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‘King of the Mill’ ends 50-year reign: Farrell resident Howard King retires from Farrell steel plant

FARRELL — In 1965 the big movie was The Sound of Music, the average cost of a new home was under $14,000 and Green Acres debuted on TV.

It was also the year Farrell resident Howard King began working for the former Sharon Steel Corp. If that sounds like a time long, long ago, then consider this: After working more than 50 years at the Farrell mill, King decided it was time to leave on Oct. 2.

His tenure at the steel mill, which has been sold multiple times and now goes under the name NLMK Pennsylvania, marks an end of an era unlikely to be seen again.

“When I started working at Sharon Steel, there were 7,000 employees there,” King recalled. “Everything was going full blast.”

Starting as a general laborer in Sharon Steel’s 60-inch hot mill, King thought it was move up from his previous job at the National Castings plant just down the road.

“National Castings was a foundry, and foundries were dirty,” he recalled. “At that time when you came around the Malleable (Street) curve you couldn’t see what was coming around the other side because smoke was coming from the foundry. It was terrible. The steel mill was a little bit cleaner.”

Walking to work with his lunch bucket in hand, the shift change at the steel mill saw thousands come and go simultaneously. It was the common lifestyle for many workers in the region.

“I thought I had a job for life,” King said. “I never thought it would go away.”

Twice, each for a one-week period, King was put to work in Sharon Steel’s infamous open hearth furnaces. Heat from the furnaces was so intense it was common for workers to shed several pounds each shift.

“It’s true what they said about those furnaces,” King said. “It was hotter than hot. You just can’t imagine it.”

As time passed and King developed more skills, he got moved to the mill’s 40-inch mill where annealing furnaces were located. The furnaces modified the steel to enhance its properties.

Called upon to replace bricks near the furnaces, King said that posed difficulties.

In related news, environmental watchdog sues world’s largest steelmaker over Pennsylvania pollution.

“Temperatures in the furnace could hit 2,000 degrees, and you had to wait for them to cool down a bit,” he recalled. “Even then, you could only be in there for 15-minute intervals.”

He eventually found himself working at the mill’s electric furnace department, where scrap steel was melted in large vat-like containers by giant electrodes. The noise from the electrodes melting the steel was off the charts.

“You could feel it all through your body,” King said. “I think that’s why I still talk so loud today. You had to wear ear plugs and hearing muffs, and with all that noise going on you had to talk loud to communicate.”

Other jobs he toiled at in the mill included being a grinder. Since Sharon Steel had to produce military-grade steel for a number of products, the quality requirements were much stricter than regular steel. Grinders, such as King, had to grind off layers of steel produced at the mill that then had to be tested to ensure no cracks had formed in the steelmaking process.

The job wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The grinders used 150-pound stones to slice away layers of steel.

“Those grinders were pretty heavy,” he said.

When financier Victor Posner bought Sharon Steel midway through King’s career, it marked a dramatic change for the mill. Once considered among the nation’s best stainless steel producers, Posner got rid of that operation.

“That was the beginning of the demise right there,” King said.

He didn’t have kind words for Posner, now deceased, who was heavily criticized by workers for sucking money out of the business and selling off much of its prized assets.

“He stole our pensions and a whole lot of other things,” King said.

In related news, US Steel eliminating jobs at Pittsburgh headquarters.

When the company was plunged into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1987, King thought the steelmaker could still pull it out. At the time Posner was ousted from his post and the plant was sold, only to go into bankruptcy a second time in the early 1990s.

The plant was closed in 1992 and stood idle for a couple years. Officially, King retired from the mill but worked for a spell at Packard Electric just inside the Ohio border. He also did work at the National Association of the Church of God Campground in Shenango Township.

When the Farrell mill reopened under new ownership, King returned and has been there ever since. His last job was performing track maintenance on the plant’s railroad operations.

His wife, Lora Adams-King, who is superintendent of Farrell Area School District, applauded her husband’s 50-year endurance in the steel industry.

“That used to be the norm. But you don’t see that anymore,” Adams-King said. “By today’s standard it’s a record.”

King’s wife and their daughter, Faith, were on hand for his last shift at the mill. They hired a limousine to whisk him away with flair. It was a very unexpected by the 72-year-old.

Friends and long-time co-workers gave him handshakes, high-fives and hearty backslaps as part of his sendoff.

As an added bonus, by a coincidence a film crew hired by the company to record its operations was on hand when goodbyes were said to King. With his permission, the film crew also recorded his special event, which they want to incorporate into the final package about the company.

As for his future, King said he doesn’t have anything in mind. Along with being a school superintendent, his wife is a minister, and the combination requires her to spend lots of time traveling by car.

“When she travels I do most of the car driving,” King said. “And I’m a good handyman, but I don’t really know what I’m going to do. Time will tell.”

That’s OK with his wife, who said his time to rest is long overdue.

“After working that many years he deserves to do what he wants to do,” she said. “That’s the same courtesy I want to be given when I retire.”

This article was written by MICHAEL ROKNICK from The Herald, Sharon, Pa. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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