Local Dispatch: Principal reason for the right values -- a dad’s example


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I confess: I am a bit of a photo hoarder. I grew up in the pre-digital, flash cube Kodak days when pictures were taken primarily at holidays.

They were black and white, mailed in a stamped envelope to only the closest of friends and family -- versus today’s color pics snapped on smart phones and posted on Facebook for the whole world to see.

A couple weeks back I dove into one of my many shoeboxes of photos. I found one of my father taken during my senior photo session and used in my yearbook under the Administration section.,It sounds surprising, but not really, as my dad was also my assistant principalat Sto-Rox High School.

Despite the photo’s faded texture, I spotted the silvery gray streak in his black head of hair, a trait I have inherited. For the first time I realized my smile was similar to his. I placed the photo on my refrigerator (another haven for photo hoarders) and allowed a flood of memories to engulf me.

My dad was orphaned at an early age and lived the majority of his childhood above a funeral home with a family relative, and with the barest of essentials. He was a good student and earned his teaching degree while on a football scholarship. He worked at many odd jobs while surviving on “tomato soup” made from ketchup and boiled water

He married my mom fairly late in life, and they had five kids (one set of twins) in the span of six years from the late 1940s to early ’50s. We lived modestly -- hand-me-down clothes, ice cream only for birthdays, always stretching the budget paycheck to paycheck. Our neighborhood was definitely blue collar,  but many of the students my dad taught at McKees Rocks High School were from poorer families.  Quite a few of  them living in “The Bottoms” were so in need that we often donated our used clothing to them.

Dad eventually went to night school at Duquesne University, where the master’s degree he earned enabled him to become principal of McKees Rocks High School before the district’s merger with Stowe. Wow — teaching all day, taking college classes at night and managing a family of seven! I remember when I was age 9 or 10 he would be doing “homework” at the same time I was doing mine

During summer break my dad worked a factory job at a nearby steel company so that we’d have enough money for a family vacation at Lake Milton, Ohio. Boy, oh boy, we were living high -- seven people crammed into one of those old black Fords, along with two bicycles roped to the car’s roof.

Occasionally a former student would see us in a store or gas station. My dad would proudly introduce me, and it was not uncommon to hear what a strict disciplinarian he was. He was also known for his football coaching prowess.

On the night before  one big game for McKees Rocks, my dad was “burned in effigy” by rival fans. Mom explained what was happening as a prank, but I was terrified. I was a kid, and all I cared about was that I was daddy’s little girl, cheerfully running to greet him at the door when he came home each day.

I realize now how respected Dad was and how much he sacrificed for his family during that long career devoted to teaching others as well as us. One time he patched the two halves of his broken eyeglass frames together with white adhesive tape. He wore them that way for weeks, until his history class students pitched in to pay for new ones!

He eventually retired in 1974, after becoming assistant principal at Sto-Rox High School following a merger. He would die 11 years into retirement, at age 73.

It was all good. Mom and Dad were model parents. All five of their children, and I am sure many of Dad’s students, learned from him the value of a dollar and what it takes to make it in the world beyond high school. My siblings and I each funded our own college tuition and are self-sufficient, kind and caring individuals.

We owe much of it to my dad, John J. Surdock, for setting such a great example.

The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays, especially tributes to fathers this month. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


Jeanie Surdock Wicken of Stuart, Fla., retired from public relations and marketing in the health care field, can be reached at sofikins@bellsouth.net.

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