Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Amazing Lancasters of Clairton, PA

Insanity is hereditary – you catch it from your kids

Every community has one: You know the family. They don’t have too much in the way of material goods but they have each other. You don’t see Pops very often because he works overtime in the mill and hustles on days off to do what he can. Mom is the room mother and during PTA meetings when the principal says, “Please stand if you have a child in grade...” she stands and remains standing until all grades have been introduced because there is one of her brood in every grade. A few blue noses in town look down their eyeglasses at the family and mutter, “Tsk, tsk, all those children. I wonder how many will go wrong.” But although every one of the children might not have new clothes, they always have clean clothes, their manners are impeccable and they’re all popular with their peers. Such was the Lancaster family of Woodland Terrace, Clairton, PA.

Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster lived in a tiny house and had ten children without a multiple birth. They are Ron, Jean, Allen, Marvin, Carol, Bill, Betty, Dorothy, Janet and Shelby. Life has not been kind to the male Lancasters. Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1999, Allen in 1990 and Marvin in 1993. Bill remains the only male in the family but he has all six sisters and enjoys the good fortune of the company of his 91 year old Mom.

A Family Dynasty Begins: The Dad, Elmer Rowan Lancaster, was one of seven children. He grew up in nearby Uniontown, moved to Clairton and was a steelworker for more than four decades. Elmer loved his family and brought the kids’ favorite, jelly candies called Peps, from work. This devoted family man passed away at age 83.

Dorothy Pauline Lancaster, nee Cooley, was three years younger and hailed from Fairchance, PA. She grew up with eight other siblings so large families were nothing unusual to either spouse. Although no photos exist of Mrs. Lancaster in a Superwoman outfit, she not only bore and reared 10 young ‘uns, and prepared their daily school lunches, she attended every athletic event, play, choral recital, majorette activity, and other school event in which her peeps chirped. In her spare time The Incredible Woman served as a “Lady cop,” school crossing guard, and worked in the local Murphy’s 5 and 10 cent store. In her other spare time Mrs. L. belonged to a ladies card club. After her kids left home she continued with her civic activities, rarely missing a Clairton High School football game and even into her 80s served as a Senior Home Companion. Dorothy made most of her children’s clothes including some wedding dresses for her girls.

Dorothy finally moved out of her tiny home (see above) and into a senior citizen high rise condo but continued to be active, serving as president of the tenant council and of course attending Woodland Terrace annual reunions. Now in her 92nd year Mrs. Lancaster attends school events for her 18 grandchildren and 21 (perhaps by this writing 22) great grandchildren.

The Little General: Ron Lancaster was the firstborn. He was a quiet lad but exuded leadership and loved sports. Ron had the personality and wherewithal of a quarterback. Problem was, at 5’5” in his spikes he lacked the size. He was great at pee-wee football and outstanding in junior high but people were surprised when he actually started at quarterback and led the Clairton High School Bears to a Championship. Even more surprising was that he was offered a college scholarship. After earning “Little All American” honors (for the size of his college, not his size) he was given a tryout by a Canadian football team and was a star for the next 19 years winning multiple championships. He ranks third in passing with over 50,000 yards and has earned more awards than can be listed in this space. Afterwards Ron became the fourth winningest coach in Canadian football history. Oh, did I mention that he also had time to marry, have three children, teach high school, do color commentary in Canada and at the Seoul Olympics and be awarded an Honorary Doctorate?

To picture Ron Lancaster, imagine Joe Namath without the arrogance, Doug Flutie without the Boston media, John Madden without the pomposity, and for good measure throw in the benevolence of Andre Agassi. Ron passed away last fall leaving huge shoes for his daughter, two sons and younger siblings to follow. His kids called him Digger – maybe because an entire country digs him.

The caretaker with a heart of gold: The second of the Lancasters is Jean. If there is a special room in heaven for those whose deeds surpass other Heavenly residents, Jean and her fellow hospice nurses will get a golden key to it. She graduated from Clairton High School while her little big brother Ron was filling the air with footballs. It seemed natural then, that she joined the Air Force. After her hitch was up she landed back home and was soon swept off her feet by Sav Angotti and got hitched. The 3-decade plus marriage produced a daughter who produced Jean’s first granddaughter. Jean started her nursing career late in life but immediately knew she’d found her calling. She was well into her 40s during college and became a nurse at age 47. She specialized in palliative and hospice care which she continues to this day. This writer has observed Jean in action disseminating hospice care with the skill, grace, and caring that proves it was what she was meant to do.

Football star that might have been: When third child and big little brother Allen played halfback in high school he seemed destined to surpass his brother Ron’s gridiron achievements. He was bigger, faster, stronger, and a definite big time college prospect. Frank Kush snatched him up to play for Arizona State during the school’s glory years, but it was not to be. A knee injury ended Allen’s football career and he returned home then joined the Army. He and brother Marvin served in Germany together. Afterward Allen completed college, married, had a daughter, and became vice president of Stouffer Hotels. Allen moved to Ohio but stayed in close touch with his siblings. Allen’s body began to betray him in his 40s. Despite a liver transplant he perished in 1990 at age 47. But the story that tells the most about Allen is the day after his surgery, a relative overheard a woman crying. It was the custodian who was cleaning his room. When the relative approached, the custodian said Allen was very, very ill and that made her sad. The two sat down for coffee and the woman composed herself and said that Allen would come by the laundry each day to say hello. He knew their names, their children’s names and even their birthdays. Cancer had ravished his body but his heart remained kind.

The third son and practical joker: Marvin came along a year or so after Allen. He was the practical joker of the family. After high school and the Army he enrolled in college and earned a degree in Business Management. Marvin married and had two children and followed his father’s footsteps into the steel mill where during a 30-year career he rose from foreman to supervisor of a chemical plant. Three years after the death of his brother Marvin was diagnosed with lung cancer. He did not live to see his fiftieth birthday.

During his convalescence the family planned a big party for their mother’s 75th birthday. It was March and the weather was nice. Marvin was sitting up in his hospital room and said to one of his sisters, “There’s going to be a blizzard tomorrow for Mom’s birthday.” When the family drove to the hospital the following day to see him, two things happened – Marvin passed away and one of the biggest blizzards in recent memory hit the Pittsburgh area. Marvin, ever the practical joker was apparently able to conjure up one last trick to keep the family smiling.

Far from home – for a while: The fifth child and second daughter in the Lancaster household was Carol. She, like her older siblings, was popular in school and heavily engaged in school activities. Carol married and moved to California where she made a home, had a daughter and worked for 20 years. Upon returning to the Clairton area Carol lived and worked in nearby Washington County while her daughter attended college. Carol decided to change professions and locations after working 33 years. She now works as an unpaid nanny (as so many of us do) tending her grandson Jacob at her daughter’s home in Louisiana.

Last man standing and on a mission: Bill was the sixth bundle of joy brought into the Lancaster home. His birth made it four boys and two girls but he was to be the last male born, and ironically, is the only male member of the household still alive. Bill grew up in a different era than his older brothers. He served in Viet Nam with the Air Force and upon being discharged headed north to study and watch his now-famous brother Ron play football in Canada. His degree in business paved the way for a career as a contract negotiator. Bill married a Clairton girl, Sheri, and was blessed with two sons who gave them 2 ½ grandchildren – soon to be three. Bill currently serves as a college counselor and is a devout Christian. He shares his testimony at every opportunity and asked that his bio conclude with the question, “Where will you spend eternity?”

Not at a casino, lucky number 7: Elizabeth, not Betty, is a community across the Monongahela River from Clairton. Betty, not Elizabeth, was the seventh little Lancaster. Betty went directly from high school into the work force. It was the era of the Beatles and the country was changing, but Betty stood fast. She lived locally, focused on life, and worked her way from supermarket cashier to secretary while being a Mom of two. Betty the McSurdy (nee Lancaster) moved to Elizabeth the community where her son played high school football against his first cousin, Dorothy the next daughter’s son (see below). Although their high schools were rivals, any rivalries were left on the football field as the families often spent Sundays together enjoying each other’s company. Betty and Chuck hold the Lancaster record at the moment with six grandchildren.

The perpetual optimist: Her siblings call her Doe though formally she shares the name Dorothy with her Mom and the protagonist in “Wizard of Oz.” She says she was called Wyatt Earp at Easter in her big Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it. That cured her of wearing hats but thankfully not of her sunny disposition. Without her help I could not have completed this post. By the time she was a senior in high school, Doe had followed in the giant footsteps of her siblings – attending football games. It was in fact the Homecoming game when she was stricken with appendicitis and rushed from the football field to the hospital. Being taken from the football field by ambulance was a first for Doe as well as for Mrs. Lancaster who had four boys play football with nary a scratch. Since Doe and Allen were the only two lefties in the family Doe did things backwards. She recovered from appendicitis, became a medical secretary, married, and had two sons. As her sons grew, she and sister Jean, both well on the other side of 30, went to college together and both became nurses. Doe has worked in Home Health and is currently a Care Manager working with Post-Acute patients. Doe does not have grandchildren yet but admits to using her sibling’s grandkids as surrogates.

Join the guy who joined the Navy: Her parents were almost finished having children when Janet came along at number nine. Still the standards were high and she touched the bar. She sailed through school and married her high school sweetheart who promptly joined the Navy - the sweetheart, not Jan. That gave Janet a different view of the world than her siblings had. She and hubby have lived in Florida, Maine, across the Atlantic River in London, California, across the Pacific River to Hawaii then on to Japan. Along the way they had two children, one of each stripe. After 27 years of sailing into major world ports Jan and the Lt. Commander settled in Maryland, close enough to enjoy their four grandchildren and visit family in Clairton. Janet is a retired secretary and when she’s not reading, computer surfing, or being a grandma, can be found hiking.

One more nurturer in the group: Fourteen years and ten children later, Mrs. Lancaster hung up her maternity smock for good. Shelby was the last of this amazing family of overachieving siblings. She worked as a grocery store cashier after high school then took a job helping the mentally challenged. Shelby married and had two sons and recently had her first grandchild whom she insists is the most beautiful grandchild anywhere. She also has two grandpups, as her family is partial to dogs. As did her sisters, Shelby went to college after her kids flew the coop. She earned a degree and worked as a unit clerk in hospitals - in the operating room, recovery room, orthopedics, and emergency room. After 20 years of caring for people Shelby retired and so did hubby Bill. They then took a dream trip – from York (PA, not New) to California. It lasted a month as they logged 8,000 miles on the family jalopy while seeing America’s treasures. Shelby Rae Siler is the last of an era.

The Amazing Lancasters. A Clairton family

A little blogging music Maestro... “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge

Dr. Forgot


David said...

Thanks Andy
I thought Ron came after Marvin.I knew he was a great QB in Canada but not a coach.Nice to catch up on old Clairtonites.

David yonek

Rudy and Jeanie said...

Awesome article! loved reading about the family.

Rishona said...

Amazing post! What's even more amazing is that I looked into a condo up at Woodland Terrace (now called "Century Townhomes") and I felt that they were too smalll; and I'm only one person! Just goes to show you how spoiled we've all become. Proud to be a Clairitonian! :-D