National Works Memories: Dan and Paul Wysni

Father and son offer a study in contrasts

By Jason Togyer
(A version of this interview originally appeared in The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., in 1997.)

A tradition of steelmaking in the Wysni family came to an end when Paul Wysni walked out of the Duquesne Plant for the last time on Oct. 20, 1984, chaining the gates behind him.

His son, Dan, had been laid off from National Plant more than a year before. Now, he too was out of the industry his father had worked in since emigrating from Czechoslovakia.

But you couldn’t blame Dan Wysni if he didn’t feel the same sadness about his separation from the mill that his father did.

“I didn’t want to work there,” he said recently.

He and his father sat in Dan Wysni’s office one rainy morning, the elder Wysni clad in the green windbreaker Duquesne employees received for breaking a shipping record shortly before the plant’s closure.

From oil boom to busted plant

Like many other Mon Valley residents, Wysni said he left high school with no clear idea of what he wanted to do. “It never crossed your mind what you would do if you didn’t work at the mill,” said the 1976 South Allegheny graduate. “It was your life.”

Today, he and his wife, Deborah, own a growing water-treatment business in McKeesport — “across the street from the (mill) gate I used to walk in,” he said — and he made an unsuccessful but strong bid for city council this year, as a Republican in a town filled with Democrats.

His father, who had 44 years’ service with U.S. Steel and was able to retire, still lives in the house his children grew up in in Liberty Borough, a bedroom community and suburb of McKeesport.

The road to running a small business was a long and windy one that lead through Utah, Florida and Washington, D.C., said Dan Wysni, a 40-year-old father of three.

He had six years’ service in the pickling and coupling departments at National, but he said layoffs and a year’s sick leave make his actual time closer to four years.

The early 1980s were a good time in the mill as the plant rode the Texas oil boom, Dan Wysni said.

“They were going nuts,” he said. “It was like the last big burnout.”

But by 1982, there were signs that the bubble had burst for good.

“I knew damn well something was going on,” Paul Wysni said. “When you put a grievance in, they ignored it.”

’What I really wanted was an education’

Dan Wysni was laid off and, despite the fact that he was called back occasionally, the termination was final.

He moved to Washington, D.C., when his then-girlfriend got a job there, and was hired as a car salesman. “I didn’t know how to sell cars,” he said. “I just know how to treat people. Pittsburghers are well-liked and amiable people.”

Homesickness led Wysni to quit the job and return to McKeesport, where he stayed briefly before traveling to Utah on vacation. He wound up back in D.C. and drifted around before meeting his wife.

“What I really wanted was an education,” said Wysni, who said it took several years of classes at Community College of Allegheny County for him to get back to high-school level skills. He then entered Duquesne University before taking a job with an insurance reconstruction company.

“I kept thinking for a long time, what can I do?“ Wysni said. “My courage was gone. So we started looking at what kind of business we could start.”

He and his wife inspected supermarket chains, dry-cleaning businesses and ice cream franchises before a friend began raving about the water treatment system in their home. “We said, ’This is an industry?’“ Wysni said.

‘I must have been insane to come back’

Apparently so. Nine years after opening DW Environmental Services in Wall Borough, a tiny community north of McKeesport on Turtle Creek, the company has survived and is located today in a storefront on McKeesport’s Fifth Avenue.

Now, the galleries that once housed the tailor-made suits sold by David Israel — one of the city’s top men’s stores — are home to water softeners and other equipment.

He has nothing but praise for the Israel brothers, Bob and Carl, who he said provided the Wysnis encouragement and “a hell of a nice deal.” He’s less pleased with the business climate in the city.

“I must have been insane to come back here,” Wysni said, criticizing what he says is squandering of redevelopment money and poor leadership.

“I don’t know how to put that without being political,” said the former Republican council candidate.

And both and his father said there’s plenty of blame to be placed for steel’s decline. Dan Wysni said the sloppy attitude some employees developed in later years was one problem.

“The mill was the source of gloves and all sorts of things,” he said, laughing when he recalls that even the bilious green paint the company used was stolen by employees for use at home. “Everyone’s basement was green,” Dan Wysni said.

He said his father’s generation was much more responsible than their children were.

Too many ‘goof-offs’ made the mill a party

“They built the mill ... they made the unions strong,” Dan Wysni said. “We grew up as hippies in the ’70s. We didn’t give a lot of thought to education. The mill was there.”

“There were too many goof-offs,” said Paul Wysni, who started in the blast furnace department at Duquesne and worked his way up to expediter.

“The union wouldn’t let them fire rowdy, bad employees,” Dan Wysni said, adding that for some people, “the mill was getting to the point where it was a party in there. And you can’t just blame the union. USX never put anything back into that mill.”

“They shafted this area,” Paul Wysni said.

His son remembers watching his friends sit and wait for call-backs that never came. “The people who got hit hardest were the ones who were 30 to 50 years old,” Dan Wysni said. “There was nothing else for them. They died, some of them. It broke up a lot of marriages. And when you have a whole community of that, it hurts.”

Yet despite the problems he still sees — including what he feels has been an excruciatingly slow redevelopment process at the millsite — he said he remains hopeful. “We’re fighters, that’s why,” Dan Wysni said. “The fact of the matter is we’re going to stay here and we’re going to keep trying.”

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, the Steel Heritage section of Tube City Online, P.O. Box 94, McKeesport, PA 15134.