Beauty that does not fade
In 2001, Eleanor Williams had a stroke, and in 2004 she broke her ankle.
“That took the ‘git’ out of her,” said her husband, Bob.
Their house was not wheelchair accessible, so they moved Eleanor into assisted living quarters in St. Paul’s senior care community in Greenville. Bob recently moved into a cottage at St. Paul’s, but with a bad back, he can’t provide her with the care she needs. So Eleanor still lives in assisted living facilities.
But Bob gets to spend time with his wife every day.
“You’ve seen pictures of beauties, but they don’t look that good after fifty years,” he said. “Eleanor is as beautiful now as she was 50 years ago.”
Bob Williams was born in Butler in 1916. When his family moved to the east end of Greenville in 1924, many of the streets were just being paved for the first time.
“The graders came in,” Bob said, “graded the road, put utilities in, then a cement base, then sand. Then they had a bricklayer come in. He was quick. It took five men to keep him supplied with bricks.”
With the student population growing because of the First World War “baby boom,” schools were becoming overcrowded. Washington School was the high school until Penn High School was built in 1917. Columbia School housed grades one through eight.
“But when I went there,” Bob said, “it held first through fifth. I went to sixth grade in the old auditorium of the Washington Street school building. In the wintertime we wore jackets, and the ink froze in the inkwells.”
Oras Williams, Bob’s father, was a watchmaker with his own shop. When the Depression hit, his brother bought him out. He took his family to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for the winter.
“I developed asthma down there,” Bob said. “They said we need to get into higher elevation. So we left there and came back.”
Bob graduated from Penn High School in 1933. After a couple of years at Thiel, he joined the Bessemer Railroad, and worked at the extreme ends of it, both up at Conneaut Harbor and down at Mifflin Junction.
Bob’s asthma continued to bother him.
“At Mifflin Junction, they said my breathing was almost as loud as a locomotive.”
However, his asthma gradually cleared up. By 1942 he was fit enough to be drafted. After about six months of training, Bob found himself headed for Hawaii on a World War I vintage troop ship.
“The evaporator that makes fresh water broke down, and we didn’t have fresh water for the week it took for us to get to Hawaii. We existed mostly on what liquids the food had, and fruit juices.”
That turned out to be just about the worst part of his whole military career. He was assigned to the 298th Infantry, the Hawaiian National Guard.
“Our position looked like it had been a movie set – palm trees, a wall, a pond, a beautiful beach.”
The 298th Infantry troops were happy with their assignment, but other people weren’t.
“Apparently there were rumblings that this 298th Infantry was staying at home while every other group had to leave home. So we were sent to a little island in the New Hebrides called Espirito Santo. After about nine months, they moved us up to Guadalcanal. I was a year behind the war. The gun emplacements were rusty, and I never heard a gun fired in anger.”
When the unit returned to Oahu, Bob served as an ambulance driver for the aid station at Honolulu Harbor. He sailed back to the United States for discharge in November, 1945.
“I went to work again at Bessemer, keeping track of the cars coming in the yards. That’s when you did it manually. You see the car number, write it down. I moved up and down the road to different places for a while. Then I decided I’d better get married while I was still young enough to enjoy life.”
Bob looked up a Grove City College girl he had dated before the war.
“She had found a home town boy in North East who played the trombone, and she was a singer,” Bob said. “But she gave me the telephone number of a friend in Pittsburgh, Eleanor Rodgers. My first call from a pay phone went into double overtime. I arranged to meet her for lunch. We couldn’t go to a movie because I had to go to work in the afternoon, so we wandered through the stores.”
That unorthodox date started a relationship that culminated in marriage on June 3, 1950. Bob continued to work for the railroad. Eleanor taught at a number of schools in and around Pittsburgh, and at the Business Training College, which became Point Park College. Eleanor took time out from teaching to have two sons, James Robert Williams Jr. (1951) and John Roger Williams (1954).
In 1965, Bob and Eleanor took in a 15-year-old foster son named Tom, who was from Farrell, PA. He was a ward of the court living at St. Paul’s, which at that time was an orphanage.
“He came from a squabbling family. He was amazed that we never fight. We had other ways of settling our differences. When he got to be 18 and could be on his own, we didn’t hold him back. He had a brother in California, so he went there. He met and married a girl, joined the Air Force, and retired as a master sergeant after 20 years. He credits us with showing how the other half lives and why they live that way. The way he calls us Mom and Dad tells a lot.”
Eleanor was an excellent English teacher who was once awarded a ‘Golden Apple’ award as teacher of the year. She was also very active in church, participating in virtually everything except classroom teaching.
“She was an elder,” Bob said. “People valued her opinion.”
Bob and Eleanor taught their sons a solid work ethic.
“We said, ‘If you want something, earn the money for it.’”
During summers while in college, Jim worked on the Bessemer Railroad Welded Rail program. He graduated from Wesminster in 1973.
John delivered papers and mowed yards to earn money for a set of drums and to pay for flying lessons. He later worked with a Christian organization that produced Christian slide shows. He graduated from Westminster in 1976.
Both Bob and Eleanor worked until 1979.
“After I retired in January 1979, Eleanor saw me footloose and fancy-free,” Bob said. “She decided I was having too much fun, and that she was going to join me. So she retired at the end of the school year, after almost 39 years of teaching.”
Eleanor became even more active in the church. They both loved to travel. Some of their trips weren’t your average vacations. Through a family connection, they became observers of history in the making.
“One of my cousins had a son,” Bob said. “He told the boy that if he got A’s, he could learn to fly.”
The boy, C. Gordon Fullerton, did get A’s, and did he ever learn to fly! He piloted F-86 fighters and B-47 bombers in the Air Force. Then he became an astronaut.
“We went down to see the launch of one of the Apollo missions. NASA had parties to which each member of the crew could invite people. He invited us to a party, and we had a tour of the facilities at Kennedy, including the control center and the vertical assembly building.”
Gordon was the pilot on an eight-day Columbia orbital mission in 1982. Eleanor and Bob decided to go down to see both the launch and the landing. The landing had to be moved from Edwards Air Force Base to White Sands, New Mexico, because of heavy rains in California.
“On the way down to Florida, we heard about the change in the landing site. At the next stop on the Interstate was the kind of a motel we were going to stay in near Edwards. We stopped in and changed our reservation. We were one of the few who had motel reservations in Alamogordo, except for the official party.”
After retiring, Bob flew quite a bit himself – not as a pilot, but as a photographer. A friend in church asked if he would like to do aerial photographic work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Soil and Conservation Service in Mercer.
“So I started taking pictures of fields from the air. I’d get down on my belly and shoot through a hole in the floor. I did that every summer from 1979 to 1998, flying as often as the weather allowed. It was great. I could do two things I loved to do – photography and flying – and get paid for it.”
Bob is very interested in local history, but is puzzled about some of the things he has seen in Greenville.
“The Packard Building had a dance floor on the third floor. The whole area is open, with a stage for a band at one end. I wonder, that building and the other buildings with wide open third floors, what activities were they built for? I haven’t found that out. I do know that during the Depression somebody tried to make a putt-putt course in the third floor of the Packard Building by cutting holes in the floor.”
In his retirement, flying and studying history were’t enough to satisfy, so he volunteered to escort patients around in Greenville hospital. Then in 1979, he started driving for the American Cancer Society. He drove patients for treatments, first to Youngstown, then to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. He still does this whenever he can. This year, at the Greenville Relay for Life, the Cancer Society will be honoring him for his many years as a volunteer.
But what really keeps him going is his love for Eleanor.
“She has the kind of beauty that does not fade,” he says.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009