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Steeling for Life After the Mill

A factory's demise has forced the children of a company town to give up dreams of a legacy of labor and settle for college instead.

June 29, 2004|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

DUNDALK, Md. — The hulking factory at the tip of Sparrows Point Peninsula always seemed to be hiring, and for decades, harbor towns like Dundalk churned out the workforce.

On Saybrook Road, where Eddie Bartee III grew up, six homes in a row were owned by families of Bethlehem Steel. If you believed in destiny, Eddie would wind up there too.

And why not? He was fourth generation in a line of blue-collar workers. Just about every grown man he knew had found a job at that plant with a high school diploma or less. His grandfather earned more there than some college professors. A job at the mill meant a new car every few years, a roof over the heads of four or five kids, and a stay-at-home wife.

But the steel industry is disappearing fast from Dundalk -- the closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant last year wiped out 33,000 of the 35,000 jobs.And Eddie has just finished his freshman year in junior college. At 19, he is determined to succeed in a new economy that is forcing communities like this -- which once demolished the local high school to make way for a new blast furnace -- to rethink their priorities.

"I have to go to college," Eddie says, repeating a mantra instilled by parents, teachers and clergy. "My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, they were lucky. They walked out of school and into a job. But nowadays you need a college degree to step your foot in the door."

Failing industrial towns that never put a premium on higher education --"a little more earnin', a little less learnin' " was Dundalk's creed -- are trying to persuade a new generation of young people that without a post-high school education they'll end up behind a fast-food counter. Here, only 4% of adults hold a bachelor's degree, one-fourth the national figure.

If the economy had cooperated, Eddie admits he would have been just as happy to apply at the mill the day after high school graduation last year. But the adults in Eddie's life saw the inevitable coming.

From the time Eddie was little, his father tried to talk him out of steelwork. His church pastor started a private high school to groom the children of the blue-collar congregation for college. Eddie's mother scraped together the tuition. And Eddie spent three years squeezing his linebacker's 300-pound frame into a blue blazer and a necktie and taking college prep courses.

Nonetheless, he sometimes longs for the old days when men like his grandfather could earn as much as $25 an hour without cracking a book.

"Eddie is on the fence," said his father, Eddie Bartee Jr., who operates a crane in one of the few remaining jobs at the shrunken plant, now owned by International Steel Group. . "What's important to a boy Eddie's age is a car and a girlfriend. If he were born five years earlier, he might have had a chance to go to Bethlehem Steel too. Maybe it's saving him that he wasn't."

The loyalty to steel in Dundalk, population 62,000, remains strong. To this day, many people refuse to buy applesauce in a glass jar if they can get it in a steel can. Eddie's grandfather still laments the demise of the corrugated-metal roof.

But much else on Sparrows Point Peninsula, a Dundalk neighborhood along the Baltimore Harbor, has changed. Gone is the company town where Eddie's father grew up, the grocery store, police force, schools and rows of small houses, their lawns stained rusty red from the factory's smoke.

Sparrows Point High School, the one knocked down and relocated for the furnace, is still operating, but with a new mission. Administrators who once paid little attention to the dropout rate now steer their students toward college. Blue signs with large white letters that spell "EXPECT" hang in every hall, a prod to aim higher than factory work.

As soon as eighth grade, the school sends leaflets home to parents, warning: "Without extra education beyond high school, your teenager is not likely to have the same opportunities that you had when you were young."

Financial aid forms are sent unsolicited to families that never thought of asking for them. Guidance counselors bus students and parents to area campuses for tours that might make college seem less daunting.

Even so, low-skill jobs have disappeared faster than the appetite for college has grown; Sparrows Point expects just 20% of its 2004 graduating class to enter a four-year college in September, compared to nearly 75% in a white-collar Virginia suburb an hour away.

While Eddie went to college after high school, most of his friends from the neighborhood took full-time jobs at hamburger chains or the local spice factory. The highest paid is a $12-an-hour cook at a seafood restaurant in downtown Baltimore.

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