George Roehling retired in 1991, after a career spanning nearly thirty years, with Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Local Union No. 4 in Buffalo, NY. A couple of months ago, George graciously agreed to be interviewed by Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford concerning his work as an asbestos pipe coverer for Local No. 4, his memories of working at Donner Hanna Coke and of the usual horse play with other Local No. 4 members. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
When did you leave South Buffalo? Where did you go to high school? I went to Bishop Timon and left South Buffalo right after high school; it must have been 1960.
What part of South Buffalo did you live in? I lived near Seneca and Stevenson Streets, about one mile toward the city from Cazenovia Park. A lot of Local 4 members came from South Buffalo.
How did you get into the Local No. 4 Union? Local 4 did not recruit. Bob Gittere was my wife’s uncle and an old-timer from the union. I was taken in as an apprentice in 1961, right after high school, and did my apprenticeship for four years with Niagara Asbestos Insulation.
Tell us about the apprentice program. Yes, my apprenticeship lasted four years and then I took the test to become a journeyman. The test was farmed out to three different employers and I went to Niagara Asbestos Insulation, Insulation Distributors, Inc. (IDI) and Claxton under Red Alderdice.
What were your general duties as an apprentice? We had to carry boxes, mix cement, sweep, clean and do whatever the journeyman wanted us to do.
When you took the test to become a journeyman, whom did you work for? You worked with a journeyman, and the employer had to attest that you could do journeyman work. The test took three weeks, and at the time I was living on the East Side of Buffalo (Genesee and Bailey).
Who supervised your test? Jimmy Gram at Insulation Distributors, Inc. (IDI), Bob Hadley at Claxton and no one at Niagara because I was already working there.
Over the years you were in the Union working for Niagara as a journeyman, who were the “old timers” among journeymen? Larry and Freddie Pask, Larry Koenig, Mel Solly, Vern Solly, Tim Cummings, Sr., Ollie Gram, Witold (Vito) Sosnowski, Charlie and Dan Borucki, Bob Kilburn, Harry Kelly, Joe Walters, and Fay Skadan.
As a journeyman working for Niagara, did you work at Bethlehem Steel? Yes, but I also worked at Donner Hanna coke ovens. I wore the clogs there.
When you worked at Donner Hanna, were you a journeyman? I worked for Niagara as an apprentice and as a journeyman. I worked at Donner Hanna as an apprentice and later, as a journeyman. I worked for Niagara 99% of the time, until I retired.
Tell us about your work at Donner Hanna. I was at Donner Hanna starting in 1961. The first battery when you went into the gate started to be built in the late 1950’s. Construction on that came to a halt for a period of time, and then construction resumed and I worked on that battery as a helper.
What did you do on top of the coke ovens at Donner Hanna? There were steam lines that ran the length of the battery. These steam lines went into stacks, and flames would periodically shoot out of these stacks that were eventually put out with steam. You had to wear clogs because it was so hot up there. That is all they provided you with. If you stood on them with just your shoes, your feet would start to burn and you would have to run to the end. I wore the clogs up there. I am amazed anyone could work on top of the ovens for more than a few years and still be alive with that soot and smoke.
Let’s discuss local Union activities. When did the Local No. 4 Union meet? The local Union met every month and those meetings were open to everyone in the Union. Sometimes there were disciplinary hearings held behind closed doors.
Was there an annual picnic? Oh yeah, local Union picnics were held all over Western New York. The Union also held a national annual convention in different places all over the U.S. I was not that active in the Union, so I didn’t go to the convention.
Did you socialize in the Union with other members? Oh yeah. There was no softball league or anything like that, but we would go out. I traveled most of the time, and there were usually four to five guys on a job if it was a good-size job. We would go out, drink and poke fun.
Do you have any funny stories? Well, there are a lot that I cannot mention here. I can tell you about how some of the men were excellent seamsters. Some of these guys would come in and sew the canvas covers right over the steam pipes on some jobs. You would have a good job when some of these guys would go home and use their wives’ sewing machines to sew canvas together and come back and put them on the pipe covering.