where the inn’s overflow rooms are now. Right beside it my uncle had a blacksmith shop for fifty years. It was a great thing to go in there. He would look at the metal and tell by the color how hot it was and what to do with it. He’d hammer it together, and boy, it stuck. Uncle George would bend a horseshoe nail around and make a ring. Then there was a feed store beside the blacksmith shop. The drug store was where it’s at now, but I can remember a marble top counter where you could get a soda. Those days are gone. But the greatest gift for us is memory. You remember the nice things, not the bad things.”
This November, George and Jean will celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary, but they’re still on their honeymoon.
“Before we go to bed, I take a glass of water and ice cubes and an Aricept pill for her. Then we always kiss each other and say I love you and go to bed.”
Perhaps their enduring mutual love, even more than their small-community upbringing, is what made them such good substitute parents.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010