Every Breath a Gift: a Memoir – Early Marriage Months in Pine Grove Mills

Larry Pearce


B. Early Marriage Months in Pine Grove Mills

I remember the two-hour drive many years ago with my wife Susan’s father, Richard, north on the new four-lane 219 from northern Somerset County to Ebensburg, the seat of government for Cambria County. Then it was east on old two-lane Rt. 422 to Hollidaysburg, the county seat of Blair. Little did I know as we passed through those small towns how many lives I would touch in careers that reached out through broadcasting, financial services, and teaching. We’ll explain in more detail in coming chapters. Nor did I know at the time how climbing that great Allegheny Mountain would come to symbolize the great work of academic achievement patterned after the pioneers of nearly 200 years earlier who “put in” riverboats down east, were pulled upstream on the Susquehanna River, then through a canal by mules to Hollidaysburg, then hooked to the Allegheny Portage Railroad for a ride up over the summit and down before once again being put in for the float to Johnstown, Pittsburgh, and points west. All this I learned five years later as I researched and wrote an award-winning American Bicentennial series for radio and television, “The Cambria County Chronicles.” (Look for the posting of appropriate family history articles in the future.) The canal/rail trip was written about in 1842 by famous British author Charles Dickens.

East of Hollidaysburg we headed north along a patchwork of winding, up-hill, down-hill local roads along the Juniata River, known for its trout fishing. Former President Jimmy Carter used to cast his line in the tributary, Spruce Creek. Finally, another two-lane, Route 45, runs north through the Penn State ag fields, but at least the road is straight and level. We were in father-in-law “Dick’s” old blue Ford panel work truck. But instead of hauling fire extinguishers and cement working tools for his various businesses, we had Susan’s spinet piano strapped to the floor. To this day I think having her beloved Wurlitzer in our honeymoon apartment was a condition for her continuing to sleep with me. I didn’t object because I too liked to play the piano, but going up and down over the great Allegheny Mountain with it was a little scary. Susan and her mother, Hilda, were following behind us in the white Chevy Impala that I had purchased for a token from my dad before starting classes at Penn State four months earlier. All went well, and we arrived safely in the tiny Ferguson Township villa with the romantic name, Pine Grove Mills, founded in 1800 along the Slab Run Creek . What a fitting tie to my Pearce Family legacy of milling, although this was at the bottom of a mountain and a suburb of State College rather than Pittsburgh. In the early days there were three mills operating in PGM, as we’ll call it: a grist (flour), a stave (for barrel making), and a saw mill.

Pine Grove Mills hasn’t changed much in the 50 years since we lived there, but the surrounding Ferguson Township surely has, to keep up with the ever-expanding State College. Just 5 miles south of that metropolis, PGM sits in the Nittany Valley in the shadow of the famous mountain for which the Penn State mascot is named. The valley runs west along the Tussey Mountain Range, along which sits the popular ski resort of the same name. In the center of town is the post office, started in 1809.

Original Post Office
Pine Grove Mills

There are two churches, the Presbyterian that we attended, built around 1857, and the Episcopal pictured below, now a Lutheran congregation. An ancient graveyard surrounds these historic houses of worship. Reformed and Methodist churches have been recently added. The village had two coach makers and as many blacksmiths, two general stores, one of which was kept by the Krebs Brothers consisting of a furniture display area and undertaking room. An elementary school complete with playground now welcomes visitors on the south end of town. The best part of this small town are the wonderful sidewalks stretching from one end to the other on both sides of the street, perfect for bikes and strollers.

Oldest church in PGM
with multi-denominational past

The building in which our first floor, furnished rear apartment was located took up the southwest corner of the intersection at the bottom of a steep grade on Rt. 26 coming from Huntingdon. There was a busy Exxon station right across the street from us. If I remember correctly, I had seen an ad either in the college newspaper or posted on a bulletin board saying that the apartment was for rent. We always parked behind the large, wood-framed building along what was called Nixon Road. That was considered “the back way” to campus, but I never took it when it snowed because the drifts made passage impossible. I felt safe living in the back because over the years, several vehicles had lost their brakes and crashed into the front of the original structure, probably an old store. This building was owned by Norm Corle, a soft-spoken, kind and religious man who I only remember getting upset when he discovered that the mattress in the bedroom sported a huge stain that was made by Susan the night her “water” broke as she was going into early labor with our daughter. He simply kept the “month’s rent in advance” we had paid him before we moved in. We understood and left on good terms.

Larry & Susan’s first
apartment, PGM

We had a side entrance with a few steps leading to an outside landing holding the door to the living room. To the right was a massive bedroom and straight ahead was a small kitchen and bath, just the right size for newly weds. The only problem was that the monthly rent back then, $120, combined with our cost-share government food stamps, $80, took my entire grad school stipend of $200. There was nothing left for non-food items, like gasoline, soap, clothing, etc. I had some savings and we humbly accepted several anonymous gifts from friends we made at our church down the street. One dear lady allowed us to use her washing machine and dryer. Another brought a bag of children’s clothes for future use. With some shame and lots of humility I must confess that I bounced a check given to our church. I often wonder if that might have been the source of so much kindness from church members.

Our dearest friend turned out to be the local Postmaster, George Lauck, an older Army vet. He seemed to know everybody and everything AND everything about everybody. I mean that in a loving way. The post office being right across the street from our apartment, he claims that he saw Susan sweeping the porch one day. After doing as well as she could with the old broom the landlord had provided, she got down, he says, on her hands and knees and began blowing the dirt out of the corners of the steps. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that same afternoon he gave her a brand new broom, government surplus no doubt. George’s wife Ruth would often hold our infant daughter Annie in church when she cried. I especially admired her for two reasons: she was a Registered Nurse who knew her medicine, and my mother’s name was Ruth. I guess you could say she was a “mother” figure to me when my own mom was so far away. We kept in touch with the Laucks, exchanging visits long after we moved. They remained our close friends until their passing. Likewise with their son Bill, who now lives just south of PGM and whose work sometimes calls him to Somerset County.

Susan took a job at the music store in State College after the weather broke, teaching piano lessons. However, after several weeks the stork came early and she had to quit. But, I was able to dip into some savings to get us through those days, but that ran out by the end of the summer, when I graduated.

State College Choral Society

Susan and I sang in the State College chorale in the weeks leading up to her delivery. I believe we performed Brahms’ Requiem, and the rehearsals and performance were a welcome diversion to the pain we were feeling: me with my studies and she with her pregnancy. We made lots of new friends and got to be around serious musicians for the first time since IUP. Susan reminds me that her water broke just days after the concert, so I don’t know if God had planned it that way or it was the stress of standing and singing. All this is to say that Annie had plenty of music while in the womb.

Susan & Annie ready for pick-up at hospital, Bellfonte 1971

We were signed-up to take Lamaze classes in assisting with childbirth. That course was especially popular in a college town, but again, after one session Annie came calling. I remember several things about Susan’s water breaking unexpectedly in the middle of the night and knowing nothing about childbirth. Babies could have come on the breeze for all I knew. Hearing Susan scream in pain in the hallway, I rose from bed and helped her to the bathroom. She them made it to the couch while I pulled the car around to the side door. I know I broke the speed limit on the two-lane to the old Centre County Hospital in Bellefonte, probably 15 miles away. State College sits between PGM and the county seat, but there were few cars on the road in town that hour of the night. There were lots of red lights, however, and I slowly kept moving right through them. Annie being first born, the delivery took at least eight hours. I still argue with my wife that the event was harder on me than her, then duck as she prepares to deck me. I do remember two things about the doctor: first, he asked me to leave the preparation room after I began showing Susan how to breathe to ease the pain. I had learned that in my one and only Lamaze class. Second, I remember his greeting me in the waiting room after the delivery. He had blood all over his white scrubs and on his white operating room shoes. That looked like something from a horror movie, but I have yet to hear that this sight was normal.

Postmaster & neighbor George Lauck with Special Delivery, Annie

I later learned that Susan had to have a D & C – dusting and cleaning, so some say – after Annie had come early. That and the fact the Susan wasn’t able to provide breast milk for her, both had to stay in the hospital some extra time. Susan and I adored our preacher from PGM’s Presbyterian church, and when he heard of the birth he joined me in visiting the hospital. One of the things we liked about him was his sometimes crude sense of humor and brutal honesty. I will always remember, when after looking in on Susan, we asked if he would like to see the baby. Without hesitation he replied, “You see one, you’ve seen them all,” and he left. We were speechless, but surprisingly, we didn’t feel offended. That was just his nature. Maybe he was implying that there was no problem with Annie and she’d be fine, or maybe he had other matters to attend to. So be it.

Susan putting Annie in home-made rocking cradle, a gift from a PGM neighbor

I suppose two of the most memorable events during our stay in PGM, besides the birth of our daughter Annie, of course, are recalled as one good and one not so good, but both also involved Susan. As I said, food was a precious commodity to this young family, so when staples began spoiling in the refrigerator, we had various thoughts: perhaps it was bad when we bought it, it hadn’t been eaten soon enough, and just maybe the refrigerator wasn’t working. We didn’t want to bother the landlord so we put off complaining as long as we could. Finally, when it hit home that we were losing money and the continuing occurrence could cost us our health, we went to Mr. Corle. He simply called a repairman and the problem was solved. Imagine us asking ourselves, “Why didn’t we do that in the first place”?

The second memory, this one quite pleasant, happened one night after I came home from night class. I was up against a deadline imposed by my advisor to come up with a topic and research question for my thesis, a requirement for my degree. As I said in the earlier installment about classes at Penn State, I had abandoned the idea of writing about how to televise a symphony orchestra. I was floundering, as I’m sure many graduate students do at that stage of study. Obviously troubled, I sat down on the couch and Susan joined me. She began asking me questions while I made notes with paper and pencil. What are your interests? What are your strengths? Where do you see your career taking you? And so on. I had started out to be a music teacher because I loved music and wanted to share that with others. I got particular joy out of composing, not only music but the words as well. My studies at Penn State had introduced me to a great deal of language theory. Suddenly it hit me: How about a simple experimental study, testing various language samples set to various kinds of music for their receptivity among members of a research group? Although I didn’t get all the details worked out that night, I was genuinely excited and we went to bed with confidence that they would be. All I needed that night was someone uninvolved with my dilemma, someone with an open mind to listen, ask questions, and make suggestions. I will always be grateful to Susan for that. I guess that why we’ve had a successful marriage for over 50 years. It’s no wonder both of our kids have graduate degrees. They get their smarts from their mother!

After I ran out of requirements for my degree, I began to entertain several job offers or whether I might just want to continue on at Penn State for a Ph.D. My advisor advised against that, saying, “You’ve pretty much taken all the graduate courses we offer in your field.” As we’ll learn in the next section, I was only at my first broadcasting job in Johnstown for six months when I began looking again to a doctorate, at several other schools. The irony of my advisor’s mindset was that a year later she called me to inform me that the Department of Agriculture was looking for a Public Relations person. I often wonder how my life and career would have turned out if I had accepted that job and returned to Penn State.

I did go after a teaching position at the Wilkes-Barre campus of Penn State mid-summer. I would have taught Public Speaking and related subjects. The college is in the northeastern most part of the State. The day of the interview had to have been the hottest day of the year and the old Impala had no air-conditioning. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, baby Annie was due for some of her vaccines. Since we were going right by the clinic in Bellefonte on the way to Wilkes-Barre, we figured why not stop there first. Understand that little Annie had a tendency to reject her formula in an often violent way, and a required shot and a hot car provided just the right combination for quite a mess. I think the technical term for her condition is “spasmotic stomach” or “colic.” I was driving, but poor Susan got the bulk of that upheaval. Let’s just say that we all couldn’t wait til I got out of that interview and were headed home. By the way, the job offer never came, but again, I think the Lord had his hand in all of it.

Soon it was late August and the end was in sight. I would have my graduate degree but no job to go to. We had notified the landlord of our intention to move out by the end of the month, and the best option was to move back to northern Somerset County near Susan’s parents. In the next installment you see evidence of a good and gracious God who answers prayer and provides his children with all they need – not all they want, necessarily. We found an inexpensive yet spacious apartment in the tiny town of Jerome, just 2 miles from the Millers, perfect for a young family.

Move to Chapter 3c: Getting Established in Jerome *

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Last revised 3/25/22 *(Delayed due to a technical difficulty)