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A living legacy in steel

Live long enough, your life connects points in time. Horseless carriage to moon rocket. Party line to smartphone. Gas stove to microwave.

Live long enough, you live through an era. Your arc of days becomes a living history. Your eyes have seen what others only have read about.

I am not certain when Ron Stulak crossed the Rubicon separating working stiff from living testament. He caught the rising crest of the steel industry in the 1950s, fresh out of Lackawanna High. He surfed the steel wave long after it crested and broke. At 73, he rides the ripples to the shore.

Monday morning, he will leave his corner-lot house in Blasdell for the two-minute drive to Gate 6, Republic Bar Mill. Shortly after 7, he will take his seat inside a crane and begin hoisting 6,000-pound bar coils onto trucks and train cars. Thursday -- the day we spoke -- marked his 55th anniversary on the job. Yes, Virginia, they still make steel in Lackawanna.

He was living witness to the rise and the demise of Bethlehem Steel, the most muscular of the heavy industries that built Buffalo. He was 18 his first day on the job, 1957, with Eisenhower in the White House and tail fins on Cadillacs. The bar mill -- shut briefly after Bethlehem's 1992 bankruptcy and now owned by a Mexican company -- is a lonely outpost of a faded industry. The Bethlehem site once was a city within a city, replete with its own fire department, police force and hospital. Twenty thousand workers hummed like bees in a mammoth hive.

We are in recent years transforming to a research/health care/banking economy. When we are not selling slices of pizza to each other. Stulak is a throwback to the time when America made things. The economy was not centered around software or numbers on a screen. For him, it was steel bars heated in a 2,000-degree furnace and cut to 40-foot lengths. They became axles for cars and trucks, or were shaped into mortars and bullets during Vietnam. It was America, before manufacturing was outsourced to China and Indonesia and other dime-on-a-dollar outposts.

Stulak is part of the human line connecting two dots across time: The late-stage grunts of a vanishing industry to the keystrokes of the current information economy. Considering the weight of history on his back, he is surprisingly spry. His unmarked hands and slim shoulders are more likely found on a scrivener than a steelworker. Balky hearing is a covert casualty of a half-century of steelmaking cacophony. He combs his steely hair straight back and has the easy manner of a social worker.

The conversation is more about past than present, down to the former co-worker in Florida -- nicknamed "The Grim Reaper" -- who spreads the word of any passing, so former colleagues can attend the wake. But most of Stulak's memories mark the give-and-take camaraderie of a rainbow coalition of co-workers.

On Fridays, they cashed their paychecks at such long-disappeared dives as Rosie's or Joe and Pearl's. After handing waiting wives their cut, they headed into the bar to celebrate week's end.

"We'd argue on the job," Stulak recalled, "but then we'd all go out together."

The work that lasted him a lifetime barely survived its embryonic stage. He recalled a trip early on to the plant hospital for a minor ding. Next to him in the waiting room sat a guy who'd had molten steel poured on his arm.

"It was one big, black blister," Stulak said. "I remember thinking, 'Do I really need this?' "

A half-century later, he looks back on a legacy. He is a remnant of the dying era when a career meant just one job. The work built a life -- married 31 years to his second wife, Evelyn, they between them have five kids and a mortgage-free house. It is, beyond that, a life that connects points in time, dots in a small but significant universe.

Yes, they still make steel in Lackawanna. For 55 years, Ron Stulak has helped to make it. A lifetime becomes a legacy. Happy anniversary.