Ray Walsh, my Dad, would have been one hundred years old in June 2020. It’s a good opportunity to share some reflections on his life.
He was born in June, 1920, to Martin and Margaretta (Donovan) Walsh, in Minooka, Pennsylvania, a neighborhood in the southern end of Scranton. Anthracite coal provided a livelihood for many of the residents of Minooka in those days, including the Walsh family, but that livelihood came with risks. Martin Walsh died in a coal-mine cave-in when Dad was an infant.
Margaretta’s story had taken tragic and troubling turns long before Martin’s untimely death. Her father essentially abandoned the family, and her mother died when Margaretta was still a child. She was raised by her sisters, she received only a first-grade education, and she never learned to read or write. She was put to work in a factory at age six, standing on a wooden box to reach whatever task she was assigned to do. She and Martin, the love of her life, were in their teens when they married. (A big Thank You! to cousin Pam Tanis Johnson for this paragraph about our grandmother.)
After Martin died, Margaretta managed to provide for herself and her six children, one girl and five boys, for several years. There was a seventh child, a girl named Rose, who died in infancy of influenza. In time Margaretta met and married a man whom the family referred to only as Kelly, and together they brought another child into the world, a girl named Joan (more about Aunt Joan later). Kelly expected his five stepsons to work in the mines. Dad’s first job — he was only about eleven years old when he started working — was caring for mules that were used by one miner to pull the trams in and out of his mine. The job didn’t last long: Dad let the mules escape from their pen, and that ended his career in the anthracite coal industry.
Margaretta, meanwhile, wanted no part of having her sons work in the mines, so she found a way to move most of the family to New Jersey. The oldest, Margaret, was married by then and stayed behind in the Scranton area. Dad also lived with Margaret and her husband Gene for a while, probably until the rest of the family could get settled and start to earn their own upkeep. They lived in Newark at first, then moved to the Watsessing section of Bloomfield.
Dad went to Bloomfield High School, and he earned enough credits to graduate by the middle of his junior year. Having grown up in the era of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Dad wanted to play baseball, and he was a decent catcher. It was the middle of the Great Depression, unfortunately, and Dad had to find time to play baseball in between his shifts at the nearby GE plant (or was it Westinghouse?). He once mentioned having an opportunity to try out for a spot in some major-league ball team’s farm system, but apparently either the opportunity disappeared or he had to forego it.
In Dad’s circle of acquaintances in Watsessing was a paperhanger named Charlie Hodson. Charlie and Mary Hodson had six daughters. The youngest daughter was Ruth, who was three years younger than Dad. Ruth married Bill Stanley in 1945, and they had two daughters. I married the younger of those two daughters, Jody, in 1977. Dad and my mother-in-law did not remember each other when they realized their lives had intersected earlier, but Dad remembered Donald Shaeffer, who married Kay Hodson.
Dad did not tell many stories about his younger years, so I know little of what happened after high school graduation. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, Dad joined thousands of young Americans who tried to enlist in the U.S. Army. A medical issue — I recall it being flat feet — kept him from being accepted at that time. As the war effort grew and a military draft was instituted, Dad was called to serve. He took basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and received further training at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Once, when I told him about a trip to the Washington, D.C. area, he told me that one of his training exercises involved placing mock explosives on a highway bridge over the Potomac. He was assigned to an engineering battalion and deployed to Morocco. There he built, maintained, and operated terminals and depots for aviation fuel. From North Africa he went to Italy, then on to France. He was a few miles into Germany when the war ended in Europe in May, 1945.
Dad was no one’s hero. He was a citizen–soldier, like hundreds of thousands of his comrades in arms. He went to do a job, and when the job was done, he came home. He received an honorable discharge in September 1945. By then the family had moved — actually they had moved before the war — to Clifton. His mother had married a third time, Kelly having died some years before. Dutch, as we knew her third husband, came from a family that owned farmland in the Richfield section of Clifton. Together Grandma and Dutch ran a tavern across from what is now Columbus Middle School in Clifton.
Dad never said much about his family. I learned more from Aunt Joan, Dad’s younger sister, than I ever did from Dad. We saw Grandma and Dutch and Aunt Joan, Uncle Joe, and Pam occasionally. We generally saw the other members of Dad’s family only at funerals. If Dad and Mom were invited to family weddings, the probably declined. Aunt Joan was my Godmother. She, Uncle Joe, and Pam were the only members of my parents’ families who were invited to our wedding. I told her at one point that I wanted to see her once in a while when there wasn’t a coffin in the room, and she reminded me of that on several occasions. In her last years she lived in a senior housing complex, then in a nursing home. She was Dad’s favorite, and when either Jody and I, or my brother Mike and I would visit, she would share stories about him. He bought Joan a bicycle once and paid for it on an installment plan. When his brother Ed and sister-in-law Agnes, with whom Dad was living at the time, discovered a bill from the department store, they raised holy heck.
Again, details and dates are lacking, but sometime before the winter of 1949–1950 Dad took a room in a house in the Dutch Hill section of Clifton. During a particularly bad snowstorm he noticed two women who were struggling to clear the snow from their walks a few doors up the street. Rose and Betty Pinke were both single and living in the house that had been their family home since 1919. Dad helped them clean the snow away and struck up a relationship with Betty. They married in July 1951. Mike was born the following spring. Two years later I joined the family, followed by Tim, and finally Brian.
Dad wanted to pass on to his sons his love for baseball. He taught us how to throw, catch, keep our eyes on the ball, and swing level. He coached a Little League baseball team for several years, and Mike, Tim, and I played on the team. He and Mom always made sure there was a case of soda in the back of the car for the team to enjoy after our games. He taught us how to ride bicycles. He erected a pool for us in the backyard and built pigeon coops when Mike took an interested in raising pigeons. He taught me how to cut quarter-round molding with a coping saw to make a professional-looking inside corner.
When Mike was about to turn seventeen, he bought a ’57 Chevy. It was a plain four-door sedan with a straight six and a Powerglide transmission, and the engine needed a valve job and new piston rings. Over the course of one winter, Dad and Mike took apart the engine and put it back together. The car ran well after that; DIY mechanics could do that kind of work back then and expect good results.
Tim and I joined our local Boy Scout troop. Brian followed a few years later. Dad wasn’t interested in being a Scoutmaster; coaching baseball was more his speed. But he did support us and accompany us on some camping trips. On one trip the other adults on the trip were availing themselves of a supply of beer, but Dad drank only coffee the entire weekend. Dad struggled with alcohol, and he had recently come out of a period where it had gotten the better of him. I remember being proud of him for being there and for his self-control under the circumstances.
The year I turned sixteen, three of my scouting friends and I decided to take a multi-day canoe trip on the Delaware River. We would be on our own, with no adult supervision, finding our own campsites, and cooking our own food. We loaded our gear into a pickup truck belonging to one of the other fathers, and that father, Dad, and our Scoutmaster drove us to Hancock, New York. We put in on a branch of the Delaware and set off. Many years later Dad recalled watching us disappear around a bend in the river and thinking “What have I just done?!” We ended the trip eight days later, safe and whole.
Dad thought highly of his employment as a carpenter, and he did good work. His skills as a millwright were more in demand in his later working years. Several times he was called on to spend most of a summer holiday weekend dismantling or reinstalling a steam turbine or some other large piece of equipment. But he was always happy to get home, get cleaned up, and go sit on the screened-in porch with a can of beer, a copy of the Daily News, and a Yankees game playing on the radio. Those kinds of pleasures were most of what he asked for in life, a life that ended too soon.
Children learn from what they see the adults around them doing. So how did Dad learn to be a father, to be a dad? He never met his own father. Dad’s stepfather saw only the need to have him earn his keep. Yet, in a way that he would acknowledge was far from perfect, Dad somehow managed to be the father that we needed. I don’t often think, as some other sons might, how I miss his counsel and long to be able to see him again and ask him this question or that. We didn’t have that kind of a relationship when he was alive. But I do miss him, and I wish I had been more thoughtful and generous toward him. I’ll just have to conclude this remembrance acknowledging that regret and wishing him a happy one-hundredth birthday in heaven.
This has been a long read. If I had started earlier, I probably could have edited half of it out. Thank you for stopping by, and for your patience in reading to the end.