The closing of the steel mill at Sparrows Point overwhelmed Bob Jennings. Too young to retire at 59, he faced a gloomy job market for local manufacturing workers and a bureaucracy that couldn't get him timely training help. He felt like a failure.
No, no, his wife said, "the system is the failure," but she couldn't convince him. On a cold Saturday morning, he wrote her a short note of apology, walked to their shed and shot himself.
Troy Pritt, 44, also worked at the Baltimore County mill. When he was laid off, he saw it as a rare opportunity to hit the restart button on his life and earn a bachelor's degree with federal retraining aid. He loves his business courses and is hopeful about the future.
Few from the mill's workforce of about 2,100 are enrolled in four-year institutions. But Jennings' death is the only known suicide, and his family and former colleagues are working to keep it that way.
Elements of both men's experiences, the despair and the hope, ripple through the tight-knit community of steelworkers. Many are still trying to find their way in the new life abruptly forced on them last June.
"It's too soon to really see the full impacts," says Michael Lewis, financial administrator of the United Steelworkers local at Sparrows Point, who is unwinding the union and trying to help struggling workers. "The impact so far has been devastating, but it's not over yet. It's just not over yet."
In the year since mill owner RG Steel collapsed into bankruptcy — after decades of downsizing by previous owners — some of its former employees found good jobs nearby. Others moved to jobs in distant states, separating themselves from a deep-rooted network of relatives and friends.
Some happily retired. Others did so in defeat.
Some are in trade schools and community colleges, holding their breath that they're reinventing themselves enough for new jobs.
Some work for far less than they made before.
Some are still looking for work. They look and look and look.
Chapter one: 'That was his life'
Bob and Debby Jennings both worked at Sparrows Point — she for a little over two years in the 1970s, just before and after they were married, and he for more than 30. She still remembers the old-time houses and shops, "like out of a Norman Rockwell painting," in the remains of the company town that then-owner Bethlehem Steel was replacing with a new blast furnace. Everywhere she saw red dust, asbestos, hulking machinery.
It almost was like stepping onto another planet, says Debby Jennings, 60. "It was a fascinating place to work."
Jeanne Jennings, one of their two daughters, never saw beyond the parking lot. Her father always told her it was too dangerous. She grew up hearing "horrific stories about people who died at the plant."
"I would be afraid as a child that he would die at work," she recalls. "I really didn't want him to work there because I was afraid it was going to kill him. And eventually it did."
Not, as she'd feared, because he was working there. But because he wasn't.
That is what might be counterintuitive about Sparrows Point and its hard, hot, hazardous jobs: Many of the people who toiled there loved it — not only for the middle-class pay and excellent benefits, but for the camaraderie and sense of purpose.
"The Point" produced steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and hundreds of World War II ships. For some, it employed their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, and they proudly carried on that tradition.
"That was his life, what he did," Jeanne Jennings says.
After he was laid off, Bob Jennings drove north on Interstate 83 to the home he'd built nine years ago in York County, just over the Pennsylvania line, and told his wife it would probably be all right. Hadn't new owners always stepped in when Sparrows Point's future seemed uncertain? Hadn't the mill survived one bankruptcy already, plus four sales in the past decade?
Then the August auction came. The more than 3,000-acre facility sold for $72.5 million — less than one-tenth of its sale price four years earlier — to a redevelopment firm and a liquidation company.
The companies said they wanted to resell to an operator. The Steelworkers local vowed to search for one.
Bob Jennings held onto hope but also tried to get into training for another job.
He'd applied for opening after opening — particularly in welding, which he did at Sparrows Point for years — but received no offers that would pay the bills. He worried that he was being counted out for good welding jobs because he'd shifted to crane inspection at the mill.
A welding course, he thought, might help. He was eligible for federal retraining aid, like others from Sparrows Point.
He struggled for about two months through a required academic skills test before passing on Oct. 26, his wife says. Then he waited for Pennsylvania officials to process his application and approve his funding.
Halloween went by. Thanksgiving. Christmas.
While he waited, the plant's last chance evaporated. A competitor bought the facility's most valuable mill for spare parts. Everything else would be sold off in pieces or demolished, the land redeveloped, likely for industrial uses such as a marine terminal.
"That's it, Deb," he told his wife after hearing the news at a December union meeting. "It's gone. It's gone."
The months after the bankruptcy changed him. He was quieter. Stopped telling jokes. Slept less. Sometimes as he struggled on the computer "he would scream and hold his head," his wife says.
His remaining hope rested on a welding course that was to begin the first Monday in January. The Friday before, he called Pennsylvania's workforce agency to make sure that his funding was set. Not yet, his rep said.
The next day, when Debby Jennings popped out for a blood test, her husband walked to the shed, put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.
"When he didn't get that approval letter, that pushed him over the edge," Jeanne Jennings says.
The approval arrived in the mail the next week, his wife says. Seven days too late.
Pennsylvania's Department of Labor & Industry declined to comment.
Everything from the bankruptcy to the funding delay angers his family. Deep grief, too, catches Jeanne Jennings if she allows herself to think too much about it. Debby Jennings pretends that her husband is on a hunting trip.
They could have managed, she says. The house is paid off. But he'd worked his way out of poverty, and his family thinks the fear of slipping back overwhelmed him.
Jeanne Jennings remembers her father telling her that nothing was worth killing yourself over. She wants no one from Sparrows Point to follow him down that road, leaving family members behind to mourn and ask why.
"I don't think it's ever as bad as it really seems," she says. "Life can change in a second. Life would have changed for him in a second, had he just waited for the approval letter to come."
Left to care for the home she and her husband saved so long to build, Debby Jennings wondered whether to sell. There's more than an acre of grass to cut, some of it hilly, and that was her husband's chore.
But instead of hiring a real estate agent, she bought a small riding mower. It's hard work. And she's good at it.
"People say to me, 'Your yard is so beautiful.' "
Chapter two: A shifting identity
Troy Pritt finished his first semester at the University of Baltimore in May with two A's and two B's, enjoyed a one-week break and dove back into classes. This is his life now: full-time student, 26 years after graduating from high school.
He considered college as a teenager growing up in Dundalk. But no one else in his family went, and he took a job instead — the clear, well-trod path.
"People say you can't go back and do it again," Pritt says, "but I'm really getting a chance to do that, taking the path I didn't take."
Sparrows Point's various owners paid for workers to go to college if they chose, but most didn't — everyone worked crazy hours. Then Severstal, the plant's second-to-last owner, began temporary layoffs in 2010, and Pritt volunteered.
When the 10-week layoff was extended, his wife, Kim, said, "This doesn't look good. You need to have a plan." He enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore County. Six classes later, RG Steel bought the mill and called workers back.
Pritt was reluctant. "I had evolved into this college student," he says.
Even so, he returned, first to the warehouse and then to his usual job on the No. 4 coating line, leveling buckled steel and performing quality checks.
The plant's closure a year later propelled him into the life he now wanted. Federal funding for workers affected by foreign trade covers his education at UB.
But it's not that simple.
Mixed with his joy about tackling challenging course work — accounting, business law, global management — is the pain of losing a good paycheck and the turmoil surrounding medical benefits.
Though his 17-year-old son's wisdom teeth were removed last July, when the insurance was still in force, RG Steel set aside too little money for payments. Money ran out before the bill arrived. His wife said she spent months wrangling with her secondary dental insurer until it finally picked up most of the $1,700 tab.
Yet they know they're lucky. Some steelworkers lost their homes. Others have larger medical bills and no secondary insurance.
"Everybody's life has been turned upside down," Kim Pritt says.
Troy Pritt wrote a short story last year — a poem, really — to try to explain:
The furnace is cold, and the steel no longer flows.
Silence enveloped the land that hadn't heard silence in over a hundred years.
He stood in the parking lot, not knowing what to do next.
Four generations of his family gave their life to the mill.
When the boss passed him in the parking lot, he yelled out, "Where do I go?"
The boss replied, "You go home."
He nodded in recognition. However, he didn't understand.
"I am home," he thought.
Recalling his final day at the mill, Pritt choked up. It catches him sideways, this deep emotion for a place he wanted to leave. The plant's closure was almost like the death of his mother. He might have wanted to chart a new course, but there's a difference between going and never being able to return.
He misses the sounds of the Point, the mill's trains and the boooosh of the blast furnace bleeding off gases, that he could hear clear out in his Dundalk rowhouse. He misses being a steelworker — that identity, as strong as religion, that connected him with tens of thousands of local people, living and dead.
Now, what is he?
"I'm trying to figure it out," he says.
Chapter three: The mortician
Michael Lewis picks up a folder, flipping through papers — a tiny portion of the more than 50 years of documents stored at the United Steelworkers Local 9477 complex on Dundalk Avenue. He spots personal information and stops.
Unlike some records, this will not be shipped to Pennsylvania State University's archive of steelworker history. Instead, he tosses the paper into a tall container for shredding.
This is what the unwinding of a union looks like. Empty shelves, empty chairs, full bins for the shredder.
Back in his office, still vibrant with photos, certificates and union posters, Lewis works on other problems brought by former co-workers.
He acts as a de facto human resources office — the real one no longer exists — to verify employment for prospective employers and track down training records. He helps negotiate payment plans for steelworkers left with unpaid medical bills. And he encourages people to send their resume to the Steelworkers to be forwarded to Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.
He and secretary Chrysta Lopez are all that's left of 9477, not counting the two retirees who clean the union's two aging buildings part time.
"I actually feel like that mortician who's preparing his own family member for burial," says Lewis, 52. "You want to be the one to do it to know it's being done right, but at the same time, it's heartbreaking."
He doesn't know how long it will take to finish the work and put himself out of a job, though he suspects at least several months. And he doesn't know for certain what he'll do afterward, but he's working on that. He's too young to retire.
His family saw the heights and depths of Sparrows Point. His grandfather and great-uncle came up from North Carolina in 1927, part of the great migration of African-Americans from the South, and took jobs at the plant. His great-uncle still worked there when employment peaked in the late 1950s at more than 30,000 jobs.
Technological innovations, domestic competition and foreign imports pared that number down. When Lewis arrived in 1979, he was one of about 17,000 workers. By the time RG Steel tumbled into bankruptcy on May 31, 2012, employment was down to about 2,100 — not counting the hundreds employed by contractors and suppliers.
Now steelworkers who donated every year to the Maryland Food Bank, who once were big contributors to the United Way of Central Maryland, rely on help from both organizations.
"I've watched how middle-class jobs just disappear, slowly but surely," Lewis says. "And it does have a ripple effect through the community. If I look in the city of Baltimore where I grew up, I think some of the social ills that we're dealing with are because of the loss of these jobs."
He sees in that change some explanation for the widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. Someone made a lot of money sending jobs overseas, he figures.
Dundalk, just north of the closed steel mill and long home to many of the plant's blue-collar workers, is on the wrong side of the gap. In 1979, the median household income there was the same as it was statewide — the equivalent of $59,000 in today's dollars, according to a Maryland Department of Planning analysis of census data. From 2007 to 2011, Maryland's median household income was about $72,000 — driven up by jobs requiring college and advanced degrees — while Dundalk's fell to $48,000.
"We're creating a society of maids, short-order cooks and panhandlers," Lewis says. "That's what we're doing."
In May, Lewis took a few hours' break from paperwork and problems for an event in one of the union halls. Students from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County showed videos they produced of steelworkers talking about their lives and what Sparrows Point meant to them.
Troy Pritt sat with his wife in the audience. He read his poem in one of the segments.
Steelworker Calvin Smith invoked Bob Jennings' name when he thundered to the crowd about how much they had lost. He railed against politicians, the union's international leadership, the mill's final owner and the bankruptcy system, saying all made a possibly inevitable closure worse.
"You don't do human beings like that," Smith said.
Lewis' video was among the last. His eyes looked weary as he made his final point.
"Patriotism is more than just a symbolic gesture," he said. "It's time for people who call themselves patriots to start taking their checkbook and investing it in 'We the people.' Start building a plant here. Stop taking the easy way out and outsourcing these jobs to China and Indonesia. Invest in the people of America."
The steelworkers erupted in applause.
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