Bethlehem Steel Graphic Banner: Chapter 3

Bethlehem Steel Graphic Banner: Chapter 3

Oh no, I haven't, Schwab replied. I'm already building ships for the war, it's a full-time job, and I've put up millions of dollars of my own money so my plants can do the work. Besides, how can I give out government contracts to my own company?

We'll work something out, the board members said.

But a full day of bending Schwab's ear yielded only his promise to think it over, according to Robert Hessen's book, ''Steel Titan: The Life of Charles M. Schwab,'' the only biography of Schwab and the source for most of the information in this chapter.

Schwab went home. Called again to Washington soon afterward, on April 16, he still was not persuaded as Colby, at the lunch, tried earnestly to enlist him. Grace urged his boss not to give in.

Time was running out for a 2 p.m. appointment with the president, and Colby had exhausted his arguments, so he escorted the visitors to the Oval Office. As Schwab waited, he thought about how he would say no to the president, not because he hadn't supported him in the election, but because his company was busy producing ships and armaments. Bethlehem Steel needed him. He couldn't afford to turn away.

Wilson came into the office from an inner room and immediately strode to the portly Schwab, who was dressed in a modest suit and tie, stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall and had graying brown hair swept to the right over the top of his forehead.

Putting both hands out, the slim, bespectacled president greeted Schwab warmly, looked deep into his eyes, thanked him for agreeing to help the government and called him a patriot.

Schwab was stunned. He hadn't agreed to anything. Wilson's aides must have misinformed him, or he had heard them wrong.

Still, Schwab must have known why the president of the United States would assume he was willing to take on the challenge.

From his boyhood in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania to the present, he had succeeded wherever he turned. Leading by instinct, with relentless energy and optimism, a magnetic grin and eyes that flashed with good humor, he had reached the pinnacle of the American steel industry.

He had been president of the Carnegie Steel Co. in the 1890s. Then at the turn of the century he helped organize the largest industrial company in history, the U.S. Steel Corp., and was its first chief executive. Then he took over a small enterprise, Bethlehem Steel, and in a decade made it U.S. Steel's main competitor.

The decision he made as he stood toe to toe with Wilson would catapult him to even greater heights.

Ahead lay the towering achievements of the 1920s and '30s, when Schwab's Bethlehem Steel Corp. would transform the American landscape with new beauty and utility, girding many of the nation's skyscrapers and long-span bridges. Among them are the Chrysler and Woolworth buildings in New York, the George Washington Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Partly through his unique knowledge of steel, partly through the cult of personality that he helped promote, Schwab became synonymous with Bethlehem Steel's rise to greatness.

His friend, the inventor Thomas Alva Edison, called him ''The Master Hustler.'' He was a gambler who wore a lucky horseshoe stick pin and ''broke the bank'' at Monte Carlo. A publicity hound, he had an agent and used a clipping service so he'd know what the newspapers were saying about him. He loved many women, one of them happening to be his wife. He spent millions on a pair of fabulous mansions and traveled in a $100,000 private rail car. He professed to love the working man, but forced him to labor long hours for low pay while the executives got rich. In the pursuit of profits, he used cunning and brazen salesmanship. If he thought he could get away with cutting corners, he cheated rather than knuckle under to people he considered less knowledgeable about the making of steel.

His nurturing of the Bethlehem company would fortify it for the bloodiest conflict in history. With 283,765 people on the payroll during World War II, ''The Steel,'' as it came to be called, turned out more than a thousand ships and a vast store of armaments, cementing America's role as the arsenal of democracy.

Schwab didn't live to see his creation covered in glory. He died a few weeks after the Second World War began. And though penniless in the end, he had been wealthy and famous for much of his long life.

''As I sit and look back,'' he said in 1932, ''I cannot for the life of me understand the whole thing. All I can do is wonder how it all happened. Here I am, a not over-good business man, a second-rate engineer. I can make poor mechanical drawings. I play the piano after a fashion. In fact, I am one of those proverbial jack-of-all-trades who are usually failures. Why I am not, I can't tell you.''

He might not have been anything if his mother hadn't won an argument with his father, snubbing Abraham Lincoln's call to arms in April 1861. Pauline Farabaugh and John Schwab, both of whose parents were German-born Catholics, were married in western Pennsylvania a week after the president appealed for volunteers to put down the rebellious Southern states. John wanted to join the Union Army with his pals. Pauline talked him out of it.

Charles M. Schwab (no relation to the stockbroker of the same name) was born 10 months later, on Feb. 18, 1862, in Williamsburg, near the Juniata River. Seven other children would follow. His father and grandfather ran a mill that made blankets and coats for the Union Army.

When he was 12, his family moved about 30 miles west to Loretto, a small center of Roman Catholic piety where his father bought a livery stable and got a contract to carry mail. Charlie's job was to drive a wagon five miles to the railroad stop at Cresson, get the mail and deliver it to the people in the surrounding villages. Sometimes he took passengers.

The Schwabs' modest living allowed little Charlie few playthings. One Christmas, all he got in his stocking was a marble.