It didn't take long for Charles Gala, a Czech immigrant who reached adulthood in the middle of the Great Depression, to become a self-made gem of the McKeesport community.
Many retire before their 60th birthday, but Mr. Gala operated Gala Jewelers, a McKeesport business that he later moved to White Oak, well into his 80s.
"When he started the business in 1948, there were a number of jewelry stores in McKeesport. They all eventually went out of business, except my dad's," said Paul Gala, Mr. Gala's son.
A father of five, Mr. Gala died last Friday in Elizabeth Township. He was 96.
Relatives attribute the success of Gala Jewelers to Mr. Gala's extraordinary work ethic, a trait that he developed young. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1917 and immigrated to McKeesport with his family when he was 3.
"He had to become the man of the house early," Paul Gala said. "His father passed away when he was young, and he had three younger siblings. He really had to be the father figure."
After high school, Mr. Gala served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era employment program for unemployed young men.
"I think that's how he developed his love of trees and nature," said Charles Gala, another of Mr. Gala's sons, remembering Mr. Gala's lifelong passion for gardening.
Mr. Gala found employment briefly at a meat-packing company, but it was in 1938 when he was hired by a jeweler that Mr. Gala discovered what would become his life's passion. He immediately took to it, family members said, and remained in the jewelry business for nearly 70 years until his retirement in 2007.
"My father loved his customers, he enjoyed interaction with people, taking part in their life memories, engagements, birthdays, anniversaries," Charles Gala said.
In 1948, three years after returning from his service in the U.S. Air Corps in World War II, Mr. Gala made plans with another businessman to open their own jewelry store. When his partner backed out at the last minute, he borrowed money from friends, acquaintances and even a stranger to open the business, all of whom he faithfully repaid.
"He was down in the dumps about the jewelry store at a local deli, and the janitor asked what was going on," Paul Gala said. "He mentioned what the situation was ... and he said he needed, like, $3,000 to open his own jewelry store. The janitor, who was a World War I veteran living above the deli, asked, 'Is that all?' and loaned him the money."
Mr. Gala insisted on writing the janitor a loan note and repaid him as soon as he earned the money, relatives said, a testament to his honesty and diligence.
Mr. Gala met his wife, Margaret, with whom he would raise five children, around the same time that he opened his business. He maintained a large family and a thriving business by separating his personal and professional lives.
"When he was home, he was home. He didn't do a ton of work at home," Paul Gala said. "He led through example. He came home and said, 'We need to cut the grass,' and it was expected of us. It was a disciplined environment."
Mr. Gala's energy did not waver with age. A devout Byzantine Catholic, he attended church every Sunday. In his 70s, he decided he wanted to get in shape and joined a local YMCA.
"He swam every day for 10 years," Paul Gala said. "He still considered himself a young guy."
But the greatest of Mr. Gala's long list of accomplishments, relatives said, is his family.
"Raising five kids and being a loving husband -- he would want to be remembered for that," Paul Gala said. "All of us going to college, all of us marrying and having families of our own -- that's what he would view as his greatest achievement."
Mr. Gala is survived by his wife, Margaret; his sons Charles of Elizabeth Township, Ronald of Upper St. Clair and Paul of Charlotte, N.C.; daughters Marlene Shields of Allentown and Lisa Cirucci of Rochester, N.Y.; 11 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
A Panachida, or Byzantine Catholic memorial service, will be held for Mr. Gala 9 a.m. today at the Daniel F. Bekavac Funeral Home and Crematory, 4504 Walnut St., Versailles. A funeral liturgy will be held at 10:30 a.m. at St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in McKeesport, to be followed by a procession and burial in Mt. Vernon Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, Mr. Gala's family requests that donations be made to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, Mount St. Macrina in Uniontown or the Intersection in McKeesport.
Marina Bolotnikova: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mbolotnikova.