FROM MARCH 2013
I had the privilege of knowing Ray Romano for 25 years. His daughter brought me home to their house in the fall of 1988, after we had met in Avalon, NJ that summer. They lived in a big old three story twin house at the corner or Powell & Fornance Streets, across from Montgomery Hospital and around the corner from Sacred Heart Hospital, in Norristown. There were only two children left living in the house when I met him. The other seven kids had moved out and started their own families. I immediately felt at home. Ray and Cookie welcomed me with open arms. Having come from a small Irish family of five, it was hard to comprehend the craziness of an Italian family of eleven. I knew I was in for quite a ride when Dani told me she had two brothers named Steve and that I could meet her mother in another week when she got out of jail (she did a lot of time for protesting in front of abortion clinics on behalf of unborn children). I married into a more interesting version of the Brady Bunch. Ray had four children with his first wife, including a son named Steve, and after his wife’s death he married Gloria (aka Cookie) who also had a son named Steve from her first marriage. Five kids just weren’t enough. They decided four more would add a little spice to the situation. My wife was the 7th child. Most of this story was gathered second hand from listening to my father-in-law and various family members at gatherings throughout the years, so some of the details might not be exactly right.
Ray was born in 1930 and was one of the youngest of twelve. The Romanos didn’t believe in doing anything on a small scale. He grew up in the Black Horse section of Conshohocken. His mother died when he was only sixteen. From what I could gather, it sounded like a tough area to grow up. He was a born athlete and a star baseball player in high school. It sounded like he was talented enough to make the pros, but dreams get deferred when you are poor and growing up during the Great Depression. He needed to work and help the family make ends meet. He was too young to serve in World War II, but he enlisted in the Marines when he turned 18 in 1948. I’m not sure how it happened but young Ray was selected to serve as part of President Harry Truman’s Marine Guard. I wish he had talked more about that time in his life, but my guess is that you have to be a damn fine Marine to get selected for that duty. He was lucky enough to never have gone into combat, which is amazingly lucky considering the country was at war for much of the decade from 1941 through 1953. I’m glad he was spared.
After his time in the military he began his lifetime of producing products that built this country. He never left his roots in Conshohocken where his family remained. He began working for Alan Wood Steel in the 1950s when American manufacturing dominated the world. The steel produced by his plant helped build the Interstate Highway System and provided the framework for the skyscrapers that rose in our cities across America. Alan Wood steel was Montgomery County’s largest employer at its peak, with 3,500 employees. It began operations in the late 1800’s. Ray worked for this company during the peak of U.S. strength and prosperity. A hard working blue collar worker could earn enough to raise a family of nine. He gave the best years of his life to this company from the early 1950’s until the late 1970’s. He even gave the sight in one of his eyes to this company as a sliver of steel shot into his eye and left him blind in that eye for decades until a new procedure was able to restore his sight about 15 years ago. We all know what happened to the U.S. Steel industry in the 1970’s as cheap foreign imports and short sighted management combined to virtually wipe out the steel industry in the U.S. After years of shift work and dangerous life threatening conditions, he was laid off in 1977 when Alan Wood declared bankruptcy. This was the first time he was screwed out of his pension. When corporations go bankrupt, management floats away with golden parachutes, while the men who risked their lives and put their blood, sweat and tears into making the company a success lose their jobs and their pensions. The pittance paid out by the PBGC was a fraction of what he had earned over two decades.
I can’t imagine what he must have felt with nine kids to feed during the inflation ravaged late 1970s. But, his generation didn’t whine or feel sorry for themselves. He went to school for his plumber’s certification, worked for the parish and did whatever it took to make ends meet. Eventually, the Alan Wood plant was bought by Lukens Steel and he went back to work in the profession he was born for after a two year hiatus. He steadily moved up the ranks as management realized how valuable and talented he was. The 1980s saw a resurgence in the need for steel as Reagan rebuilt the military. Ray supervised the production of carbon and military alloy plates used in the construction of two Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carriers and alloy plate steel for projects like the Army’s Abrams tank and the Navy’s Aegis class cruisers, ballistic missiles and submarines. By the late 1980’s he had been promoted into management, proving that sometimes talent and ability are rewarded. He essentially ran the mill during his last few years prior to retirement. Forty years working in a steel plant can wear a man down and he was ready to retire at 62 years old in 1992.
This wasn’t long after I entered the picture, marrying his daughter Danielle in 1990. Having been raised in a fairly small Irish family, I wasn’t prepared for the rowdy family gatherings of the Romano clan. My first Christmas Eve at the old Norristown house in 1988 was an eye opener as they served the seven fishes and Ray made the gravy and meatballs, with his special ingredient pepperoni. The family made me feel at home immediately. Three of his sons served in the U.S. Navy, with one retiring as Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest rank achievable for an enlisted man. This always led to spirited debates about the Marine Corp and the U.S. Navy. You knew you were accepted when the brothers and brothers in law insulted you without hesitation. The insults usually center on lack of hair or excess of belly fat. I never knew what to call my wife’s dad. I don’t think I ever called him anything when we were dating. After we were married I didn’t feel right calling him dad. Once my kids were born, he became Pop to me and Pop Pop to my boys, who worshipped the ground he walked on.
He was winding down at Lukens as our wedding approached. You could see the love and pride in his eyes as he danced with his daughter at our wedding to Wind Beneath My Wings. It was always tough fitting the whole family into a picture, but we pulled it off at the wedding.
His retirement in 1992 marked the beginning of the best times of his life. They sold the house to Montgomery Hospital, who told them they were going to convert it into medical offices. They knocked it down and made it a parking lot. They moved to Lewis, Delaware where Cookie’s parents had a trailer in a nice park next to the Delaware Bay. They bought a double-wide trailer that was nicer than my townhouse. He bought a pontoon boat and kept it at a slip on the river adjacent to the park. They joined a golf club and opened an antique booth at an antique outlet in Rehoboth Beach. Getting screwed by corporate America didn’t end after he retired. Lukens was bought out by Bethlehem Steel in 1997. They owned a few hundred shares of Lukens and I recommended they sell before the takeover. They followed my advice and it proved to be good as Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2001. This bankruptcy wiped out Ray’s second pension. He slaved for 40 years in the same steel plant, was promised a pension, and was left with the pittance from the PBGC. I helped get Cookie a job at IKEA to make up for the lost income, and she still works there today. Billionaire Wilbur Ross bought up the assets of a number of bankrupt steel companies for pennies on the dollar and sold them to Mittal Steel Company in 2005 for $4.5 billion. Not a penny went to the thousands of workers whose pensions had been obliterated. This is how capitalism works in the America of today. The rich get richer and the working man gets the shaft.
Amazingly, I never sensed an ounce of bitterness from him about being screwed over by the companies he gave his heart and soul to. This was the kind of man he was. Nothing could faze him. He was tough, stoic and always more concerned with the best interests of his family and friends than about himself. He loved playing golf, loved heading up to his family cabin in Central PA during hunting season with his brothers, loved drinking a beer while watching a game on TV, and loved spending time with his 23 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. He had to bear the sadness of seeing 9 of his 12 siblings laid to rest. But, the time from 1992 through 2007 were the best times of his life. Despite being blind in one eye for decades, he was a fantastic golfer.
This is not an exaggeration, as I’ve seen the five plaques/trophies he received for hole in ones during his lifetime. He would consistently beat his sons and son-in-laws well into his 70s. They would out drive him, but he always hit it straight and was a great putter. The trash talk was fast and furious at family parties about the beating he administered to his much younger sons on a regular basis. He golfed almost every day during these retirement years, playing on his club team, and relaxing afterwards with a beer or two. When he wasn’t teaching his grandson how to drive his boat, he was teaching him how to golf. He even had the club pro cut down a set of clubs when Kevin was four. Kevin would throw a tantrum if Pop tried to make him leave the course. He instilled a love of golf in my son that will never go away.
Every year like clockwork on the day after Thanksgiving (always a rollicking good time at Cheryl & John’s house) he would head up to the cabin with his remaining brothers, his sons, and a hodgepodge of nephews for a week of hunting, eating, drinking and poker. As he got older, it shifted more towards the eating, drinking and poker, but his boys would usually bag a deer or two.
All summer long it was like a hotel at the Romano double wide trailer. All of the family members would freeload on Pop Pop and Mom Mom. We had to reserve our week. The kids always looked forward to their week in Lewis as their grandparents spoiled them with Grotto’s pizza, miniature golf, rides on the Rehoboth boardwalk, and ice cream. They would take them crabbing off the bridge or for a ride on the Cape May Lewis Ferry. Pop Pop loved spending time with my boys and the rest of his grandkids, and the adults got a chance to go to the movies or out alone for a dinner. Even when they lived 120 miles away, they would just swoop in unannounced and pick up our youngsters and take them off our hands for a few hours. They loved their Pop Pop.
My wife adored her dad. He was always there for her. The big tough steel worker had a soft spot in his heart for Dani. From the time he taught her to drink beer at the age of two (just kidding – it only looks like she was drinking that beer) until she became the first Romano to graduate college, he was always by her side. He was there for the birth of all of our kids and the first one to hold the newborns in his arms. He was a true father in every aspect.
His selflessness was never more on display than when he agreed to move back from his retirement paradise in Lewis to become the stand in dad for two of his grandkids, when their real dad deserted them. He would do anything for his daughters. For the last six years he spent much of his time helping his children and spoiling his grandchildren. He didn’t get to play as much golf, but family was always more important to him than his own enjoyment. He gallantly fought off stomach cancer, but then got cancer in his lung. He gave it everything he had, but even the toughest men eventually succumb to the ravages of time. The last week while he struggled for breath in the hospital, there was an endless procession of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and friends praying for his recovery but knowing this was goodbye to a man that had brought such joy to their lives. He was a rock. He was a shining example of what it means to be a real man. His legacy lives on in the lives of his children and their children. He will never be forgotten. We are all saddened by his passing, but the fond memories and the way he lived his life will forever be an inspiration to us all. I hope he has met up in heaven with my father and they are having a beer together sitting in their recliners watching a game. I will miss you Pop. You were a man’s man.