“It was noisy, and it was dirty but it sort of gets in your blood…”
William A. Lenz Jr. talks about his time employed with Bethlehem Steel Corporation, which during the prime of the American steel industry, it was America’s second largest steel producing company and America’s largest shipbuilder. Working with the corporation for a total of forty-three years, and retiring in 1999, William A. Lenz gives an insightful peak into the culture of Bethlehem Steel, the Mill, and Sparrows Point—the community which surrounded the Mill during its days of production.
Bethlehem Steel during the reign of the American Steel industry was a magnate for families because of the work it promised. Sparrows Point, surrounding the Mill was a community of Steel Mill workers, with affordable homes, shops, restaurants and community active churches. Sparrows Point was prime real estate for families looking to settle down and work for their piece of the American dream. Working in management Lenz, says Bethlehem Steel was the company to deliver on that promise, “the company took care of the people…it wasn’t one of those—people getting sick and dying and everything—they took care of them.”
Sparrows Point, a largely segregated community during its prime, saw the evolution of the Civil Rights movement and saw many families, both blacks and whites that not forcefully but happily came together for the production of the Steel Mill and the large benefits that it promised its workers. Lenz’s recollection of Bethlehem Steel and Sparrows Point glory before its disappearance into history, speak of a familiar American story, where many Steel Mill towns were left in the background, overshadowed by the achievements of once, booming factories.
My full name is William Alexander Lenz Jr., but will go by Bill Lenz. I worked at Bethlehem Steel from 1956…actually, I worked during the summer a couple times down there but I started work on Feb. 16th 1956, because I finished up at Hopkins on the 15th and was married so there wasn’t anytime to play around, go to work and make some money and I worked there until—actually April the 30th…the last day of April in 1999—so I had forty-three years plus with the company. And I worked, originally called the Industrial Engineering Department and people kind of frowned upon…’ahh there’s the bad guys,’ so then we became Operations Analysis and that had everybody confused as to what we did and we were received much better—same people, same crowd, did the same job, but the change of name—everybody thought ‘these aren’t bad guys, these guys are with Operations Analysis,’ whatever the heck that is.
I worked basically on, all the finishing side, my main side was to take care of the incentive portions of—for many of the operations. I started off actually, uh working in the Methods Improvement group but then they had a big push in 19—I want to say ’56—where they had a new incentive plan that they had to get started, so they expanded the operation department and I went out in the Hot Strip Mills and then for the Hot Strip Mills it was in a Coal Mill, Tin Mill, Pipe Mill, Rod Wire Mill…and then the last operation I shut down.
It provided me with a good living. I never got to be up high, never got to be superintendent or assistant superintendent. But I became and engineer. I forget what the license title was but we got some of these people off of the streets and they had no idea what they wanted to work. And I think I got them to understand, you know, that you really gotta work. And one guy would say “well I cant get in on time” or a guy would call in and say “I cant get into work today because of something is that alright?” and I’d say “well if I didn’t want you here I wouldn’t have you here.” And I got people to realize that there is no free lunch. If you want a job, you gotta get a job and do it right. And I got a lot of people that I was able to promote into different areas and different sections and move up. As I said, I never made a lot of money. I made due with what I had. I had six kids so my needs were maybe a bit more than somebody who had one or two.