Matty Siehl, a self-sacrificing father who like most fathers put his family welfare first, was never far from a good laugh despite hard times.
My brother Matty, Dad’s namesake, talked recently about what a difficult time our parents must have encountered bringing up three boys when jobs were much more scarce and the economy considerably worse than now. Through it all Matty, 15 months younger than I, agreed that we were never aware of hardship even though Mum and Dad were dealing with the Great Depression.
Dad was a year out of high school when I came into the world – the year the stock market crashed in 1929, plunging the country into longstanding economic woes.
Matty the elder was the last of a large family born to Johnstown policeman George “Butch” and Barbara (Rowe) Siehl. A member of the Johnstown High School Class of 1928, he captained both the varsity football and basketball teams. He played quarterback and defensive end on the ’28 Trojans gridiron team that lost a state championship game to rival Steelton. His athletic background also included boxing.
In his heyday, the sweet science was popular in the city with neighborhood boxing clubs springing up in various wards and competing against each other.
Family lore has it that Matty Siehl was a tall, graceful boxer, light on his feet, spraying jabs and combination punches. He appeared on amateur boxing cards at Point Stadium and fought a few bouts professionally, probably for the purses being offered.
On a humorous tone, I have vague memories of my dad and grandfather in tears from laughing so hard at the “fisticuffs” they promoted behind a closed parlor door at my grandparents’ home on Poplar Street in Hornerstown.
The very young combatants were of course Matty and me. Because of the age differential, I wore 16-ounce-training gloves and Matty put on the standard 8-ounce gloves. The theory was that the pillow-type gloves would prevent Matty from getting hurt, although I may have enjoyed the session more than he did.
In 1936, our family was renting a row house on McMillan Street near the old Shaffer Ice Palace (the first home of professional hockey in Johnstown) when residents began vacating their homes because the Stonycreek River would soon overflow.
I still have misgivings about a Civil War sword that was a causality of the flood, stolen from our attic while we were away. It was probably the only thing of value we had in the house. Regrettably the history of the sword is gone, but it probably came from the Baltzers and Spanglers of Somerset County, my maternal grandmother’s side of the family with a history of the Civil War involvement.
While living on McMillen Street, Dad, a welder at the Lorain Steel Co. plant in Moxham, was lucky to get a day’s work a week. Twice a week, we could count on a food packages from our policeman grandfather, who also helped his other married children with grocery deliveries.
Matty and I recalled pulling a wagon to nearby railroad tracks and picking up coal that had spilled from train cars. For extra money, we gathered scrap iron along the tracks and sold the pieces for 10 cents a pound at a nearby junk yard. We also collected elderberries growing along the riverside, shelled them from the stems and took the berries house to house for sale. A quart-container brought about 25 cents.
Day-old bread sold for two cents a loaf at a small Kolb’s Bakery store on Horner Street. I often joined the packed room waiting my turn.
We were never hungry. Sure the menu included “Depression” staples (coffee bread and gravy bread) but we also had meat, potatoes and other vegetables.
Both Mum and Dad were excellent cooks. Mother was a fabulous baker. Her apple pies were unrivaled. She used pie dough to bake my favorite meal, filling a pie shell with leftovers which might include roast beef and a variety of vegetables (potatoes, onions, peas and carrots).
Clothes were in short supply. I remember having two pairs of shoes (one pair for good) and a dress sports coat that received hand-me-down treatment to the other brothers.
Matty and I agreed. We would not trade our childhood. We were too busy having fun to worry about food and the bills and rent being paid.
We “kicked the can,” played hockey in the street, competed in chess, pingpong and endless board games. We also liked to engage our cousins Bob and Don Hartnett in a game we called “murder.” Each participant was armed with a boxing glove. The windows were darkened in our “rec” room and the lights turned out. If you like quiet, this was your cup of tea. Of course, the aim was to belt someone and not get belted yourself.
My father had a huge influence on me. Foremost, he was totally sure and sought to convince me that anything I wanted to do was within my grasp. He helped mold a competitive spirit, a love of the fray and sports in general. I went through life not wanting to disappoint my parents.
Dad, who once ran for public office as did his father, had big ideas for me. He wanted me to enter politics even after I had begun to establish myself at The Tribune-Democrat. Mother and Dad rarely missed an opportunity to be on hand for any of their sons’ baseball, basketball and football encounters. We were their life.
A Navy World War II veteran, Dad wrote meaningful poetry, especially after his mother died, including one about a Johnstown flying ace that ended: “When history books are written, and they tell of events in the sky, Lt. Col. Wagner your name will never die.”
Dad accompanied himself on the guitar and with an appealing baritone voice liked to serenade his neighbor Walt Leibfreid on warm summer nights with songs of their day. Walter, whose daughter Doris married brother Ron, used to say that “Matty could have been an entertainer.”
Our dad was a happy-go-lucky type, full of energy with a handsome smile and a boisterous laugh. He was well-liked and at the center of a good time.
He studied grammar and received a certificate of attainment from Cambria-Rowe Business College.
“His love of learning and self-improvement continued throughout his life,” noted brother Ron. “He knew that education was the key to success and urged us to do the best we were capable of doing.”
In an email Ron, a retired history teacher in the city school system, commented:
“The poetry Dad produced was an example of his intelligence and was done mostly during a stressful time of his life, but it was indicative of his feelings. In keeping with Father’s Day, his simple short poem titled “Three Sons” illustrates his family devotion and love of his boys.
Three sons I held upon my knee
Three sons who mean the world to me
Three sons I know I will always share
My happiness, joys and cares.
Three sons who never could be bad
And always tried to please their Dad.
Three sons with a mother tried and true.
Could you ask anymore from God
Hopefully, these nuggets from the past will bring to mind cherished memories of wonderful experiences with your loving dad.
Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.