WEIRTON — Stories, backslapping and laughter filled the Serbian Picnic Grounds on Saturday during the 71st annual picnic of the Weirton Steel 25-Year Club.
About 450 retirees attended the picnic. For many, it was the once-a-year chance to see some of their fellow workers.
Brenda Ice, 25-Year Club vice president, worked in the sheet mill for 30 years and then spent two years in the tin mill. She was an operator on the No. 5 galvanizer, the only female working on that line.
Ice said she has been vice president of the club for the past five years. She said attendance at the annual picnic used to be in the thousands.
“Every day you pick up the paper and see another obituary. We had 13,000 working at the mill at one time,” she said.
The club has to raise all its own money for the picnic. There was a 50-50 drawing at the picnic, and the club has organized a golf tournament in the spring as another fundraiser.
The 25-Year Club passes out candy at the Weirton Christmas Parade and helps maintain the city’s Christmas decorations.
Dave Mackey of Weirton is one of the volunteers who works on the Christmas decorations. He was the general supervisor of the basic oxygen plant in charge of electricity and maintenance. He retired after 37 1/2 years on the job,
“The picnic is open to the people who worked at Weirton Steel at one time or another. They come to see friends and have a good time. A lot of them have been retired for numerous years and it is the only time they see each other. We get people who come from as far away as Texas,” Mackey said.
Ron Baker, 25-Year Club president, is a millwright at the steel plant, with 45 years on the job.
Baker said he unfortunately is seeing a declining attendance at the annual picnic.
“But people still want to see the picnic going. They are here because of something inside of them. They are proud of what they did. We will do everything we can to keep it going and have a dedicated group working on it. It is not just a picnic for these guys. It is a reunion,” he said.
Ernie Nicholas, 25-Year Club past president, said he started at the mill in 1948 and retired in 1992. He started as a laborer and ended his career as a superintendent.
Nicholas said he saw great accomplishments at the mill.
“Weirton Steel was good to the common man. We made money for us and Weirton Steel,” he said.
Nicholas has a lifelong association with the mill.
He remembers when he was about 5 years old and it was payday at the mill. When the whistle would blow at the end of the shift on payday, he and his mother would walk to the mill to escort his father home so he wouldn’t get “detoured.” The mill at the time would pay the workers in cash, he said. Guys would take the pocket full of cash and head to one of the many bars around the mill, he said.
Nicholas, who is 87 years old, said he has been coming to the annual picnic since about 1960.
Baker said Saturday was a sad day for the mill workers.
The No. 1 blast furnace was demolished with a loud bang on Saturday morning.
“They had to do it on our picnic day,” Baker said.
Edward Bacobit of Weirton worked at the mill for 42 years, first as a laborer and then as an inspector at the hot mill.
“We made decent money to live on. I like coming to the picnic to see my old buddies if they show up. A lot of them are gone. The numbers are dwindling,” said the 85-year old.
Jim Hare of Weirton started in the mill in 1959 as a trainee. He was a foreman in the mechanical shop in the Steubenville plant until it was closed down. He then was transferred to the tin mill in Weirton as a general foreman.
“It was good work until we bought the mill and I took a 30 percent pay cut. I had too may years invested to go somewhere else, and I liked it there,” Hare said.
Ralph Gaffoli of Sarasota, Fla., has been coming back for the annual picnic for about 10 years. He lived in Steubenville, Weirton and then Paris, Pa., before moving to Florida 16 years ago.
He spent the bulk of his 32 years in the mill at the coke plant. When the coke plant was shut down, he was moved to the strip steel in the rigger shop.
“It was hot and dirty. It was all right working there. I stuck with it all those years,” he said.
Gaffoli said he comes back to see old friends.
“I come back to make my once-a-year visit,” he said.
Gaffoli today will be attending the Tri-State Marine Corps reunion before flying back home.
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