1960s Connellsville graduates experience: Vietnam, less college — and more blue collar
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run throughout the month of December.
The teenagers of the 1960s — those earliest of the Baby Boomer generation — grew up with the thundercloud of Vietnam hanging over their heads.
The '60s were among the worst years of the war in Southeast Asia, which lasted more than a decade and claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans.
“We prayed a lot about it in church,” recalled Carmalee Carbonara Porter, 67, a longtime resident of Connellsville's West Side Hill.
Ron Shaffer, 67, married young and had a child, so he wasn't drafted. “A lot of my friends were killed,” said the Connellsville resident, who retired from Connellsville State General Hospital, where he worked as a cook and a security officer.
Jack Kozel, 68, was drafted but was in an accident before he left for basic training. A back injury sidelined him.
“All of my buddies were in the war, though,” said Kozel, a Mt. Pleasant resident; he and his wife, Mary, raised their family on Connellsville's South Side.
Porter, Shaffer and Kozel, along with Judy Keller Haines of Connellsville, gathered together recently at the Daily Courier to share memories of their youth — years they recall as simpler and more satisfying than the world facing today's teenagers.
College not as common
Of the four local residents, only Haines went to college. Times were different in 1950s and 1960s Connellsville, which was largely a blue-collar town. Many high school boys entered the workforce after they graduated; the coal mines, factories and steel mills were still chugging along and paid decent money. There were also the trades: Mechanics, electricians, carpenters, etc. — which is still true today. It was common in the 1960s for girls to marry young. If they worked outside the home, it often was in the clerical or retail fields.
Kozel, who retired from the sales department of Montgomery Ward's, went to barber school in Pittsburgh after graduating in 1963.
“The nuns (at Immaculate Conception High School) thought that I could have gotten into Duquesne University. When I found out that the tuition was $2,850 a year (this was in the early 1960s, remember), it might as well have been $28 million,” said Kozel, who grew up in Everson. “That was so much money.”
He added, “There were jobs here, good jobs — the railroad, the steel mills and mines and Anchor Hocking Glass and Cap.”
“I wanted to be a nurse,” said Porter, the youngest sibling in a family of 13. Over the years, she had several jobs and retired from Healthland Pharmacy in Connellsville. “Times were just different.”
“You played the cards you were dealt and just did your best,” Kozel interjected.
Haines attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a teacher's degree. “But I went on loans — and I worked while I was in school,” said Haines, who taught vocal music to elementary students in Connellsville Area School District for nearly 35 years, at Zachariah Connell and South Side schools.
Earliest baby boomers
The 1960s high school graduates were the first of the post-World War II Baby Boomers. Kozel was born in 1945 — the year World War II ended. He arrived in the world just before the Boom exploded. Porter and Shaffer, both 67, and Haines, 65, came along just as the Boomer generation escalated.
According to The History Channel website, as well as other sources, 3.4 million U.S. babies were born in 1946 — 20 percent more than in 1945. The number of infants grew to 3.8 million in 1947, and to 3.9 million in 1952 (don't forget, the Korean War was just ending). From 1954 until 1964, more than 4 million babies were born annually; then the number tapered off.
More than 75 million people were — and millions still are — Baby Boomers. By 2030, it is estimated that one in five Americans will be older than 65.
Those who graduated in the early- to mid-1960s experienced their formative childhood years in the 1950s, a time that Kozel, Porter, Shaffer and Haines remember as some of the best of their lives.
“There were no Sunday sales in those days, which was fine. Things slowed down; it was sacred,” said Porter. “We need to go back.”
Tuesday: Shoe leather, not tire rubber got 1960s teens to fun destinations
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.