Being from a poor family, I always had jobs, beginning with a Cleveland News newspaper route at eight years old. I had what seemed like five customers spread out over about ten miles. Every News route was like that. Later I carried the Press. I never did deliver the Plain Dealer because delivery was early in the morning and I had evening jobs. I worked in a soda parlor, worked at the Food Town on Broadway all through high school, and I set pins at Marcelline Tavern on East 71st Street.
That job started when I was about twelve. We were paid two cents a line. No one wanted to work the ladies’ league on Saturday afternoon, but being one of the youngest there I got stuck with it. It’d take forever. They’d take three hours to play a game that guys would play in one. When you set pins, there’s a wall between the alleys and a pit where the pins fall. You’d have to jump in, pick up the pins, look at the ones standing, and put the knocked-down pins in the rack above the lane. You’d pull the thing down to set the pins. Then you had to sit on the ledge between lanes and hold your legs up as high as you could. Guys would throw fastballs, and the pins would really fly. The kids in the pit would try to push each other in the way, and it was sort of fun. The good thing about women bowlers was that the pins fell so softly you could stand in the pit. Sometimes they’d just fall over on the alley and you’d have to crawl out to get them.
I was standing in the pit one Saturday, figuring that, having watched the first three or four bowlers, they’d take all afternoon. All of a sudden—boom!—pins were flying and hitting me all over. I bent down and looked, and it was Stella Walsh, the Olympic gold medal sprinter. She really had an arm, too. I thought she broke my leg.
She lived in my neighborhood. I didn’t know her, but everyone knew who she was. You’d see her and nod your head. I raced her a couple of years later, when I got over being sickly. I was playing softball, she was watching, and some of the kids told her I was pretty fast (“Bet you can’t beat him!”). I didn’t want to do it, but they egged me on. We ran the length of the field next to South High School field. The tale afterward was that I demolished her, but I’d say it was a tie—and she was about forty.
When she died in 1980, the funeral was at Komorowski Funeral Home. They called Komorowski “the Digger,” from Digger O’Dell, the undertaker on The Life of Riley. On Sundays, when I was a kid, the men would go to each others’ houses and listen to the ballgame and drink. Everyone was in walking distance. When they ran out of booze, they’d send the kids to the Digger. He always had booze, but he didn’t sell it. He’d give you a bottle you had to replace. I’d see all my school buddies, going to the Digger to get booze for the guys. At Stella Walsh’s funeral, everyone edged up to him and said, “Man? Woman?” Everyone wanted to know, and the word was man. The autopsy showed she had mosaicism—male genitals and male and female chromosomes. They tried to hide it from us when we were kids, but she looked like a guy.
I worked as a caddy, too, at Sleepy Hollow in Brecksville. It was a private club then, and I thumbed rides to get there until I was sixteen or seventeen. One afternoon I was really tired after doing thirty-six holes and just wanted to go home. But the caddymaster, a guy named Carmen, said, “You gotta caddy another time. It’ll go real fast—you only gotta do nine holes.” When they gave me the clubs, there was a big leather bag with everything in it, which usually meant a good golfer, and a little canvas bag with three clubs in it. I said, “Holy crap, he’s got a kid with him. It’s gonna take forever.” Carmen said, “I told you, it’ll be fast.” We went out. The guy nailed a drive right down the middle. Then the kid got up, seven or eight years old, and I thought, here we go. But—bam!—the kid hit it straight, walked to the ball, and hit it straight again with the same club till he got it on the green. They were done in no time, and it was the easiest round I ever had. The guy’s name was Weiskopf, and the kid was Tommy Weiskopf, who had a pretty good career and won the British Open in 1973. Even as a kid, he had a great swing.
By this time, I was over being sickly. My last attack of rheumatic fever was in junior high school, and an amazing transformation took place when I was fifteen. I began to feel healthy, grew more than a foot, gained weight, and became unusually strong for a kid my age. Kids who used to push me around suddenly got pushed back. I became so athletic that, without telling my parents, I started tossing and catching footballs on the sidelines as the South High School football team practiced and was noticed by the coach. I wanted to play, but when the time came to sign up, my parents wouldn’t let me do it. Doctor’s orders. I was really down because the coach, Gene Wolansky, sent an assistant coach to tell them I probably could win a college scholarship. I wasn’t going otherwise.
I also didn’t tell my parents when I started sparring with a friend, Ray Cieslinski, who was in Golden Gloves. I could hit really hard. Without telling anybody, even Ray, I went down to the Y, started boxing, and got good at it. Maybe not good enough. I was skinny but weighed 178 pounds, so I had to fight heavyweight. I was sixteen or seventeen, and they brought in a man against me, thirty years old, 215 pounds, and punchy as hell. He just beat the crap out of me. I never told anybody about it, not Ray and not my high school sweetheart, June. She’d see cuts on my cheek, and I told her I got them working at the foundry.
Her name was June
I had just turned seventeen when I began my senior year at South High in September 1951. Because I couldn’t play sports, I desperately wanted to get involved with something else. I thought about taking the drama course, but being an introvert, I was much too chicken to get up on stage. My close friend Ray Uzell—an excellent trumpet player in the marching band who later played in the U.S. Navy Band and then for the Harry James Orchestra—talked me into becoming a trumpet “faker” in South’s very small marching band. I also joined the German Club with him, and we were both hall guards.
A hall guard’s biggest job was to direct new tenth grade students, or “flats,” to the proper classrooms. In January of 1952, a brand new flat caught my eye. She was very attractive, with strikingly beautiful eyes. After several days of nervous flirtatious glances, I got the guts to talk to her. Her name was June, and she was fifteen-and-a-half years old. I had very few dates up to that point. I was very clumsy and naive with girls (and, to some degree, with women in general as I got older). We had a few very awkward dates before I got to know her better.
She lived in the Broadway–East 55th Street area of Cleveland. I lived in the area now known as Slavic Village. Dating was no problem because I had a car—a ’39 Ford convertible with a rumble seat. Everyone loved riding in the rumble seat, winter or summer.
June and I had a lot in common. We were both Polish (her name was Koleczek, shortened to Kole). We were both from less-than-average-income families, she more than me. Both her parents worked, like mine, and she pretty much had to raise her three younger brothers. I had to care at times for my younger brother, Paul, and sister, Maryann. She had a job working at Cole’s Shoe Store on Broadway. I worked just down the street at Food Town. We were both Catholic. She went to St. Hyacinth Church, and I went to Holy Name Church. (Its high school was South’s archrival.)
June was busy with schoolwork, working her part-time job, and the cooking, washing clothes, and other jobs that went with taking care of her young brothers. She had a sister, Pat, two years younger, who shared the chores with her.
She lived on East 66th Street, just off Bessemer Avenue. Right across the street from Ferro’s foundry, and I mean right across the street—only fifty feet from her house, with forges pounding away all night. During the night shift, June told me, the men would come out to eat lunch on the railroad tracks, and they would sometimes leave empty pop bottles that were redeemable for two and five cents. She and Pat would run out and collect them, using the money to buy a quarter pound of ground meat and tomato paste to make spaghetti for themselves and their brothers.
It was not an easy or happy home life for her. She could never remember getting Christmas or birthday presents. Her life was not like that of the kids depicted on Ozzie &Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, or other 1950s TV shows.
Whenever I picked June up for a date, she was always just finishing washing dishes, housecleaning, or washing clothes. It was hard to find time for dating. In June of 1952, I took her to my graduation prom. Then I started working six days a week in the foundry. We dated a few times that summer. I liked her and she seemed to like me, but . . .
I started thinking maybe I shouldn’t get involved with someone with such a complicated young life. I really felt like I didn’t belong there, and didn’t need to be part of her hardships. So I decided to break up.
I was working the second shift. One day I left a little early for work, and drove over to her house to tell her what I had decided. As I pulled up to her rundown old house, I saw her in the back yard, carrying a heavy basket of clothes to hang on the line. It was very hot; she was sweating, and she looked very tired. She was surprised and happy to see me. And she never stopped working as we talked. I felt this was not the time to tell her about breaking up and left for work.
I thought about her all that night and did a whole lot of soul-searching.
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to get married, have children, have a home of my own, and provide for my family. And as dumb as I was back then, I knew the girl that I married must share my desire for a close family life. She must be a good and loving mother. My parents were very stoic with me, and I didn’t like that. June’s parents were not very loving either, yet June had so much love to give to her brothers and sister. And she cared for them faithfully—a trait she got from her Polish grandmother, I later learned.
There I was at 4 a.m. in the filthy, dirty, smoky foundry. Thinking about my girlfriend who, at age sixteen, knew more about cooking and taking care of a family than most grown women do. One who openly cared and loved her family. And she actually liked a jerk like me.
On that hot summer night in 1952, I decided not to break up with June. Instead I would get even more involved with her and seriously try to be of some help. Was I lucky, or what?!
We dated, and made a few serious plans. June graduated South High School in January 1955 and went to work full-time as a waitress at Stouffer’s restaurant on Euclid Avenue. She also moved in with her grandmother in the East 123rd Street and Miles Avenue area. We got engaged about a year later, and got married on September 22, 1956. If you do the math, that’s fifty-two years ago.
Of all the good things that have happened to me in my long and eventful life, getting married to June was the best thing ever—by far. Yes! I am lucky! She raised five children without much help from me. I was always working. All of our children, our daughter- and sons-in-law, and our fourteen grandchildren worship and adore her. Everyone loves to come to Grandma’s house.
For over fifty years I worked two jobs, I figure an average of sixty hours a week, and I never took a sick day.
June worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for over fifty years, caring for me, the kids, the grandkids, and our home. And she never took a sick day either.
After all this time, I’m still stoic and do not express love and appreciation as often as I should to June. But I take solace in that I know she knows how very deeply I love her. I’m still working too much. And so is she. God has truly blessed us.
Good Times in a Tough Job
I was only seventeen, in my last semester of high school, when I began work at the foundry, Alloys &Chemicals, down in the Flats behind Alcoa. I worked full-time on the midnight shift because I wanted a better car. I was always pretty independent. I stayed at the foundry after I graduated. College was out of the question because my family could not afford to help me.
I started playing sandlot football and baseball, and gained some neighborhood notoriety for being a home-run hitter. But I still wished I could have played high school sports. I still love sports. I became an avid Browns fan when they started in 1946, and it affected my whole week if they lost. To this day, I don’t think I’ve missed a game. I went to a lot of Indians game, too, and was behind home plate when Herb Score got hit in the eye in 1957. It still amazes me that I got to work with him years later, especially because I always idolized pitchers. When I was a little kid, my grandmother had a farm in Independence, and we would listen at night to games on the radio. When Bob Feller pitched, I’d write down every strikeout because he was always flirting with a record—never knowing that someday I’d work with him, too, and get to know him.
My younger brother, Paul, became All-Senate quarterback for South High in the fall of 1956. I had a vicarious thrill watching him play. I was so into the games that it was like I was playing myself. He was good enough to win a scholarship to Kent State University, but he blew out his knee. It hurt us both.
Still wanting to participate in athletics myself, even though I was working at the foundry, I went to the owner who let me organize a company team in the industrial basketball league. It was known as commando basketball–rough! No blood, no foul. We were good enough to get the state finals in Columbus.
I was the only white guy on the team, so my teammates gave me a nickname. They called me Spot—like white spot—which was typical of the attitudes and camaraderie we had. If you’ve ever been in a foundry, you know it’s not a place you want to work. The work is hard, and it can be dangerous. For me, it was both a crappy time and a great time. The people make the difference. Because I was only seventeen when I started, I felt the men in the foundry sort of raised me. I learned about “man things” and more from them.
They gave me my love of rhythm and blues. Most of the time, I was the only white guy on the shift; they had the radio on, and R&B was all I heard every night for eight years. It was the Moondog show with Alan Freed, the father of rock and roll. The bluesy music Ernie Anderson first used on Shock Theater came from my records—songs that I heard on the Moondog show. To this day I love that stuff.
I also developed an appreciation for black humor, especially from the countless pranks we’d pull. There was something almost every day. They’d pull stunts on me, and I’d think of funny stuff to pull on them. It could get pretty elaborate.
I was going into work one night and saw a big, nasty, stray cat that looked like he’d been in a hundred fights. He wouldn’t let me grab him, so I threw my coat on him because I knew what I was going to do. I worked in the spectrographic lab at that time, and it had to be kept clean. There was an airlock between the lab and the foundry. They’d put in metal samples from the foundry side, ring a bell, and I’d blow the air out before taking them into the lab. That night, I unscrewed the light in the airlock, threw in the cat, closed the hatch, called for a sample, and went out to see what happened. By now, the cat was really mad, hissing and scratching. A little guy named Brown no sooner opened the door than the cat flew out with all four legs right on him. Brown was a guy who used to wear discarded clothes because he didn’t want to buy them, so they were really baggy. He had enough room to pull the cat away from him and go running through the foundry, with the cat still attached. Guys were crying from laughter.
Things happened at night that didn’t happen during the day. At night, we’d refine molten metal by boiling chlorine through it. This sent big clouds of poisonous gas over the neighborhood. We weren’t supposed to do it, but there was no OSHA back then, and at night no one knew. This was what the foundry could get away with.
When we set up to do it, I would carry over a big cylindrical can, and one of the guys would have to take a washer out of it. It just so happened that at that time, my mother had a wrap with a fox’s head on it. I “borrowed” her stylish accessory and turning it into a glove, stuck my hand into its head. Then I took the bottom off the washer can, put my hand inside, and waited for the moment when the foundryman needed a washer. I took the can over and, as he opened it, I made a hissing noise while popping my gloved hand up. He didn’t react right away but stood staring like Stan Laurel, holding a hand on this can with a head popping out of it. Then he slammed down the lid and took off running.
We planted rubber snakes and hooked up plates to deliver electrical shocks. I’d come home in the morning with tears in my eyes from laughing, and I usually couldn’t sleep right away, so keyed from what we just did. I was married by then, and June really thought I was nuts.
They’d tell me, “Chuck, man, you should be on television.”
I had a good friend there, Bill Strass, who was an artist. I liked cartooning, so we’d draw four-panel cartoons of all the guys in the plant. We’d post them, and they were always a hit. The owner of the plant was a guy named Noah Butkin. We’d draw him by accentuating his big nose and having him smoke a cigar. It really looked like him. One day he heard about the cartoons and called me to his office. This is it, I thought—I’m getting canned. Noah was real gruff, but he was so cool. He put aside his cigar.
“So you’re doing these cartoons of me and everybody. You have time for that?” he asked.
I told him that I tried to squeeze it in on my lunch hour, which was bullshit.
“How much time does it take you?”
I told him about a half hour, though an hour was more like it.
“I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do,” he said. He gave Strass and me an hour whenever we wanted to draw the cartoon. He thought it was good for morale, and it really was. It gave everybody a good laugh. I realized I liked doing stuff like that.
Looking For More
I was always looking to improve myself—to somehow get a better job and make more money. So during my years in the foundry, I booked tickets for football games and the treasury balance, which was printed every day in the newspaper and worked like a lottery number. This was illegal. I hope the statute of limitations applies.
I never actually bet; I just booked the tickets. Guys on my shift would play, and one actually hit it big. One Sunday I went to Smoker’s Bar off Union Avenue. Bars weren’t open on Sunday, but cops were drinking there, and guys would come in before football games. The guy who handled the bets told me that someone hit the number, and I had to take him the money. Six thousand dollars. It was a rough neighborhood, and I thought I was going to have to do it alone. I was sweating it for days. When the time came, I thought, What am I gonna do? I was afraid I was going to get killed.
The bookie said, “Don’t worry about it! These guys are gonna go with you,” gesturing to three guys sitting there smoking cigars. It looked like a scene from The Godfather. They grabbed hold of me and took me to the car. Two of them sat in the back while the third drove. I was so relieved. It felt like I just finished a book report in junior high school.
In 1956 my wife became pregnant, and that was a huge emotional thing to me. I was both elated and worried, because I was twenty-two and not making much money at the foundry. So I got a part-time job driving a Yellow Cab. I thought I knew Cleveland, but every time I had a fare I’d get lost. I quit pretty quickly.
Then, to my shock, I got drafted. I went to see Dr. Rinaldi to see if my heart was OK for military service. He said, “It sounds fine. I think they’ll take you.” Feelings of regret immediately went through me. Maybe it was fine in high school and I could have played sports after all. I might’ve won a scholarship. “Now you tell me,” I said—just in time for the draft. But because June was pregnant, I got a six-month deferment. I’d stay at the foundry.
Excerpted from the book Big Chuck!, copyright © Chuck Schodowski and Tom Feran. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Chuck Schodowski and Tom Feran
Cleveland TV legend “Big Chuck” Schodowski tells hundreds of funny and surprising stories from a lifetime in television—in his familiar, good-natured, Cleveland-to-the-bone style.
Since 1960, Chuck has been on camera, behind the camera, and in . . . [ Read More ]
Chuck Schodowski began his television career as an engineer at KYW Channel 3 in 1960, then moved to WJW TV8 for a temporary position that lasted for 47 years. Schodowski appeared in humorous sketches . . . [ Read More ]
Tom Feran has been a writer and editor for The Plain Dealer since 1982. He was named Best Columnist in Ohio in 2007 by the Society of Professional Journalists, and is former president of the Televisio . . . [ Read More ]Big Chuck &Lil’ John