Destined to be together
Ernest Saunders came from Kaiser, West Virginia, during the 1920s to work in the Farrell tin mill. His son, Ernest Jr. (Ernie), was born here in 1929.
Henry Etheridge came to Farrell from Mobile, Alabama, to work in the steel mills in 1942. He brought his family, including his nine-year-old daughter, Sallie.
Ernie and Sallie are the kind of people who would spend their lives serving others, regardless of where they were. The Shenango Valley is blessed to have had them doing that here, rather than in West Virginia and Alabama.
“I grew up in those days when it was fun being a kid,” Ernie said. “You could walk away from your house and leave your door standing wide open. You might come home and find a couple of loaves of home-made bread on your table. People trusted people.”
After learning to be a tin smith during his senior year in high school, Ernie went to a worked at Westinghouse for four years, and at National Castings during a temporary layoff. Then in 1951, he was presented with a totally unexpected opportunity.
“A couple of politicians asked me if I wanted to be a police officer in Farrell,” Ernie said.
Ernie and the only other black man to take the civil service exam at that time scored higher than the dozen or so other men who took it with them. Both were hired.
Those were the days when policemen walked a beat. Most of the time it was pretty routine, but Ernie had some dangerous moments.
“One cold, rainy, night I was walking my beat past the Italian Club on Spearman Avenue. I heard some banging from the back. I took out my gun and my flashlight and walked to the back as quietly as I could. I could see two guys inside the stairwell. One of them was banging the heck out of the door with a hammer and chisel. I stepped out with my flashlight and gun and said, ‘Okay, fellows, come up out of that hole. Please don’t make any funny moves.”
Ernie escorted them to the police station, which was about a block away. When he and the police captain went back to check the crime scene, they found a .38 revolver on top of the men’s tool bag. For his work that night, Ernie received a citation and two $100 war bonds.
Most of his job satisfaction came from very different situations.
“It gave me great satisfaction when I was able to grab some of the young ones and talk with them. ‘You know, you’re doing the wrong thing. If you want people to like you and respect you, then you’ve got to show the same thing to them. Somebody’s got to show respect first. It may as well be you.’ Then I might give them a dollar for some ice cream cones. Before long they looked forward to seeing me.”
Ernie was usually more interested in settling things down rather than stirring them up. “I would walk into a bar fight I would unplug the juke box to cut down the noise. Then I’d pick out the meanest one in the bunch. And I’d tell him, ‘You can be my deputy. Come on, let’s break this up. If you go, the rest of these folks will follow you.’ So he would head for the door, and the rest of his buddies would follow him. Somebody would ask, ‘You’re not arresting anybody?’ I’d say, ‘No, they’re leaving. That’s all you wanted them to do.’ And they appreciated me more than if I’d gone after them with a nightstick and started beating on somebody.”
One time he gave the mayor a parking ticket.
“He was parked where he wasn’t supposed to. It said ‘No Parking.’ It didn’t say ‘No Parking Except for the Mayor.’”
On his beat, Ernie met Sallie Etheridge, who later became his wife.
“Sallie worked at her uncle’s cleaning shop,” Ernie said. “I used to walk by there all the time. Our eyes met, more or less.”
Sallie was a very bright, hardworking girl.
“I was the oldest of four kids,” Sallie said. “I started working cleaning houses when I was 12 years old to help out with the expenses at home.”
She started serving others while she was still young.
“As a young girl I was always drawn to older people,” she said. “There was one lady who had terminal cancer. She lived about a mile from our house. Every day I would walk to her house to read the Bible to her.”
There were only five Afro-Americans in her class at Sharon High School. She was a member of the Honor Society and the basketball team. And she was the only black member of the drama club.
After graduating in 1952, Sallie received a scholarship to Sharon Regional Hospital School of Nursing. She was one of the first five Afro-Americans in the program. She graduated in 1955, sharing top honors with a graduate named Margerie Sabo. Then she started general duty nursing at the hospital – for 99 cents an hour.
When she was young, Sallie had just a touch of a wild side as well.
“Sallie and her sisters and friends used to come down to this bar,” Ernie said. “They were too young, so usually they would sneak in when I wasn’t there. One night I came into the bar just as the State Liquor Control Board made a raid. I told the LCB people, ‘This one, that one, and that one, they’re all mine.’ So I took them out like they were under arrest, but I sent them home.”
Ernie and Sallie were married on October 15, 1955. Their son, Ernest James Saunders III, was born in 1957. Their daughter, Kimberley Irene Saunders, was born in 1961.
The riots of 1968 were one occasion when Ernie would have been more aggressive than those around him.
“To this day I don’t know what set them off. The only thing I can remember is that the stores in Farrell at that time were not hiring any black people. There were riots going on in New York and Los Angeles, so some of the young people decided to copy them. They started breaking windows and stealing whatever they could put their hands on. I stood there on the corner right above Levine’s, and I drew my pistol. But the mayor said no, we know who they are and what they’re doing, so don’t do that.”
“During the riots, I was coming home from church,” Sallie said. “The people had laid down across the road to make a human barricade. When they saw me coming, they said, ‘Oh, here comes Mrs. Saunders.’ They all jumped up and they ran.”
Ernie served as a policeman in Farrell police for 28 years, in spite of a bout with Graves Disease, a thyroid condition that caused him to lose more than 50 lbs in two months. After retiring in 1980, he worked as security officer at the Sharon Regional Health Systems until 1999. He finished out his working days as a greeter at CareerLink.
Sallie continued nursing at Sharon Regional for 35 years. She was never content with merely fulfilling her responsibilities as a nurse. She served on several boards in the community, including the Shenango Valley Urban League, United Way, the Farrell Board of Health, and the Regional Health Planning Commission of Mercer County. She was on the Head Start board at its beginning. At Sharon Regional, she served on the board of a start-up home health program.
She was also project director for the Community Medical Educational Screening Center.
“That was very satisfying, interesting work,” she said. “We screened children under the age of six to evaluate physical and mental growth was normal, and to identity lead poisoning. We also had a VD clinic for young girls, and we tested for cycle cell anemia.”
To top it all off, Sallie was ordained as a minister and serves as co-pastor of the Hour of Power Full Gospel Tabernacle.
“The pastor is Pastor Martha J. Sanders, and the chief elder is Rev. Betty Lee,” Sallie said. “They have been very supportive of Ernie and I over the past few years while Ernie went through a lot of health issues. Every one in the church has been wonderful. ”
Ernie had a cancerous growth that blocked his kidneys. Sallie felt that the Lord was telling her that he should have an x-ray before the operation. The x-ray showed that he had an aneurism that, if undiscovered, might have killed him during the kidney operation. Two teams of doctors worked on him, one to remove the kidney, and the other to deal with the aneurism. He has been on dialysis ever since.
He had a bowel resection to remove a growth there. Then he developed prostate cancer. Radiation treatments to deal with that burned a hole in his bowels, which caused life-threatening bleeding ulcers. On top of all of this, Ernie developed borderline diabetes. Then one morning, when he was going to dialysis, he fell in his back yard. That resulted in a broken his leg and compression fractures to his vertebrae. He now has to use a walker at home and a wheelchair when he is out.
Sallie and Ernie give the Lord credit for his survival. But they aren’t merely survivors. They are much more than that. They are servers. For that, they themselves deserve much of the credit.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009