After 65 years at Pittsburgh Glass Works, this 83-year-old worker isn't ready to quit
When 18-year-old Ray Bowser got hired at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant in East Deer in 1952, he figured he had a job for life, if he wanted it.
More than six decades later, many would say that's exactly what he got.
But rather than being well into his retirement at age 83, Bowser rises each weekday morning and makes his way from his Buffalo Township home to work at what is now known as Pittsburgh Glass Works.
It's a much smaller plant, with far fewer people than when he started those many years ago.
“I enjoy going to work. It doesn't bother me,” he said. “The job's not running me; I'm running the job.”
Bowser and the plant's nearly 200 other workers are now facing the prospect of losing their jobs. Mexico-based Vitro, which completed its purchase of PGW this year, announced in early October that the 130-year-old windshield plant is too antiquated to keep up with automakers' increasing technical demands and could shut down next summer.
The company is still in discussions with the United Steelworkers union related to its Oct. 4 announcement, said Jennifer Eck, senior director of human resources.
Rather than taking it as a sign he should retire, Bowser says he's still not ready.
“I'm hoping it doesn't happen. I want to retire from there on my own accord,” he said. “I don't want to be forced out.
“If it ever happens, it would be one of the saddest days of my life.”
Work fills a void
Bowser said he often wonders what he'd be doing if his wife was still with him. He was married to Grace Bowser for 31 years, until she died on Dec. 19, 1995.
It's no mystery to his daughters, Paula Kurtiak and Kathy Mrozinski, two of their three children that also includes a son, Bill.
“I don't think my father would still be working if my mother was still alive,” said Kurtiak, 52, of Buffalo Township.
Mrozinski said the couple would probably be traveling, something her mother enjoyed.
“When my mom passed away, I think it was too much for him to deal with, so it was easier for him to go to work,” said Mrozinski, 66, of Harrison.
Bowser has lived alone since his wife died.
“He loved her that much,” Mrozinski said. “I'm sure he had the opportunity to meet people. I don't think he wanted to have another relationship.”
At one time, the plant was Bowser's second family. Now, with his son living out of the area in Burgettstown and his daughters busy working, it's how he gets the social contact that Kurtiak says everybody needs.
“He goes to work. He talks to people all day long. He sees people all day long,” Kurtiak said. “It gives him a reason to get out of the house.
“If he would retire and not have anywhere to go or not have anything to do, he'd be quite lonely,” she said. “He is so used to getting up and going to work. He wouldn't know what to do with himself.”
Layoff leads to marriage
A layoff from PPG was fateful for Bowser. He took a job at Saxonburg Ceramics; that's where he and Grace met. They married in 1964.
They have eight grandchildren, only three of which Grace got to see, and now three great grandchildren.
They raised their family first at a home in Natrona Heights, Harrison before moving in 1973 to the Buffalo Township house where Bowser still lives.
Not surprisingly, a strong work ethic is something Bowser's daughters said they learned from their father.
Kurtiak remembers times growing up when he held two full-time jobs.
“He worked so much I didn't really see him that much. It seemed he was always at work,” Mrozinski said. “He worked really hard. He didn't get too much sleep, but he managed to do it.”
Bowser provided his family with a middle class upbringing through his labor.
“We weren't spoiled,” Kurtiak said. “We never needed anything. We always had what we needed. We didn't go without.”
A lot has changed
A native of Freeport, Bowser graduated from Freeport High School in 1952 and got hired at PPG in September that year. It was the first place he applied for a job — five times.
“Back then, you could go practically anywhere and get a job. Today, forget it,” he said. “Automation has taken over. Machines do all the work. There's not too many manufacturing jobs left.”
At one time, more than 5,000 people worked at Creighton Works No. 1, Pittsburgh Plate Glass's original headquarters and first glass manufacturing plant.
A lot of the buildings have disappeared over the years, including the one where Bowser filed his applications.
“That was the best place in the Valley to work,” he said.
A college education wasn't in the cards.
“My mom raised four kids by herself,” he said. “I was poor when I was young. I couldn't afford anything of that nature.”
After less than a year at PPG, Bowser bought his first new car. He paid cash for a 1953 Chevy.
Before that, “I didn't have a way to get back and forth,” he said. “Fortunately, they had buses.”
Bowser said most of the jobs he's done at the plant over the years are gone now, too.
“We used to do all that stuff by hand. Now we have robots,” he said. “There's not a hard job down there.”
Today, he works as a utility person, cleaning in various locations throughout the plant.
“I take pride in anything I do,” he said. “They know they don't have to tell me to do anything. If it has to be done, I just do it.”
A celebrity, inspiration
Plant manager Dave Shaffer came to the Creighton plant just four years ago, but he had heard of Bowser before he got there.
“He's sort of a celebrity in PGW” because of his length of service, Shaffer said. While there are several who have worked around 40 years, no one else comes close to Bowser's tenure.
Bowser has accumulated various perfect attendance awards over the years. Most recently, he has gone 18 months without taking any unexcused days off — he had three excused days for a funeral.
Shaffer said Bowser is a model employee — reliable, dependable, and hard working — who sets an example for everyone at the plant.
“For me, personally, he's really an inspiration,” Shaffer said. “He's definitely somebody that we can look up to and we can all model our work habits after.”
A house, a garden, a buddy
Kurtiak said her father has worked so much, for so long, that he doesn't have many hobbies. He doesn't hunt or fish.
When he's not at work, Bowser is at his house, tending to the lawn and a garden. After his wife died, he turned the swimming pool she enjoyed into garden space, where he grows tomatoes and peppers.
“I just like to see things growing, especially zucchini,” he said. “It's amazing how those things grow. I just give most of the stuff away. There's nothing like picking something from the garden.”
If the plant closes, Bowser will need to put in a roundabout driveway so his co-workers can pick up the vegetables he gives away, said his longtime friend, Neal Simpson.
Simpson, 77, of Natrona Heights, Harrison, said he's known Bowser since he was 15.
They met when Bowser was painting a house behind where he used to live. Despite their age difference, they became pretty good friends. Today, they often go out to eat on Saturday nights, then play cards for hours.
Simpson and his wife, Donna, have traveled with Bowser, before and after Grace Bowser died.
Simpson retired as a manager from the state liquor system more than a decade ago, but says it's good that Bowser is still working.
“That's just the thing he does. That's his life,” he said. “I kid him all the time about still working. He keeps saying it was my idea.”
Hoping for change of plans
The announcement of the plant's closing shocked Bowser.
“I can't picture a foreign company coming here and shutting us down,” he said.
“We're going to have to find him another job,” Kurtiak said. “He needs something to do. That's what keeps him going.
“How many places hire people that are 83?”
Mrozinski agrees that her father will probably have to find another job.
“He's going to be lonely not seeing his friends all the time,” she said. “There's a part of me, I'll be happy to see him not working every day and getting out on the highway and stuff like that in the winter time.
“I'm hoping they don't close,” she said. “I'm hoping something will happen that they don't and he can work a couple more years.”
Bowser said he'd like to work at least five more years. He wants to hit the seven decades mark.
“He definitely sets goals for himself,” Mrozinski said.
“Hopefully,” Bowser said, “I'll still have that chance.”