My Veteran: Private First Class Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr.

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This Veterans Day, I’d like to say thank you to all of the veterans who have served and are still serving our country.  In the past I’ve had the privilege of researching several Pennsylvania veterans’ lives for various articles I’ve written and I’ve gotten to talk to members of these veterans’ families as well as several surviving veterans.   It’s been a pleasure to learn about these veterans’ lives as well as gain more understanding and appreciation for the military itself.

Instead of writing about these past heroes again, I’d like to mention a living veteran I  know personally: my grandfather, Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr.

Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr. was born to Josephine Pasko and Louis Piotrowski on November 16, 1927 in Liberty Borough, PA.  The family eventually moved to 13th Street in the Third Ward section of McKeesport, PA.  After the Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 that hit the Pittsburgh area, the Piotrowski family decided to move again, this time to the Christy Park district of McKeesport where Tom grew up with his seven brothers and sisters.

Ordnance Corps Regimental InsigniaAfter graduating from McKeesport Area Vocational Technical High in 1945, Tom was drafted into the Army of the United States (the draft force of the U.S. Army)  on February 13, 1946.  He left his job as a meat cutter at Cudhy Packing Company in McKeesport and went to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the army’s oldest active proving ground, or weapons testing area, where he completed his basic training.  Aberdeen was where the army tested the weapons for World War II before they moved out west for testing, according to Tom.   He was in the 336th Ordnance Depot Company, which he remembers was characterized by a “flaming bomb” insignia. The U.S. Army Ordnance Corps is a sustainment branch dealing with the army’s combat power.

Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr._1947_Manila, Phillipines

Taken with “Red” in Manila, Phillippines. Tom is on the left.

Private First Class Tom Piotrowski’s service only lasted 14 months.  After his basic training, Tom went to Fort Mead, Maryland where he attended service schools for both cook and mess sergeant.  He was then sent to Manila, Philippines where he served as a cook for six months, working in various places around the base – the regular mess hall, the consolidated mess hall, the officers’ mess hall and the stockade.

According to his Separation Qualification Record, “As Mess Sergeant on troop train supervised five cooks preparing and serving meals to transients.  Estimated amount of food needed and drew rations from depot.  Supervised preparation of meals on train.  Made out rations report and collected meal money from officers.” Yep, this sounds like Pap.

Thomas Alexander Piotrowski_Honorable Discharge (Front)Tom was discharged and sent home after the World War II draft expired in 1947.  According to his honorable discharge paperwork, he received an Army of Occupation Medal/World War II Victory Medal… which he says he never received.  Yet he was drafted after World War II ended.  (This calls for some further research….)

After he returned to his home on 27th Street, on February 27, 1948 Tom married Dorothy Frances Kolodziej, a Christy Park girl from the next street over (26th Street) who finally let him catch her.  After first living with Tom’s sister Victoria and her husband, in 1955 the couple moved into a newly built house on 31st Street in McKeesport. They had three children – my mom is the oldest.

Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr.Tom got a job at the U.S. Steel National Tube Works, an iron pipe manufacturing company in McKeesport, working his way up from a laborer to senior physical tester in a physical lab.  After my grandmother passed away from ovarian cancer earlier that year, he took an early retirement in September 1984 at the age of 56, when the steel plants in the area began consolidating and shutting down.  Today my Pap is still plugging along.  He still enjoys cooking and was an avid gardener for many years.  He turns 84 years old next week.  He’s definitely seen a lot of changes in McKeesport and in the world over those decades.

Thanks for your service Pap!


Big Dreams, Big Apple

New York City 2000The recent ten-year anniversary of September 11 not only prompted me to reflect upon the many ways my life has changed over the past decade, both personally and professionally, but it also had me thinking about those changes in context of my visits to New York City, both pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

New York City 2000

I visited New York City as part of a school-sponsored trip in May 2000, during my senior year of high school.   Our group toured the World Trade Center and went up to the top of one of the towers, although I don’t remember which tower we visited.

New York City 2000I was amazed at the fantastic views of the Hudson River and all of the iconic buildings and monuments that I could see from that high up above the Big Apple.  I saw buildings and water stretching as far as the eye could see.  Amazing.

New York City 2000A year and a half later I was starting my sophomore year at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, with  an open future ahead of me and big dreams in the field of writing.   Shortly thereafter the tower that I had climbed was a pile of rubble after the September 11 terrorist attacks.  I stood underneath a pile of schoolwork that I needed to work my way through, in pursuit of that diploma.  Slowly but surely I worked my way through college  as the United States declared war on the terrorists that attacked our country in New York, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, PA – only an hour away from St. Vincent.

During the fall of 2003, while I was in my senior year at St. Vincent, the editor of the Latrobe Bulletin contacted me about writing for the daily newspaper, primarily covering local government meetings in Ligonier, a historic town only about ten miles down the road from campus.  After graduating from St. Vincent  in the spring of 2004 –  English degree in hand – I was thrust into the “real world” and joined a local law firm where I served as its marketing coordinator.  I continued to string for the Latrobe Bulletin, basically learning about journalism as I got to know the local officials, learned how to ask the right questions and slowly gained confidence in my abilities (it’s still a learning process today).

While applying for jobs, I contacted the Westmoreland County Historical Society and also ended up writing for its magazine, beginning with my first article on Ligonier’s Idlewild Park.  I really enjoyed utilizing the combination of conducting traditional research and personal interviews to find information for my articles, writing in a more scholarly voice and also incorporating pictures to enhance the stories I told.

By September 2007 I left the law firm for a new job with an investment management company in downtown Pittsburgh.  While I continued to write for the Westmoreland History Magazine, I took a sabbatical from the Latrobe Bulletin as my new work schedule temporarily hindered my commute from Pittsburgh to Ligonier.

New York City, September 2007

In September 2007 my friend Holly and I traveled to New Jersey for a reunion with our college friend and my former roommate, Rémi, who lives about an hour outside New York City.  During one of our excursions into the city, we visited Ground Zero.

New York City, September 2007As I peeked in through the fencing, I saw a much different, somber and disillusioned view from street level this time around.  I saw this huge New York City, September 2007wound that New York was struggling to clean up so that the city – and the country – could heal.   I was starting to feel that way myself.  In terms of figuring out who I am and who I want to be, my twenties have been a very difficult decade.

In spring 2008 I resumed covering meetings for the Latrobe Bulletin and began to write features for them as well as for the Ligonier Echo, the town’s weekly newspaper.  I try not to let my assignments for both papers conflict with each other.  It’s worked out well so far.   Weekly and daily newspapers both have their advantages and disadvantages, so I think it’s great that Ligonier has both that cover its news.

I continued to spend a lot of time in Ligonier researching I continued to write for the Westmoreland History Magazine, producing lengthy articles on notable historical personages and places in Westmoreland County, including drive-in theaters, 19th century opera houses and teenage hangouts.  Local history is really fun to research, although it can be maddening to try to find traces of people, places and things that are long gone and not very well documented.  But I love a challenge.

I found a mentor and a friend in Shirley Iscrupe, the Pennsylvania Room archivist at the Ligonier Valley Library, who encouraged me to turn my county drive-in theater article into a full-fledged exhibit celebrating past and present drive-in theaters throughout Pennsylvania.  True to form, I took on difficult challenge – incredibly stressful yet exhilarating – that had me taking pictures, borrowing equipment and running all over the county and the state in order to get the full drive-in experience from several of those vintage roadside attractions.

With the turn of another year, I decided that I needed to step up my game.  In 2011, I started covered more meetings and writing more features for the newspapers, which led me on more adventures, both literally and intellectually.  This past spring, I stepped into the role of education correspondent for the Tube City Almanac, an online journal covering news and events in McKeesport, PA, where I grew up and went to school.

I noticed that things started to progress at a more rapid pace.  Looking back on my portfolio of work and the friendships and associations I built during my eight-year freelance writing career, I can see that all of my hard work and experience have paid off.  Eight years ago I wouldn’t have jumped in the car and traveled to the state archives in Harrisburg or the National Archives in Washington D.C. to do research or gathered enough courage to approach Roger Daltrey for an interview (still waiting for my interview… just saying).  I just have to keep moving forward and not be afraid to pursue those big goals.

New York City, September 2011This past September I spent another weekend in New York City with a few of my girlfriends.  Among our various adventures, we made time to visit the National September 11 Memorial.  It was a gloomy, dreary Saturday, but the rain held off long enough for us to spend some time around theNew York City, September 2011 two reflection pools at the former sites of the north and south towers.  I was really happy we visited the memorial.  Although many people were visiting the memorial that day, it was quiet and peaceful, with a general feeling of respect permeating the site.  It was definitely a place for reflection… along with hope.

I entered college – young, naive, inexperienced – and experienced the choices, responsibilities and  hardships of adulthood after I graduated.  But here I am, ten years later, employed and focused on my avocation and personal interests that fulfill me.   I’ve got my usual monthly writing commitments as well as some exciting long-term New York City, September 2011projects that I have planned for the next year.  Also, despite all of the hardships I’ve seen my country go through in the past decade – the terrorist attacks, the ongoing wars halfway around the world, the global economic downturn – I am still optimistic that I can find my way in this world.  I have big dreams.