Attention to detail
What does success in the following fields have in common: Model airplane building, ice skating, motorcycles, electronic instrument calibration, archery, fighter planes, family, and charcoal portrait drawing? Answer: The need for skill and attention to detail, countless opportunities for creativity and innovation, and the ability to overcome many challenges.
Lots of people have been involved with several of them, but maybe only one man has achieved a notable degree of success in all of them: 86-year-old Homer “Doc” Root of Transfer, PA.
Perhaps the key to his success was the last common element mentioned above: the ability to overcome challenges. He learned that very early in life from his mother.
“My father was a drunkard,” Doc said. “We were living in West Middlesex. He came home from work one day when I was about three or four. My mother was sitting in a high-back chair with my baby sister in her arms. He came up behind the chair and was choking her. Mike Marenchin, the constable, lived three doors down from us. I think that’s why he let go of her. That was the worst mistake he made in his life. She was a farm girl. You don’t mess with them. She took me and my little sister and my blind grandmother and moved out. Left him flat. She didn’t have any education. She used to go out working for $1 a day cleaning porches and things. She raised us by herself. Earned a dollar here and a dollar there.”
He developed skill and attention to detail before he finished high school by building rubber-band powered model airplanes out of paper and balsa wood. And he experimented with them in ways most people wouldn’t even think of, sometimes with unintended results.
“One day I climbed up on top of the engine house with the old furnace down there, about eight floors, I think. Up a ladder and half the bolts were coming out of the bricks. In high school you weren’t a man until you climbed that. We set a model airplane on fire and let it go. It went down into this lady’s back yard and she was hanging up clothes. She looked up and she fainted.”
After graduating from West Middlesex High School in 1941, Doc worked for a while with the furnaces at Youngstown Sheet and Tube.
“I worked with high-temperature optical pyrometers. Whenever the temperature goes up, steel changes color. The pyrometers had cross-wires that were heated electronically. When they got the same color that matched the job you were aiming at, you had the temperature. You had to balance it and match it out until they disappeared. I had to calibrate them, to figure out how many volts it took to produce so much color.”
Doc wouldn’t have had to go into the military service because there was just his mother and sister at home. But he wanted to fly, so he joined the Army Air Force and trained as a fighter pilot. That was a challenge in more ways than one.
“They brought in P-40 fighters from the Flying Tigers for us to use. Boy, were they a piece of junk. The cowling didn’t allow enough air in to cool it. We had a tank truck full of water. They had to spray them with water to get them cool enough to take off.”
But he never got the opportunity to fly in combat. His superiors in flight training school learned about his experience with instrument calibration and kept him in the States.
“They had this problem with no one to repair the gunnery training simulators. You would fire, and they had electronics and you would see if you hit the target or not. They asked me if I wanted to work on them. I got all of my flying time and everything, but I was no longer a pilot. So I had to take care of these devices so the kids could learn how to shoot.”
It was in the army that he got the nickname.
“We were in Alabama, and the guys were getting heat rash. They were tearing their ties off because they couldn’t take it. I went into town and got all this stuff to relieve it, different kinds of powders and everything. So they started calling me Doc.” He didn’t mind. “When you have a first name like Homer,” he said, “you’re glad to get a nickname.”
While he was in the service, he developed another talent: charcoal drawing. Using a photograph and a mirror, he drew an excellent self-portrait.
Upon returning from the service after the war, Doc had an unexpected opportunity. He had become a very good roller skater as a kid, and that translated into ice skating. He was invited to go to Pittsburgh and skate professionally in the ice follies. “But I didn’t want to leave my mother with all of the responsibilities of taking care of the family,” he said.
So it was back to the furnaces at Youngstown Sheet and Tube. “I found that stuff was neglected, they let things ride, didn’t take care it. “The controls on the open hearth furnace were blocked open with wood. It was a mess, very unsafe.” He stomped right into a managers’ meeting and demanded the tools and controls that he needed to repair the furnaces. They were so embarrassed they fired him, even though they knew how good he was.
“They called up to Republic Steel and told them to watch for me and hire me. I didn’t have to take tests or anything, I went right in.”
Doc wanted to work at Westinghouse, but they weren’t hiring.
“I told them I would work there for a month for nothing, and if I didn’t earn my pay and more, I’d walk out, they wouldn’t have to fire me. They took me up on that. They had instruments that they didn’t know enough about.”
It wasn’t long before he met Doris DeCamp, who had grown up in what is now Austintown, Ohio.
“It wasn’t intelligence that made me find Doris,” he said. “It was luck. Nobody knows how we met, and we’re not telling. She was the first girl I ever took home to meet my mother.”
Doc worked at Westinghouse for 39 years.
“I didn’t have the background in combustion engineering, but they had these big furnaces and I would set them up so that the gas would burn at a certain temperature. You could control this with the amount of air that went in. I put in burners and things, matched them up, and I would set them up so they wouldn’t overheat, but would burn at the temperature they wanted.”
While Doc worked at Westinghouse, he and Doris developed many other talents. Doc continued to draw portraits with charcoal, many of them featuring the faces of American Indians. Through a stroke of inspiration, he began to add touches of color with acrylic paints on top of the charcoal. His works have been displayed in galleries and exhibitions, and he won first prize in a state-wide senior citizens’ contest.
Doc truly appreciates his wife’s abilities, which include golf, card playing, and a variety of crafts such as ceramics and quilting. He particularly values her eye. “I would be stuck on a picture. She would come by and tell me where the problem was. She would notice that there was something wrong with an eye or something. She has a lot of talent.”
Doc also took up archery and, as usual, moved several steps beyond the norm. He invented some arrows that used Mylar vanes instead of feathers.
“They would go through the air without making any noise. I had to invent all of the equipment we used to make them. We started up a company, Autoflex Vane Company, and sold arrows all over the world.”
He and his son Mark both excelled at the sport. Because he made and sold arrows, Doc had to compete as a professional, while Mark was an amateur. One year they both won Pennsylvania state championships.
Through the years Doc owned eleven different motorcycles, not only riding them, but maintaining them as well. He is proudest of his German-made 1955 Horex Imperator. “The motorcycle was so impressive. They had designed this thing to meet our highway design. It was 400cc, but it would go 135 miles per hour.”
Doris and Doc shared a sense of adventure that took them through almost all of the continental United States. Their longest trip was a six-week, 13,000 mile motor home trip to Alaska in 1991. While driving up the unpaved Cassian Highway, their motor home churned up so much mud that the bicycles on the back were covered with a quarter of an inch of mud. Their vehicle broke down three times. In spite of the hardships, they loved the trip, particularly the spectacular scenery and the fishing. Doc caught halibut weighing 67 pounds and 37 pounds.
That trip can be seen as a microcosm of their lives, overcoming hardships to take advantage of every opportunity to live life to the fullest. Doc sums up their attitude with a paraphrase of Romans 5:3-5: “Rejoice through suffering, for through suffering you build endurance, and from endurance comes patience, and from patience comes character, and from character comes new hope. You’re never licked.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008