South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

When Tony Pankowski went to camp

Series: Brashear Memories | Story 1

Tony and Tarr Pankowski sit inside the Brashear Camp swimming pool area in 1953 with their son, John. Tony was the caretaker at the camp from 1949 until 1973. His story on Page 4 is the first in a series of "Brashear Memories," a series of stories celebrating The Brashear Association's first 100 years.

My parents were both born on South Side. Tarr was from the Flats, Tony was from the Slopes.

They met when they were teenagers at a Brashear dance around 1933-34 when she would have been 18 and he was only 17. Yes, Mommy was a cradle-robber.

Dad had quit school after the eighth grade. It was common at the time, because boys were expected to go to work and provide for the family. Quitting school didn't seem to bother my mother too much, she said she was attracted to him because he was clean, neatly dressed, and had shiny shoes.

After dating for more than a year, Dad decided he had to find a way to make more money. I'm sure they had talked about getting married. At the time, he was a janitor at the John A. Brashear settlement house on Holt Street, and the country was still clawing its way out of the depression. Good paying jobs were scarce.

In 1933, FDR had started the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Part of the WPA was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which Dad signed up sometime late in 1935. He was stationed in Petersburg, Pa. at Camp E.L. Miller. After a year of service, he came back to the city and went back to Brashear, but not as a janitor.

They offered him a position, I believe, as an instructor in the woodshop. By that time, my mother also worked for Brashear as a day counselor and was also involved in the dance classes. They both went to the Brashear Camp many of us know. Mom took only day trips. Dad was a counselor.

They wed, secretly, in 1938. Secretly, because Brashear had a policy of not hiring married couples. Those were different times.

A few years later, they both had full time jobs. Dad worked in the J&L Mill, and Mother was sewing zippers into trousers.

After Pearl Harbor, Dad began getting draft notices. He refused to go and registered as a Conscientious Objector. Eventually, G-men showed up at their home on Mary Street and took him to the Federal Building.

The Army offered to make him a medic. He said, "You don't understand. I'm not going." That earned him some time in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

Because Wilber Joseph, executive director of Brashear at the time, signed a letter stating my father had a job waiting, he was paroled in June 1946. Dad later received a Presidential Pardon in May of 1948.

My sister, Janet, came along in 1947 at St. Joe's Hospital.

During that time, the caretaker at Brashear Camp was Bruno Zachary. He had lost a leg in one of the wars. In spite of that, he did his best to manage the property.

In December of 1948, he and his family were away on Christmas day. When they returned, they found the house had burned down to the foundation. I was always told they had left the Christmas tree lights on causing the fire.

Located in a remote area, none of the neighbors saw a thing. Bruno and family decided it was time to move on. They went, I believe, to North Carolina. Mr. Joseph offered the position of camp caretaker to Tony. He leapt on the opportunity with both feet.

Their first year at camp began in 1949. All three, my father, mother and sister, had one room on the ground floor of an old brick farm house on camp property. They took their meals in the Dining Hall in the basement of the barn used as a camp meeting space. The first winter, Mom did her cooking on a stove located in the camp infirmary, which was in the basement of the farm house.

Initially, she didn't like the isolation. Eventually, she grew to appreciate living in the country.

During the summers of 1949 and 1950, three local carpenters and Dad, worked at building a new house on the same foundation where the Zacharys' stood. They finished in time for the big snow of 1950-51.

The four men remained life-long friends. One of them, Frank Young, was later contracted to build a Lodge on camp property. He also poured the concrete walk around the swimming pool.

From 1950 to 1964, when camp was closed for the season, Dad travelled every week to South Side. He was responsible for maintaining, at times, all three of Brashear's buildings.

That burden ended when James O'Brien became the association's executive director. My Father was able to concentrate his efforts entirely on the upkeep of the camp. He was called to the city only for emergencies and meetings.

I showed up in 1952. During my early years, I mostly tagged along with my dad as he did his daily chores. I saw how the business ends of most tools were used.

I didn't participate at camp until I was 13. Bob Furuno, the camp director at the time, recruited me as a volunteer. For the next six summers, I was hooked.

Tony did his thing until one Monday morning in September of 1973. He died, suddenly, of a massive heart attack. At the time, he was making a repair on his car, but he worked right up to the end. He had intended to start the process of closing camp on Tuesday.

A new Boy's 4 Cabin was dedicated to Dad in 1974.

Unfortunately, a decision was made to close the camp in 1984 and the camp property was sold in 1985. I'm sure he was saddened. Maybe more than those who were left behind. Definitely more.

Over the years, I've come to realize something about my Daddy. Though he (we) suffered some hard times, and some tragedies. In 1960, while painting inside the swimming pool, he fell and broke his left leg, twice below the knee. The doctors were going to remove it. Mom told them they may as well remove his head, too. Thank God they were able to save it. He also got a face full of chlorine gas one summer.

Despite everything, Tony was steadfast and loyal. He loved his family. He loved the campers. He also loved Brashear Camp. It was his third child.

I will, forever, thank him for being my example of how a man should live his life. Work hard, play hard, and love what you do.

We miss you, Tony.

See you later,

your "Boysic"

Submitted By

John Pankowski


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