As a registered Republican, I have felt that rural people have more of a chance of climbing up the food chain (in Pennsylvania) when the R’s are in charge. In recent years, the D’s have almost completely forgotten about the one third of the population that lives in non-metro areas. That is until after the 2016 election cycle.
Back when I had some smack in helping rural people in my job, it was always interesting to me, how my go to people were always Republicans. Prior to those days, I was registered as an independent. I hate to tell you that I voted for Mr. Nixon in 1960 because I thought that Mr. Kennedy was going to get us into a war in Vietnam. I had just come out of the service and was scared s***less about being called up from the reserves (I was obligated to 4 more years of reserve service after my 2 years in the Army).
As I moved to PA and got involved in education in rural areas, I looked for help from anyone who would listen to me. There were certainly people who were Dems that had some thoughts about the folks out in the hinterlands, but they were just fleeting thoughts. In the main, those who thought and acted directly on the welfare of the places I lived were R’s.
These thoughts did not come to me all at once. I kept trying to find anyone that I could to help out. When I moved out to Western PA, the area had 27% unemployment. I had not realized that when I took the job. PA had just changed its laws to allow governors to serve two terms. Milton Shapp had been the first governor to serve two terms. He was a progressive, but his administration was not square and lots of shady things happened during his tenure.
I was not a particular fan of Richard Thornburgh. He was from Western PA, but not the enthusiastic kind of fellow that I had really wanted. He had surrounded himself with a coterie of really mean guys. I mean mean. I met most of them as I looked for some help for my special education children and my services to seventeen rural school districts over 3,000 square miles.
The advantage that I had with the Governor was that his wife Ginny had a special education child and was a force to be reckoned with. Having been invited to the Governor’s home as part of my job, I got to meet both her and her husband. They appeared to be interested in what I had to say. I slipped a simple economic development plan into the Governor’s hands when I met him. My good friend and colleague, Mike Vereb, had produced a rather simple and provincial plan that called for being really economically selfish.
The plan was to inquire from local businesses where they got their products from. Then take a product and see if it could be created (manufactured) locally. Some would see that as a really dumb idea, but it turned out to be pretty smart. Dick Thornburgh thought it was good enough to send one of his economic development guys out to meet with us and some local business people to suggest how it might work.
George Werner was amazed at the kind of businesses that were out our way. Of course, right next door was Pennzoil and Quaker State and Brockway Glass and an Owens Illinois plant (they would all leave or downsize). He understood what was happening and made certain suggestions and put us in touch with their economic development people.
As I looked through our financial situation, I came to the conclusion that, among the 29 regional educational service agencies in PA, we were the most underfunded in the area of special education. Actually, we were the most underfunded in all areas.
The then Secretary of Education was Dr. Robert Wilburn. He was a special person. He had been at Chase Manhattan Bank, had been President of Indiana University of PA and was a true Western Pennsylvania person. He was and is a truly brilliant guy.
By the time that I had perused our meager funds, I was really pissed off. These organizations across the state (called Intermediate Units), were only 12 years old and here we were at the bottom. What really galled me was that our office was a former 15 minute motel. You are probably asking, “Why the hell did you take the job?” I can tell you that our children were given the choice of where I would interview. They saw the listings of administrative jobs across the state and chose this one as a possibility.
Through Mrs. Thornburgh (Ginny), my special education Director, Charlie Wall, and I made an appointment with Bob Wilburn. We had created a cartoonish cover for the numbers we had whomped up with a character drowning and called in HELP.
Bob Wilburn has a mile of patience. I know it not only from that meeting but from other occasions, both social and otherwise. He is someone you never want to lose. He listened to my rantings and ravings for a couple of hours (yes a couple of hours). At the end of my tirade, I looked at him and asked, “So what are you going to do about it?” He calmly looked across the table and said. “I am going to give you a million and a half dollars. He did.
The following year the Department of Education changed the way it distributed funds according to a revamped formula which not only helped us, but also other rural intermediate units.
Senator John Heinz was one of the nicest and classiest guys that I ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humor and someone who understood rural Pennsylvania. Since he was a Pittsburgh guy, he didn’t have to travel far to get to areas in PA that most people don’t get to, unless they are avid outdoors people.
I had a chance to meet with him through our local Congressman Bill Clinger (more about him later). His staff was very cordial and helpful. There were always questions about federal programs and new regulations. They were quick to try and get me some answers.
Here are two kind of funny stories that characterize a man, no longer with us, but still ensconced in my mind. For some reason, Mike Vereb and a local cable and trailer park entrepreneur, along with a county commissioner, Keith Martin, had concocted a plan, worked out by Mike, that our area would be the center of low flush toilet bowls. The parts would be manufactured by a Finnish (I think) conglomerate and we would establish a put together plant.
The company seemed to be interested in what was proposed. They even sent us some already put together toilets to sell. I even put one in my house. We thought that this was such a great idea, that I contacted Senator Heinz’s office and asked them if they had any intention of coming up our way. They actually said yes, that they would be near us in a few weeks and asked what we wanted.
I am not sure if they believed us, or thought that we were crazy. We gave them the address of the place where we could display the bowls and got a time from them. They actually showed up on time and the Senator’s eyes lit up. Remember, he was the scion of a very large enterprise and was not unfamiliar with economic development. He also thought that the whole idea of low flush toilets was both funny and water saving. We kidded around for about an hour and his staff was really upset that he was taking so much time. He would be late for his next appointment. We bid him adieu and he wished us luck and offered any help that he could give. The end of that story is bleak. The Finns took their plant to Mexico.
The next time I saw John Heinz was on a blustery October day. The Clarion County area and its beautiful foliage held a week of celebration of Autumn Leaf Days. As a member of Rotary, we were all involved in a roast chicken effort close to the county building in the middle of Clarion. As I remember that day, it was rife with chicken and charcoal smells. At the end of the day, we would usually throw our coats and other clothes away because of the odor.
I was standing near the chicken spit when I looked up and there coming down the stairs were Bill Clinger, my congressman and Senator Heinz. They looked down and saw me and I waved. Then to my consternation, they began to walk towards me. If you can imagine, the smoke from our chicken doings wafted around everywhere. It was particularly heavy where the two gentlemen were walking.
I can see, even today, that John Heinz was wearing a Grey Chesterfield coat. He was smiling, as I was trying to wave him off. Bill Clinger was also smiling and striding towards me. The came over and both shook my hand. The clouds of smoke still billowed around us and other members of Rotary came over to say hello to them. I don’t think I can ever get that scene out of my mind. When Bill Clinger said, “See you Arnie,” it felt as if I had been involved in something special. It was the last time that I saw John Heinz in person.
Now let me describe Bill Clinger and Rick Peltz. Bill Clinger was a Congressman from Western PA. He held the seat from 1979-1997. He was a graduate of U. of Virginia and Johns Hopkins law school. He was not a small timer in business. He was President of New Process in Warren, PA. He was a wealthy guy. He is also a member of the retired R’s who penned a letter saying that Donny Little Hands was wholly unfit to be President of the United States (2016).
Coming from a rural area, he understood those areas were not the focus of either state or federal programs. There were a number of times when trying to shoehorn into program, I would call Bill or Rick Peltz and say, “This is a great program, but it only fits big population centers, anything you can do to fix that.” Guess what, most of the time they did.
When I asked Bill to be somewhere, he would do his best to be there. We also showed him our toilet bowls and he was enthused. Wish it had worked out. His positive attitude infected me, so that I thought things can get done. When federal regulations seemed abhorrent to me, I had a willing ear in either Rick or the Congressman.
Rick Peltz was Congressman Clinger’s executive director. He handled all of the staff in Warren and most times in Washington. He is and was one of the nicest people I have ever met. I got to know Rick on a personal basis throughout my tenure in Western PA. Rick was a people person. We had intimate knowledge of rural Pennsylvania and there was never a time that Rick did not put himself on the line to help me.
His entreaties on behalf of his congressional district, the largest in size east of the Mississippi, was far ranging. He would help anyone who asked or send them to the right person. He and I would meet, sometime in Corry, PA to discuss things and find out what the other person was doing. Rick had an advantage in the education field. His mom was a longtime teacher in Warren, PA. His understanding of what I needed went far beyond what a congressman’s aide would know.
Rick kept me informed about what was happening in Washington D.C. and I would let him in on what was happening to my 3000 square miles of heaven. Sometimes these stories intersected and we could get some things done.
There is one story I will never forget. At a time when Carol and I were running the McKelvey Scholarship program in PA, NY and West VA, we had done a great deal of traveling in southern West Virginia. We had looked at poverty and median incomes in all of the West Virginia counties. We picked about ten and then started to give out scholarships. One was McDowell County an impoverished coal county to the south in West Virginia. You may remember the book called, “The Rocket Boys,” or the movie “October Sky.”
Sonny Hickam, who later helped to design rockets for NASA was born in the county and went to Big Creek High School. Carol and I and Dena McKelvey spent a bunch of time there. One of the high schools had an auditorium space, with electric wires and pipes hanging down, but not auditorium. Rick asked us if we could drive down to a very rural place in West Virginia. He was then the co- exec. of the Appalachian Regional Commission. We agreed.
When we appeared at the high school, don’t remember if it was Big Creek or Welch, We took Rick into the almost auditorium. He was aghast. How could that be? Rick went back to Washington and set aside 3 million dollars for the high school to complete the auditorium. I have no idea where Rick is now. He began a trip around the country with his wife and I have not heard from him since.
State Senator James J. Rhoades was a good friend. We did not hang around socially, but had known each other when we were both junior high school principals. Jim was a big rawboned coal cracker former football player. He was a true conservative, and a great human being. He always referred to students as “boys and girls.” He said those words hundreds of times in print and in speeches in front of his colleagues in the state senate. He was also chairman of the Senate Education Committee.