Russell W. Gibbons

In Memoriam


Russell W. Gibbons

Born October 14, 1931; Died September 24, 2010

clip_image001Russ Gibbons died in Pittsburgh the early morning of Friday September 24, 2010. Born in Hamburg, NY, he worked summers in a local steel mill and joined the United Steelworkers in 1949.  He graduated in liberal arts from Ohio Northern University and became a journalist and editor of the Orchard Park Press from 1956-59. He developed a close friendship with Joe Molony, New York State steelworker union director and through his help was hired by the United Steel Workers of America in 1965 and moved to Pittsburgh. He became the editor of Steelabor and was Director of Communications for the union from 1978 to 1987 when he retired. A devoted family man, he married Louise Samulski in 1957. They had two children, Mark and Faith. After the death of his first wife, he married Charlotte Ziringer in 1972. They had two children together, Kim and Ryan.

Gibbons was a devout social justice Catholic, a member of St. Scholastica parish in Fox Chapel. He often wrote on labor and politics for liberal Catholic journals including Commonweal, the National Catholic Reporter, and the Catholic Worker, was published in The Nation and other periodicals. He was a friend and admirer of Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, Father Gary Dorsey and Father Jack O’Malley. His friendship with Joe Maloney and commitment to Catholic social justice ideals led him to get the USW to establish “The Joe Molony Lecture Series” at the University of Notre Dame “to expose Notre Dame students to leaders from the labor and progressive community.”

A man of many causes and passionate commitments, Russ became the executive director of the Frederick Cook Society in 1993 and created Polar Priorities as its annual Journal. The society championed the cause of Frederick Cook as the true discoverer of the North Pole over the claims of Admiral Peary. He also edited Chiropractic Age, a publication of the Association for the History of Chiropractic, which documented the struggle of chiropractic to be recognized as legitimate practice by the medical school establishment.

Russ’s central passion was the preservation of labor history and the promotion of public education about the struggles and sacrifices of those who fought to raise the living, health and safety standards of workers. A founder of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society, organized in 1973 to commemorate the Lattimer Massacre of 22 immigrant coal miners in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania, he helped guide the organization toward a statewide mission. Elected vice-president of the society at its 1974 founding meeting, he later served as president, but most notably he edited and wrote much of the society’s annual publication. Pennsylvania Labor History Notes (1974 -l 1996) became the Pennsylvania Labor History Society Journal (1997-2009), the name change reflecting its expansion in size and content including stunning color covers over the past decade. He worked closely with the Society’s officers: Rosemary Trump (SEIU), president, and George Pinkey (USW), vice-president. Penn State’s retired anthracite historian Harold Aurand and former Bethlehem Steel pipefitter George Pinkey were with him when he collapsed after the Altoona Blair-Bedford Labor Council dinner commemorating the 1922 Railroad Shopmen’s Strike centered in Altoona. Regrettably he missed the Society’s tour of the extraordinary series of bronze markers erected by the former coal mining town of Lilly. Russ’s last Journal celebrated Lilly as a stellar example of a working-class community that understands and appreciates the significance of its own history. As Russ was being treated by the EMT men, he wanted to know if they were union.

Mention of brochures and journals begs a description of the extraordinary twenty year relationship between Russ Gibbons and the Steel Valley Printers a union cooperative print shop run by Mike Stout with Lloyd Cunningham and Greg Mowry. Russ at the peak of his post-USW retirement in the 90s and 2,000s was editing a good half-dozen magazines and journals with passion and professionalism, besides churning out dozens of brochures and flyers for various non-profit fundraisers like Just Harvest and the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Mike Stout who was the last elected Head Grievanceman at the Homestead Steel Works until it was closed in 1986 says: “When it came to dislocated workers, Russ walked the walk, he didn’t just talk the talk.” His print shop in the old building by the High Level “Homestead Grays” Bridge, across from the 1941 Steel Workers Organizing Committee’s tribute to the unionists of 1892, in a crowded, frenetic, sweaty workplace that became Russ’s home away from home, his office. He donated a poster of Norma Ray for the wall and the classic “Is your bathroom breeding Bolsheviks?” poster for its restroom. He went up to the print shop every Wednesday after our communal breakfast bringing work, new revisions and old deadlines. He remained a working journalist to the end.

When the mills were closing, the various groups in the Mon Valley were looked upon by some union officials as something that they didn’t control and therefore something they didn’t like. Gibbons was the first steelworker union official to join the Tri-State Conference on Steel board in 1984 where he built bridges that led to the alliance between the activists and the union under Lynn Williams during the struggle to stop the destruction of the Dorothy Six blast furnace in Duquesne PA. Russ loved the United Steel Workers, the institution itself, revered the legacy of Phil Murray, loved the workers of Homestead and beyond, then and now. He was chosen by the USW to coordinate the union’s 50th anniversary commemoration in 1986. On hearing of his death, former USW president Lynn Williams remarked: “Everything Russ did in his life was motivated by loyalty and devotion to the cause of organized labor.” Ed Ayoub, former Chief Economist of the Union and close friend of 30 years, said that his dedication to the trade union movement and to the USW, made Russ “an innovator in journalistic truth and ethics about labor’s role in society.”

Russ Gibbons was a founding member, instructor and key promoter of the Phillip Murray Institute of Labor Studies at the Community College of Allegheny County working closely with its director, Lou Pappalardo, Norm Koehler, Leo Bigley, T.J. McGarvey and others to create and sustain the Labor Studies program. With the strong interest and support of Commissioner Tom Forester, it provided two decades of training and education on history, negotiations, workplace safety and health from the 1970s to the 1990s for union leadership and activists. Russ never stopped learning and contributing. In the past year he became a docent – leading tours of St. Nicholas Church in Millvale. He had long promoted the importance of its magnificent Maxo Vanka murals for labor and immigrant history.

In 1992, Gibbons spearheaded the commemoration of the centennial of the 1892 Homestead Strike. His efforts led to the erection of three state historical markers: at the grave sites of six of the unionists, the Bost Building union headquarters, and the Pump House battle site. A prolific proposer of state historical markers, he authored proposals for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (Grant Street); the founding convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (on the North Side near Martin Luther King School); the 1919 Steel Strike (in front of the steelworkers hall in Braddock); the marker to Francis Perkins in front of the former Post Office in Homestead; and the Morewood massacre sign near Scottdale, where Frick’s deputies shot down eleven striking coke workers in 1891, the year prior to the battle of Homestead.

Out of the 1992 commemoration, Russ fostered the idea of a foundation to promote education and interpretation around the history and actuality of the labor movement at the Pump House, the central battleground at the 1892 Homestead battle. He was a tireless organizer of events and produced a yearly newsletter for the Foundation. In 2006, eschewing what he called “the Papa Doc Syndrome” of leaders who become presidents of organizations for life, he asked Charles McCollester to become the foundation president. He then focused on the establishment of the USW-supported Bernie Kleiman Lecture held each July around the strike date. Up until a couple of weeks ago, Russ could be found at the table Eat ‘N Park Homestead with the “Pump House Gang” of activist scholars: Rosemary Trump, Joel Woller, Steffi Domike, Joel Sabadasz  Jim Hohman, Dave and Marlena Demarest, Millie and Bill Beik, Mike and Stephanie Stout, Joe and Delsa White, Peter Oresick, Peter Gilmore and Bill Yund, with Russ venting his spleen at the effrontery of the rich and the disgraceful compromises of politicians who claim to be the workers’ friends. Then he’d say: “I’m heading over to the Print Shop. What do we need to get done?”

Hail fellow workman! Death has no dominion!

Charles McCollester

No flowers  please! – “Bread in place of Roses” – contributions to Just Harvest : 1618 Terminal Way, Pittsburgh PA 15219