National Works Memories: Bill Messinger
From farm hand to skilled machinist
By Jason Togyer
(A version of this interview originally appeared in The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., in 1997.)
It was a Thursday morning when Bill Messinger heard the news.
The National Plant’s machine shop, where he had worked since 1946, was closing the next day, Oct. 21, 1983.
“When I went to eat my lunch, it was like eating cardboard,” Messinger said recently as he and his wife, Vivian, sat in the living room of their home near Braddock’s Trail Park in North Huntingdon, a few miles east of McKeesport over the Westmoreland County line, near an area once known as “Guffey’s Hollow.”
“Everybody knew it was a matter of a week, or a month,” said the now 70-year-old former machinist, a father of three. “It’s a sinking feeling.”
Still, Messinger, who today drives a bus for the Norwin school district, said life has “turned out well“ for him and his family.
“There were bad times and hard times, strikes, layoffs,” he said. “I tell the kids on my bus, life isn’t necessarily fair. It isn’t going to go the way you want it to go. You just have to deal with it.”
Grew up on his family farm
Born in 1927, Messinger grew up on his family farm — on the same property where his house now stands — and began working at National on weekends and during the summer while still a student at Norwin High School.
“The farming out here during the war fell to pieces,” he said. “All the men went into the mill.”
Messinger started, as many did, in the labor gang. He soon found unloading stone and bricks and sweeping up around the blast furnaces wasn’t for him, and he entered the apprenticeship program at the mill.
“You learned every machine that was in that shop,” said Messinger, who earned his machinist’s degree in 1951. More than 250 people worked in the shop then.
He liked the job security the mill offered and the people he worked with and for. “It was clean there, and it was quiet, and conditions were a little bit better,” Messinger said.
The job could be demanding. The shop often worked long hours, especially if another part of the plant had shut down to wait for a machine to be repaired. “If there was a breakdown those millwrights would work continuously,” Messinger said. “They wouldn’t even eat their lunch.”
He said tales of goofing off were “exaggerated.” “The mill had to run, and you didn’t run it sleeping,” Messinger said. “A lot of these things just make good stories. Overall, you had a good group of guys, but like in any group, you had some that weren’t carrying the load. ... it wasn’t prevalent.”
And although he was offered a promotion to foreman, he said the job “wasn’t for me.”
Saw 48 states, 17 countries
There were periodic layoffs and strikes during his tenure there. During one stoppage, he tore down a house in Circleville and used the pieces to build a new house on the farm.
He also used the time to travel. He and his wife have seen all 48 states and 17 different countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Italy and South Africa.
“In the early ’70s, it was starting to slow down,” Messinger said. “A lot of it was attrition... they simply weren’t hiring any new people. We were kind of resigned to it.”
For a time during the oil crisis of 1978, National was booming again as oil companies drilled new wells, and Messinger’s daughter, Wanda, worked with him in the machine shop.
But she left to earn a degree at a technical school in Pittsburgh as the plant continued to crumble.
By the beginning of 1983, only 50 people were left. At the end there were only Messinger and a half-dozen of his co-workers.
‘I saw it at its peak, and I saw it at the end’
“We ran that shop with what we could,” he said. “I saw it at its peak and I saw it at the end.” He was officially retired in January of 1985. “The company asked me once to go back into the labor gang,” Messinger said. He turned the offer down because of his age.
In 1986, he took the bus-driving job with Laidlaw Transit to pay some unexpected medical bills, and he hasn’t regretted the decision. “I enjoy this job, I enjoy the kids,” Messinger said. “I’m only four minutes away from work, and I like that.” But he often thinks that he would have liked to work in the mill until he got 50 years in the mill.
And while Messinger and other machine shop veterans still hold a reunion each year at Renziehausen Park in McKeesport, he said a lot of the crew he worked with has left the area. “You move on, I guess,” he said.
Written by Jason Togyer from interview conducted October 1997
A version of this interview originally appeared in The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., in 1997. Comments, corrections and additions are welcome! Write to Jason Togyer at first initial and last name at gmail dot com. This article is from tubecityonline.com/steel, the Steel Heritage section of Tube City Online, P.O. Box 94, McKeesport, PA 15134.