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International traveler always returns to Donora roots

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Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009

He lives in London, England and, because of his work and personal interests in travel, has visited 45 countries.

But for Joseph H. (Joe) Menendez, there's no better destination than Donora and the Mon Valley.

"We have had a wonderful opportunity to live overseas in Paris and London as well as in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Massachusetts," said Menendez, chief executive officer of The Vita Group, headquartered in London.

Those travels have given Menendez and his wife, the former Lucia Joan Petrus, also a Donora native, "the opportunity to make friends around the world and to experience many cultures -- to see the world, and the United States, through different eyes," he said.

"Lucia says that each move during my career has been a new chapter in the book of our lives, and they have all been interesting in their own right," Menendez said. "She looks forward to living each chapter with great anticipation."

Menendez began his journeys from his hometown after graduating from Donora High School in 1968. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry from Washington & Jefferson College in 1972 and a master of business administration from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973.

His wife, a 1969 graduate of Monongahela Valley Catholic High School, was graduated from California State College in 1972. They were married in 1972 at St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church in Donora.

Menendez, 59, is the son of the late Joe and Katherine Alvarez Menendez. His father worked as a laborer at the Donora plant of U.S. Steel.

"After the mill closed Dad owned and operated the Ringside Bar at 825 McKean Ave. in Donora," Menendez said. "My mother also worked in the bar, which was previously owned by my mother's parents, Emilio 'Rusty' Alvarez and his wife Delfina. It was a family business for many years."

Lucia's mother, Nell Smyth Petrus, lives in Donora. Her father, the late Thomas E. Petrus, was the longtime borough secretary and a magistrate in Donora.

After jobs and stays in Virginia, Mississippi, West Virginia and Kentucky, the family relocated to Paris, France in 2000 as Menendez took on new duties as president of the Silicon Carbide Division with 10 factories in eight countries. One year later, several divisions were merged and Menendez was named president of the new Grains & Powders Division with 33 factories in 13 nations.

In 2005 he was appointed vice president and general manager of Saint-Gobain Abrasives North America and Bonded Abrasives Worldwide in Worcester, Mass.

"This business had 41 factories in 15 countries manufacturing sandpaper, grinding wheels and related abrasive products," Menendez said. "We moved to Princeton, Mass. when I accepted this role."

He was named president of Saint-Gobain Abrasives, a worldwide business with 70 factories in 38 countries, in 2007 and split his time between offices in Worcester and Paris, France with a home in Massachusetts and an apartment in Paris.

The Vita Group recruited Menendez to be its chief executive officer in 2008. In this position, he is responsible for 80 factories and 5,000 employees in 20 countries. The firm shows $2 billion in annual sales and its headquarters are located in London.

The Vita Group manufactures polyurethane foams for bedding and furniture and technical applications, plastic sheets for various transportation and industrial markets, non-woven fabrics for furniture, bedding, insulation and technical applications, and a variety of compounded plastic materials.

The couple has three children: Matt Menendez, an attorney living and working in New York City; Kelly Menendez, a director of Sales Trading in equities at a bank based in London; Emmy Menendez, who lives in Washington, D.C. and works in sales and marketing.

"Moving to London in 2008 was a bonus for us," Menendez said. "Our daughter, Kelly, has lived there about five years, so she has shown us the ropes. Furthermore, after having lives on different continents for eight years, we now live only 25 minutes apart and see each other every week."

Menendez always has time to reflect on his formative years in Donora.

"There are so many fond memories there," he said. "My friends from grade school through high school, many of whom I still stay in touch with ... enjoying Donora's sports teams and participating in playground basketball, football, ice skating, baseball ... there's so much that I will never forget."

Among his closest friends from those years are Greg Burke, Alex Mares, Bill Polachek, Joe Popielarski, Alan Patrick, Ed Repka, Speer Ruey, Ed Stokes, Dave and Ron Suski, and Jimmy Ferguson. They keep in "loose touch," having high school reunions every five years and also "fitting in some occasional extra visits."

"We did the usual things teenagers did," Menendez said. "We played sports, 'cruised' around once we were old enough to drive, went to dances, did some hunting and swam at the Spanish Club pool."

Meeting and dating Lucia Petrus was the major event of life in Donora, Menendez said.

"We've been married for 37 years and she is my best friend," he said.

He also was blessed by having his grandparents, Rusty and Delfina Alvarez, and his uncle and aunt, Chester and Ina Suski, and their children living next door to him.

"I have benefitted from their wisdom and counsel all my life," Menendez said. "They were very valuable and treasured influences on my development and taught me a lot. My cousins, Dave, Ron and Tammy Suski, were like brothers and sister to me while growing up."

Chester and Dave Suski still reside in Donora and Joe's other relatives in the area are uncles Bill and Julio Menendez in Monongahela and an uncle and aunt, Rusty and Nola Alvarez, in West Newton. Lucia's three sisters also live in the region -- Sue Wojdowski in Bethel Park, Marilyn Cioccio in Elizabeth, Phara Marquard in Whitehall -- while Miriam Singer lives in Gaithersburg, Md. and Clare Blashford is in Stow, Ohio.

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