WEIRTON - Hundreds of former Weirton Steel employees gathered at the Serbian Picnic Grounds Saturday to reminisce about their days at the steel mill and catch up on the lives of their former co-workers.
Brenda Ice, first vice president of the Weirton Steel 25-Year Club, said more than 400 were expected to turn out for the group's annual picnic.
"A lot of guys, when they left (the steel mill) would say, "I'll never think of this place again, but that's just not true," said Ice.
Many who gathered under the picnic shelter for hamburgers, hot dogs, Italian sausage and other food chatted about their years with Weirton Steel, often commenting that it was a good employer.
"Weirton Steel was a good outfit, good to me and good to the people," said Ernie Nicholas, a past president of the club.
Nicholas said his father, a Greek immigrant, worked for the steel firm after leaving a Canonsburg manufacturer of milk cans.
Nicholas said he himself began working at Weirton Steel at a young age.
"You could be 18 but had to have a diploma," he noted, but he added his work there was short-lived as he enlisted in the Army. Fortunately, Weirton Steel officials counted both his first three years in the military and another nine moths, when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War, as part of his employment.
Other former Weirton Steel employees and veterans recalled the same being true for them, while those who served in World War II received their vacation pay from the steel firm.
The Rev. Kenneth Dight of Wellsburg recalled working in the company's research division and being involved in the electrical wiring for 14 blast furnaces. During that time he developed a lighter, aluminum carrier and signed the patent rights to it over to the company.
Dight said he considered the invention part of his job and was rewarded by the company for his efforts. Weirton Steel's vice president called him into his office and told him he's receive a nice Christmas bonus, he recalled.
"I was sure glad to get it because they weren't stingy," Dight said.
Dight said he worked with many craftsmen from various departments in an effort to improve the mill's operations.
"We all worked for one purpose - to see the mill run, because as long as they (Weirton Steel) were working, we were working," he said.
Bill Moss, a member from Weirton, recalled when Weirton Steel sponsored its own singing group, the Weirton Steel Chorus. Moss said he joined the group in 1976 at the suggestion of his late daughter, Billie Kay; and remained a member for about 32 years, even after his retirement.
He said the group's director, Bill Niesslein, was a Weirton Steel employee with a degree in music who patiently worked with its members to ensure a solid performance.
Nicholas said in addition to performing locally, the group took its show on the road to such places as Washington D.C., Atlantic City and Chicago.
He and others also recalled early gatherings of the Weirton Steel 25-Year Club.
Formed in 1945, the group met for social events held in March and around Independence Day and Christmas at the Police Lodge near Colliers Way, Nicholas said.
He added steelworkers and their wives often danced to big band orchestras.
Nicholas said when the company restructured with an employee stock ownership plan, it offered to sell the lodge to the club, but the club couldn't afford it.
Instead, the group moved its gatherings to the Serbian Picnic Grounds and the picnic shelter built by Weirton Steel.
"The Serbians always give us a good deal," Nicholas said.
While the functions once were sponsored solely by the steel firm, they now are supported by various businesses.
First Choice America Federal Credit Union, the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau, United Steel Workers Local 2911, Gus's Goodies and Steubenville Chiropractic are among sponsors of this year's picnic.
Ice said a small but dedicated group of volunteers also works to ensure the event is held each year.
Among those volunteers are those re-elected officers on Saturday. In addition to Ice, they are: Bill Walters, president; Ron Baker, second vice president; and Carolyn Norcia, secretary.