A newsmaker you should know: Educator devoted career to passions of labor, history

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In 1962, as a reporter for the Boston College student newspaper, Charles J. McCollester covered a speech at Holy Cross College.

He recalls slipping onto the stage to meet the distinguished speaker who, he recalled, was a little shorter than himself with a barrel chest. The man was Martin Luther King Jr.

"I said, 'Dr. King, I would be honored to shake your hand.' He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Young man, I'd be honored to shake your hand,' " Mr. McCollester said.

Throughout the decade, Mr. McCollester had such brushes with other historical figures, most notably John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

But it was another meeting with the civil rights icon in August 1963 -- standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and weeping as King delivered his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech -- that cemented Mr. McCollester's lifelong passion as an activist and historian.

Today, he is retired as a director and professor of labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, among other labor-oriented roles.

In October, as president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, which is devoted to preserving labor's heritage, Mr. McCollester, of Mount Washington, was instrumental in obtaining historic marker status for the McKeesport hotel where future U.S. presidents Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

In addition to the act's significance in the labor movement, he said, the designation from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission was special to him in light of his youthful affinity for John Kennedy.

During John Kennedy's 1960 presidential run, Mr. McCollester, who then lived in Rochester, N.Y., held a fundraising teen dance and handed out campaign literature at his high school.

When Kennedy visited the area, Mr. McCollester attended a rally.

"Women [had] scratched his hand with their fingernails reaching for him, so when I touched him I got his blood on my fingers," he said.

As a result of his activism, he was one of five youngsters chosen to meet with Robert Kennedy, who took them to a black church and a labor breakfast.

"I stayed until someone took me home. Bobby was very intense and very engaged in everything we were saying," he said.

At Boston College, Mr. McCollester spent his junior year in Belgium. Between semesters, he hitchhiked throughout Europe, North Africa and Israel.

His first job out of college was as a librarian in an African-American neighborhood in Gary, Ind. In a break with protocol for the library, he said, he hung photographs of King and Malcolm X on the walls and acquired works of black literature.

He next taught philosophy at St. Joseph's Calumet College in East Chicago, where he was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and increasingly became intrigued with labor issues.

He quit his teaching job in 1971 to travel through Africa, which resulted in the publication of an article on the African struggle for independence and, he said, a deeper appreciation of the continent's culture, religion and history.

His adventures including helping to dig cars out of sand while crossing the Sahara Desert and being surrounded by baboons in Niger.

Mr. McCollester wed Linda Gryzbek, who joined him for the trip's final six months, and they traveled through Tanzania.

After settling in Pittsburgh, he embarked on a blue-collar career in restaurants, construction sites and machine shops that he said provided him with insight and appreciation for workers' organizations and their trials and tribulations.

During seven years as a machinist -- in the tradition of his grandfather -- at Union Switch & Signal Co. in Swissvale, he served two terms as a United Electrical Workers steward, followed by election as chief steward of the plant.

Witnessing what he described as the slow, painful dismantlement of the century-old manufacturing establishment led to his involvement in efforts to help the Mon Valley and with the Steel Valley Authority, a grass-roots regional development authority.

After his machinist position was terminated in 1986 when the plant closed, he joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at IUP, eventually becoming its director.

He also taught in the graduate program of the school's Industrial and Labor Relations Department, becoming a full professor in 2003.

He served two terms as president of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society and is a retired director of the Pennsylvania Labor Education Center of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Two weeks ago, as president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, he led a group of high school students from Roanoke, Va., on a tour of the Pump House, the site of the landmark 1892 labor battle between locked-out steelworkers and Pinkerton agents, as well as other sites related to steelworkers.

Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com . First Published December 8, 2011 5:00 AM


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