A father's hard labor provided opportunities


Harry Walsh never had a shot at college. The stepson of a Highlandtown truck driver, he dropped out of high school at 17 and went to work at a series of factory jobs before landing a position as an hourly laborer at Bethlehem Steel Corp.

During the next 43 1/2 years, he lived the hazardous life of a steelworker as the company he worked for slowly shrank in the face of competition. He put in odd hours, worked double shifts and frequently showed up on weekends. When layoffs sent thousands of steelworkers to the unemployment line, he scrounged for work wherever he could find it inside the sprawling Sparrows Point plant.

A bearish, 6-foot-4-inch father of four, Walsh was proud of the work and never complained. But he vowed that his children would have choices he never had. Each would get an education and be in charge of his or her destiny, rather than be subject to the whims of a world economy that has left so many blue-collar workers at Sparrows Point feeling uncertain about the future.

"I wanted it so they could go do something other than hard physical work in order to get what they wanted," said Walsh, whose salary reached about $20 an hour.

When he retired from Bethlehem Steel yesterday, the 62-year-old former steelworker had his wish.

One son, Ken Walsh, 37, has a doctorate in chemical engineering; another, Donald Walsh, 35, is a Baltimore attorney specializing in contract disputes; Richard Walsh, 33, is a detective on the bomb squad of the Baltimore County Police Department; and a daughter, Susan Walsh, 23, is a doctoral candidate in molecular biology at Duke University in North Carolina.

"The proudest moments for [my parents] were when we got scholarships," recalled Ken Walsh, a chemical engineer and environmental consultant with Science Applications International Corp. in North Carolina. "He always pointed out to us what [could happen] if you didn't have an education."

Susan Walsh, who specializes in cancer research, remembers her parents always striving to get their kids into the best schools and nagging them about homework. Occasional field trips to the dusty and stifling hot steel mill served as powerful motivation to study hard.

"They have always told us that education is the only thing they could give us," she said on a break from her work at a Duke research lab. "They said, 'We're not rich, but we're going to give you a good education.'"

Friends and family say Walsh embodies the work ethic that has kept Bethlehem Steel alive despite rising competition from foreign competitors. But his determination to give his children a different life is symbolic of the difficulties Baltimore's steelworkers have faced.

When Walsh started work at the steel mill in the late 1950s, the company employed 30,000 locally. Today, the company employs 3,400 at Sparrows Point and is struggling to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A flood of foreign imports contributed to losses of $1.95 billion last year.

The prospects for steelworkers were different almost 45 years ago, when Walsh and his wife, Elvina, were meeting at Catholic Youth Organization dances and contemplating marriage. The two grew up on opposite sides of Patterson Park, where Harry Walsh was one of more than a dozen kids crowded into a two-bedroom rowhouse.

"It was nine boys and four girls, and one of the things you did as soon as you could get out of school was go work for a living, because that's what you figured you had to do," Walsh said, recalling his decision to leave school.

Elvina Walsh followed a similar path. She took business courses and finished school at age 16, taking jobs in a series of offices. Harry Walsh worked at a shoe factory and a broom factory before applying at Bethlehem Steel on the advice of his future father-in-law.

Elvina Walsh quit working when the kids started to arrive. But Harry Walsh continued to strap on his size-15 work boots, often putting in 80-hour weeks to pay for parochial school tuition and books for the kids. When he worked nights, Walsh regularly visited his children's school, teaching kindergarten students about tools and woodworking, among other things. As his kids grew older, he would surprise them at lunchtime.

"The teachers loved it because they had this big guy there showing the kids how to work with tools," Walsh said. "And they always had 'lunch mothers' up there watching the kids and stuff, so I said, 'What's to say a father can't do it?'"

Walsh expected his kids to work as hard as he did. "If they said they don't got any homework, I'd say, 'Bull----, I'll give you some homework,'" he recalled, grinning.

Though Walsh worked long hours, his kids remember him being everywhere at once. He sold crates of fruit to raise money for bands, coached soccer teams, built sets for school plays, almost always showed up for sporting events. He also was a founding member of the Parkville Jaycees and has volunteered to serve food at Maryland Special Olympics events for the past 17 years.

"Pretty much everywhere he goes, people know him," said Donald Walsh. "His work ethic was very much imposed on all of us, and it's something very rare to find these days - at least in our generation."

When money was tight, Bethlehem Steel provided. Walsh picked up overtime hours and socked away $200 a week in a credit union account to pay for tuition for the kids.

"Through all those years, he worked many doubles, a lot of shift work and weekends, but it paid for a lot of college education," Elvina Walsh said.

But Walsh has had to adapt as the company has struggled. Two of the rod mills he worked in were closed and torn down years ago. Rather than go back to pushing a broom, Walsh convinced his bosses to give him a job in the quality-assurance department in the early 1990s. He has since helped troubleshoot production problems at Bethlehem's new cold mill.

"You can see we've had many tough times down here, but we always come bouncing back," Walsh said while taking a drive around the Sparrows Point facility this week.

The steel mill will survive its crisis, Walsh said. But he worries that the next generation of steelworkers and their families will have a tougher time.

"That's why education is the key," he said. "Give them an education and let them try to figure out what's best."

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