"Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information." - Edward Murrow
Darkness still covers the landscape. A fiery sunrise begins to creep over the English countryside as the gray morning haze clears. Fresh dew lays on the cracked concrete of the airfield's runway as hundreds of B-24 Liberator Bombers prepare for their daily crusade into Nazi-occupied Europe.
The damp fog slowly dissipates as the crews assemble. Bombs are loaded. Prayers are whispered. The engines are soon sputtering on the runway. As the sea of Liberators take-off and their tires leave the safe ground of base, some airmen wonder if this bombing mission will be their last.
That day, on April 8, 1944, Lieutenant William "Bill" Champney and his B-24 crew were operating as usual. His co-pilot, Lieutenant Gerald "Jerry" Barker sat in the seat beside him. The two aviators had become close friends since they both grew up in Pennsylvania. This would be their fifth mission together in this aircraft.
Officially nicknamed "Don't Shoot—Out of Season," their plane humorously had the image of a fat pelican painted on the side. Jerry, however, often called the aircraft "The Ruptured Duck" since it often swayed like a duck when it landed at Attlebridge Airfield, near Norwich, England.
Often these planes flew at high altitudes, making missions bitterly cold. Temperatures sometimes reached 50 degrees below zero. As a result, the crew bundled up in their layers of sheepskin clothes, plugging their suits into the plane's power supply to keep warm. The bombardier peered into his Norden bombsight, patiently awaiting to drop his three ton payload of explosives. From below, the now vibrant blue sky prominently highlighted the group's 350 bombers. As the squadron approached its objective, artillery flak exploded around them. The bomb bay doors opened like a roll-top desk. Whistling was heard as the explosives fell.
The sporadic air bursts caused the group's formation to become lose and open. In the distance, the purr of German planes could be heard. These fighters dove down from the sun, making it difficult for them to be seen. The bomber's .50 Caliber machine guns opened up in defense. Their brass shell casings twirled through the air, clinking, and bouncing on the hard metal belly of the bird.
A German Messerschmitt sprayed its bullets across the body of the bomber. Explosive shells hit the waist and nose. Gunner Sergeant Stein felt a sharp sting in his leg. He screamed in pain as he landed in the shells that lay below him. Sergeant Colbaugh, the other waist gunner, had his arm paralyzed, his oxygen mask blown off and his eyes temporarily blinded.
One of the four engines began to squirt oil, spilling out over the wing. The break accumulators were shot and hydraulic fluid began to gush. Jerry left the cockpit and grabbed a helmet to catch the dripping liquid, so to have enough juice to brake when landing. Luckily, the plane and crew made it back to base. Stein and Colbaugh were hospitalized. The plane was never quite the same. This unforgettable mission stayed with Jerry Barker for the rest of his life.
Gerald Leslie Barker was born on June 21, 1918, his mother's 31st birthday. He, along with his other three siblings, lived with their parents in the West End of Pittsburgh. Jerry excelled in elementary school, skipping two half years. He eventually attended Langley High and joined the school band.
When the Great Depression hit in October 1929, Jerry and his family struggled financially. Yet, with the help of his band director, he was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Juniata College at age 16. Graduating in 1939, Jerry majored in music and minored in English and Biology. According to his yearbook, he was "quiet and reserved," but always had a unique "twinkle in his eye!"
Jerry began teaching music at the high school in Armagh, PA. While retrieving his mail at the local post office, he met Eleanor Hess, a music teacher who taught in the neighboring town of Seward. They began dating, enjoying school activities, operettas, and other social functions.
In August 1941, they decided to get married. However, Eleanor's hometown church in Johnstown was being renovated and the minister was on vacation. Therefore, it was arranged that the two of them would be married at the minister's summer cottage in the Delaware Water Gap.
At that time, Daylight Savings Time was a local option and after a long four-hour drive, Jerry was disappointed to find that all of the local flower shops had closed the hour before. Luckily, when the two families arrived at the cottage, they discovered that the minister's wife had picked roses for the occasion. Jerry crafted a corsage for his bride. It was a day to remember.
However, four months later, a day of infamy overshadowed any other. On December 7, bombs fell at Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States' into World War II. Similar to others, Jerry felt the urge to fight and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Jerry continued to teach until he was finally called up in December 1942, reporting to San Antonio for training. A pregnant Eleanor desired to be closer to her husband, so throughout 1943 she and several other wives carpooled to Texas to visit their husbands. Eventually, though, Eleanor's pregnancy progressed to the extent that she could no longer travel easily.
On July 4, 1943, Eleanor gave birth to Nancy, unfortunately while Jerry was still enduring intense aerobatics in Texas. Seven weeks later, Eleanor and Nancy drove to Waco for Jerry's pilot graduation. With the help of her mother, little Nancy pinned the silver pilot wings on her dad. Before going overseas, Jerry removed the soles from Nancy's first pair of shoes, eventually carrying them with him on the 30 bombing missions that would follow.
Assigned to the 466th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, Jerry eventually rendezvoused with his B-24 and its crew in Kansas. From there, they flew the plane to Florida where ground crews inspected the bomber while officers searched the airplane for black-market contraband.
Unbeknownst to their superiors, the crew had hidden several bottles of liquor in the belly of the aircraft. They traveled from Florida to England, stopping in Brazil and Morocco along the way. The liquor was never discovered and the crew was able to secretly enjoy their libations in Marrakesh.
Life in England was difficult and tiring. Living in a small, concrete barrack with no running water, Jerry and the other three lieutenants of his plane bunked together. Their small stove was inadequate in providing warmth on bitter February nights.
When a plane crashed on the runway, Jerry acquired its hydraulic lines, ran water pipes from the base's wash house and snatched a spare oil can, eventually crafting a makeshift hot water heater. Unfortunately, it only provided enough warm water for four men to shave every morning.
His squadron entered combat on March 23, 1944. The group was typically responsible for destroying aircraft plants, railroad yards, oil refineries and ball bearing factories, among other high-priority, enemy objectives.
On June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, commenced on the beaches of Northern France. Ships were already on their way across the English Channel when the crews of the 466th were ordered to assist. Their mission, officially named Operation Cover, would not only target coastal defenses, but also weaken the enemy's transportation routes. As "The Ruptured Duck" made its way to Normandy, Jerry stared down at the colossal armada of 7,000 Allied vessels.
Meanwhile, Eleanor had not received any letters from Jerry, unaware that the military had halted all mail circulation so no news of the landings could be leaked. She later received his letters--all at once.
In August 1945, he returned to the states and became a military flight instructor in Albany, Georgia until he was discharged. Jerry returned to the classroom, teaching music and directing band at Williamsburg High School.
During the summer months, Jerry attended Penn State University, working toward his master's degree in music education, plus a course in aeronautics. Eleanor taught elementary music, until their daughter, Patricia Jane, was born on March 9, 1946. Jerry retired from teaching in 1947. In 1948, Jerry created the Keystone Milling, Co. in Williamsburg. Even though he did not know wheat from barley, the business soon flourished, manufacturing custom-mixed feed and flour.
On July 18, 1953, the Barkers had their third daughter, Evelyn Claire. In August, Jerry and his brother bought the Clouse Farm near Alexandria and began the Short Mountain Nursery. In 1987, the family sold Keystone Milling so they could concentrate on their growing tree farm. The brothers later separated the business, and Jerry's portion became known as JB Tree Farm, which still operates today under the ownership of Evelyn and her husband.
The Barkers never really retired though. They were always involved in their community. Eleanor played the organ at church. She loved to paint, sew, bake, and garden, remaining active until she became ill before her passing in 2007. Jerry directed the church choir and played in the Altoona Symphony Orchestra for almost 40 years. He built his own experimental airplane, rekindling his love for flying. A talented handyman, he even designed and built their last house.
Jerry passed away March 21, 2018, just three months shy of his 100th birthday. He certainly had a full life, collecting a surplus of memories that some of us will never attain in our lifetime. Similar to the rest of his generation, he learned from the lessons of love and pain, gaining years of wisdom, ultimately surviving and thriving in a sometimes cruel, difficult world.
His granddaughter, Bonnie Butler, summarized his life best. "Although small in stature, he was a giant, never letting size stand in the way of anything he wanted to accomplish. He was brave, incredibly smart, funny, and hardworking, the best grandfather a girl could ask for. He lived his life with vigor and enthusiasm, using all of his considerable gifts to make the world a better place."
The day is quiet. The distant rustle of a flag can be heard above, birds chirping. The warm light beams down, causing the dew covered tombstones to sparkle in the sun. Their white-marbled outlines cast a gray darkness over the swaying blades of green grass. The Angel of Peace watches over the cross-shaped shadows, holding a laurel of victory. Even though the men who lay below this hallowed ground never witnessed serenity, they presented the world with honorable deeds and undying sacrifices which should be remembered by all.
The Second World War was perhaps the most notable historic event of the 20th century from several perspectives. Almost 420,000 Americans lost their lives during the conflict. It affected places, people, and our world as it is today. Fathers, sons, and brothers were lost. Households shattered. Some families felt it fitting and appropriate that their deceased loved ones stay overseas to be buried with their fellow, fallen brothers. Today, there are 14 American cemeteries located in Europe and Asia, dedicated to the men and women who perished.
One such shrine is the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium. This 57-acre resting place holds almost 8,000 soldiers, 600 of them unknown. Thousands of people visit Henri-Chapelle each year. Most seek comfort and closure on this emotional pilgrimage. Some are Americans, walking in the footsteps of a family member or friend. Others enter to pay tribute, honoring those who helped liberate Europe from its tyrannical dictatorship. Hans and Marloes Jaket, a couple from the Netherlands, had visited the cemetery several times. "We always laid flowers when we went. Sometimes we placed them near the flag or at the grave of an unknown soldier as a way to honor all of them," Marloes said.
When the Jakets heard of Henri-Chapelle's grave adoption program, they were eager to participate. Hans and Marloes eventually contacted the American Overseas Memorial Day Association and after some time on a waiting list, finally received a name. Not long after, they traveled to Henri-Chapelle to visit the infantryman who lay beneath their assigned tombstone.
The name King E. Bailey was etched into the smooth marble. According to the grave marker, this Pennsylvanian served with the 4th Infantry Division and was ultimately killed in action on November 18, 1944. Eerily enough, this was the same date Marloes' brother was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1996. As a result, Marloes feels an extra special connection to King. "I was so shocked. King was instantly close to our hearts," Marloes declared.
The Jakets are fascinated with World War II. Hans goes to Bastogne every December to observe the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. He joins history tours, visits museums and meets with veterans. The couple also participates in World War II reenacting. Even though it is less common in the Netherlands than in the U.S., Marloes believes that everyone can learn from history hands-on.
"Some people only read books, others collect things. We visited graves a long time before we got into reenacting," Marloes said. "But when you explain to people what reenacting is, they are excited and have respect for it. It is so important to tell everyone, old and young, that the war was terrible. It should never happen again."
In a quest to learn more about their adopted veteran, Marloes sought for reenacting groups who portrayed the same regiment and division as King. The Furious Fourth World War II Living History Group appeared in her search. Based in Altoona, the group interprets the lives and struggles of the average foot soldier of the 4th Infantry Division. The organization participates in living history encampments, school talks, formal lectures, and reenactments.
Marloes eventually contacted the Furious Fourth via Facebook to see if she could find out more information about King. Where exactly was he from? Where was he killed? And how did he meet his end? The group's event coordinator, Jared Frederick, also a Penn State Altoona History instructor, responded to her inquiry. What he discovered shocked everyone, including himself.
"One out of every twelve people who served in uniform during World War II was from Pennsylvania, but the fact that King Bailey was born in Altoona and raised in Claysburg, I found to be surreal. I almost fell out of my chair. It was like it was meant to be," Frederick exclaimed. King was from Jared's own hometown!
Frederick found a wide-variety of newspaper clippings and documents, ultimately finding the missing pieces to the puzzle. It gave his caretakers an insightful understanding of who the man really was. Frederick shared what he discovered.
King E. Bailey was born August 31, 1916 in Altoona. Along with his parents, Fred and Elise, he and his siblings lived in Claysburg. King graduated from Claysburg High School in 1935. He later worked as a brick and stone mason at the General Refractories Plant in Claysburg.
In December 1941, the Japanese military struck a surprising blow against the United States' airbase at Pearl Harbor. King, along with almost 9,000 other Blair Countians, felt the patriotic urge to join. He enlisted in the Army on March 3, 1942. After completing some rigorous training at several military bases, King eventually was shipped overseas in December 1943.
On the early morning of June 6, 1944, Allied ships floated in the English Channel, waiting for the rainy weather to clear before beginning their crusade of liberation. The great task soon began as soldiers stormed the soggy beaches of Normandy.
King landed on Utah Beach with the 8th Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division. As they pushed through the hedgerow country behind the beachhead, the unit found themselves in close-quarter combat. It was while in this rough terrain that King was wounded on June 22nd. He was evacuated back to England to recover and would return to the battlefield in early September.
Frederick found all of this and more while researching King. However, this gold mine of historical detail did not end here; it offered an additional surprise. He soon discovered that King Bailey had a nephew of the same name who still lives in the Claysburg area. The namesake, who was born in 1947, was eager to learn more about the uncle whom he had never met. "My father always said that he and I were alike in many ways. I was told that he was a gentleman, athletic, a real-sportsman, and very well-liked at school," Mr. Bailey reflected.
Frederick explained to Mr. Bailey how his uncle probably died. "King died in combat while the 4th Infantry Division was in the thickly wooded Hürtgen Forest in November 1944. Known as 'the death factory' by those who fought in it, there was a high probability you wouldn't come out unscathed if you went in," Frederick revealed. Such was the case with King Bailey, who was possibly killed by mortar or small arms fire as his men attempted to push through German barbed wire.
Mr. Bailey was astonished that someone adopted his uncle's grave. "I'm very appreciative and amazed that the people over there care. It is great that they [the Jakets] can honor and, in a way, repay the wonderful deeds of those G.I.s who gave so much. I'm happy that I'm lucky enough to have such kind people doing that for us," Mr. Bailey expressed appreciatively.
Now, the Bailey family has become motivated to dig deeper into their family history. "This discovery has started a whole new interest in him and has revived the past for some of my relatives. I have learned a great deal myself," Mr. Bailey acknowledged. Just recently, one of his cousins, who was quite young at the time, told him that she corresponded with King while he was overseas and is planning on sharing those letters with him.
Frederick believes that anyone can learn from individual stories like this. "It allows us to relate to the past easier," he commented. "We can place ourselves in the shoes of the men and women who attended the same schools, worked the same fields, and lived in the same houses as us."
However, even though the individual story is meaningful, Mr. Bailey, too, believes the broader scope is as equally significant. "It is important for people to realize that he was just one soldier that had his life interrupted by this horrible war. Some came back, but sadly he didn't," he noted. "Hitler and Mussolini looked down on people and believed themselves better. I'm proud that my uncle was one person who tried to stop them from stepping on others."
The Jakets will always be eternally appreciative of the sacrifices made for them and even though the fallen liberators of Henri-Chapelle are far from home, family is never too far away. "We have to respect and honor those from a distant country who gave their lives for freedom in Europe. They are buried far away from family and friends, but side by side with their buddies," Marloes observed. "Their families can't take care of them, so we will do it for them. We mustn't forget."
All of us look for and desire the American Dream. Through determination, hard work, and perseverance, countless immigrants throughout American history have accomplished greatness, prosperity, and happiness. They bring with them a wide-variety of art, fashion, and food, mixing different aspects of the world into a massive cultural melting pot that forms the diverse America we know and love. This idea is not only present on the national stage, but locally in the heart of the Alleghenies.
The Grippi family is one such success story and folks in the southern part of Blair County have welcomed them with open arms. Originally from Villagrazia di Carini near Palermo, Sicily, the family's delicious homemade recipes have attracted a loyal following to their two restaurants in Roaring Spring and Newry.
Frank Grippi traveled to America in 1996 and initially worked with his sister and brother in-law at their local pizza shop near Hanover. It was his hope to make enough money to bring the rest of the family to America. Frank's wife, Maria, and their two children, Francesca and Paolo, who were teenagers at the time, were finally able to join him in America with only a few suitcases.
Frank and Maria ultimately purchased the Original Italian Pizza (OIP) on East Main Street in Roaring Spring from Frank's cousin in 2002. The business was then, and continues to be a family venture. Even daughter in-law, Lara Grippi, who officially joined the family in 2014, occasionally helps her husband, Paolo, and the family with their two pizza shops. "When Maria, Francesca and Paolo came over from Italy to be with Frank, the three of them hardly knew any English and yet the community was very welcoming of them," Lara said.
In February 2015, the family decided to open a second location on Dunnings Highway in Newry, naming it Mamma Mia's Pizza and Restaurant. Paolo and Francesca now help operate the two shops alongside their parents, often alternating locations and working 80 plus hours a week. "They all work themselves to the bone super long hours every week and deserve any recognition they can get for all their hard work and the sacrifices they have made over the years," Lara said.
Their diligence is rewarded in the end. Through creating authentic Italian cuisines and providing excellent service, OIP and Mamma Mia's have become community staples, forming a loyal base. "We try to make everyone comfortable, and being a small family business we make good relationships with customers," Lara said.
Even though both restaurants offer the same menu, new items are occasionally added. The family encourages feedback, ultimately adapting and enhancing their authentic menu, and even sometimes customizing orders when requested. "Maria makes a lot of the dishes herself, including the soups, which are her own recipes made from scratch, as well as the eggplant parmesan, lasagna, meatballs, and desserts like tiramisu, cannoli, and Sicilian cheesecake," Lara said. Overall, both locations take reservations and provide deliveries, while also welcoming walk-ins and take-outs. They also offer catering, which is especially good for large parties.
The Grippi family is proud of their heritage, pleased with their accomplishments, and will continue to build their family tradition. Lara humorously concluded, "Paolo and I are actually expecting a baby now and are proudly carrying on the next generation of pizza maker in the Grippi family."
Altoona's original business district was once a lively hub of activity. Beyond standing as a center of shopping, commerce and industry, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues flourished as focal points of art and culture. No less than ten movie playhouses once lined the streets. Galleries, music shops and photography studios have emerged and disappeared. Decades later, the traces of these artisans and entrepreneurs remain proud symbols of a city that has managed to hold onto some of its past artistic vitality.
Non-profit organizations such as the Altoona Community Theatre (ACT) are deeply rooted in downtown culture. With its earliest origins stemming to the 1920s, the acting ensemble formally established itself in 1948. Sharing a presence downtown, while completely worthwhile, is not without its challenges. Steven Helsel, the operations manager at ACT says, "It is a gradual process that is occurring and hopefully everyone continues to help the downtown grow even more."
In the end, ACT strives to create quality entertainment with "local people performing for local people," Helsel says. Citizens of all ages become engaged with their productions as well as the rich historical character of the Mishler Theatre. Nurturing those connections is a compellingly worthwhile endeavor.
The alliance formed between ACT and the Blair County Arts Foundation (BCAF) saved one of Altoona's most enduring icons in the 1960s. As massive downtown demolitions under the disguise of "urban renewal" forever altered the city landscape, the historic Mishler Theatre too faced seemingly imminent destruction. However, thanks to a far-reaching grassroots effort, the leadership of ACT and BCAF preserved the theatre for posterity.
Fifty years later, that noble effort continues. "The Mishler Theatre has become the cultural center of the city," says Kate Shaffer, the executive director of BCAF. Her organization shares neighborly bonds with fellow artistic institutions downtown. In her view, art—like the downtown itself—is central to the city's identity. "People need art in their lives. It entertains them. It inspires them. It is important," she says. As Penn State Altoona, hotels and restaurants become increasingly involved on the scene, traits of the community's once-vibrant downtown re-emerge. "All of this is changing the face of downtown Altoona," Shaffer says.
Barbara Hollander, the site director at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA), wholeheartedly agrees. "Through thick and thin…we were downtown when there was nothing. We stayed here because we believed in it." Located in the historic Brett Building across from the post office, the flavor of SAMA's setting is distinctly classical—as is The Columns located next door. "Downtown has a personality that lends itself to the arts," Hollander says.
Meanwhile, the Allegheny Ballet Company has taken residence in the upstairs of the former Winter's Music Store on Twelfth Avenue. In addition, the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, established in 1928, continues to introduce locals to the enduring power and relevancy of music. Potential is everywhere and what the community needs most is the vision to recognize that potential.
Across town, local artist Michael Allison is currently revitalizing the rooms and halls of Baker Mansion. "Every important bit of revitalization previous to the last five years has been inspired by arts organizations," he says. Allison believes that individuals with a desire to see cultural attractions return downtown have been the catalyst for this noble movement.
Many downtown revitalization efforts have gained only modest success over the last fifty years. Long term restorations have the potential to build upon those previous efforts undertaken by individuals and non-profits. "When you are involved with a restoration, you have a major commitment," Allison says. "By necessity, you need to stand by that commitment."
Collapsed walls, over-grown walkways, trash littered yards, smashed windows and dilapidated homes. These images display a ghostly neighborhood suffering from years of desertion and thoughtless mistakes. The tenants have long departed from this wasteland, blindly unaware of their own self-destructive tendencies. To them their exodus means nothing and their bond with the place is shattered, similar to the broken glass they left behind. Yet, their stories still dwell within the walls, leaving us with lessons to learn.
Blair County has a very rich past--ranging from colonial history to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Altoona became the hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad's (PRR) maintenance and manufacturing activities, growing the town with it. However, like other Rust Belt cities, the area fell upon hard times, as the railroad's stature diminished. To better understand the current plight, it is helpful to not only understand how Altoona was created but how it evolved during its history.
Jared Frederick, a Penn State Altoona History instructor, believes the beginning of Altoona's collapse started post-World War II. "The rise of the automobile, the interstate highway system and air travel brought the decline of passenger rail service. This eventually brought a dramatic deterioration to the PRR and the community it built," he says.
A 1954 business directory listed over 100 businesses and churches located from 11th to 15th Streets. Today, less than a dozen of them still exist. As the railway and trolley services continued to wane throughout the late 1950s into the 1960s, so too did the thriving downtown. It had not only been the center for retail business, but also for food wholesalers supplied by the railroad.
"Compounded with other nationwide trends, Altoona saw an increase in urban sprawl beyond the city's traditional borders," Frederick says. The creation of suburban strip malls such as the Pleasant Valley Shopping Center in 1960 and The Logan Valley Mall in 1965 pulled many retailers out of the downtown. Simultaneous with the PRR's death in 1968, vast redevelopment projects demolished hundreds of buildings with devastating long term ramifications. This destruction caused many citizens to become apathetic to the preservation of the community's historic buildings. The flattening of these notable landmarks seemed like a good idea at the time, partially driven by widespread deterioration and the call for progress.
Historic preservation and adaptive reuse doesn't come easily under any circumstance. Beyond the negligence and apathy, other challenges can sometimes thwart those efforts. "The older the building, the more difficult it may be to adapt it to contemporary use," says Michael Allison, a local restorer and preservationist. Yet, Allison also notes that stores and show rooms with a lot of open space built into their original floor plan can be more easily and cost effectively adapted.
The community's attitude toward old buildings has contributed to the struggles. "I don't think that preservation was of great importance to decision makers of the past," says Pat Miller, the vice president for the Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation (ABCD). "Our historic buildings had fallen into a state of disrepair and the economic benefits of restoration did not seem worthwhile," he says.
According to the United States Census Bureau, almost half of the city's buildings were built before 1940. These older homes tend to have blight issues if not taken care of properly. Additionally, nearly 2,000 of the city's 20,931 current structures are vacant, most of which have fallen into disrepair, becoming completely uninhabitable. Unable to prevent this descent, the city is drawn into cumbersome legal battles that frequently end with demolition instead of rehabilitation.
Ultimately, this regressive urban development continued gnawing at the city's industries and jobs, driving both businesses and people into the suburbs. This worsened during the de-industrialization of the 1970s. The economic trends that caused many Pennsylvania cities to falter continued throughout the 1980s as manufacturing and business districts spiraled downward. In Altoona, the last of the vibrant downtown stores such as Gable's and Kaufman's closed. Outside the city limits, cookie-cutter box stores continued to rise in the rural fields of Blair County. Altoona tried twice to reinvent its downtown during the next thirty years only to be confounded by economic, social and transportation issues. Some sporadic successes occurred but a sustained resurgence was elusive until Penn State and the health care industry made investments downtown.
Though the railroad still maintains a significant presence, its economic influence has dwindled. Only 15% of the jobs in the city are now considered to be in the production and transportation sector. Almost a quarter are in the service sector and another quarter in sales and office occupations. Though some of this seems like bad news, a transformation seems to be taking place. The "meds and eds" growth has moved "educational services, health care and social assistance" to the top of the census bureau's industry list for the city, surpassing retail by 12%.
Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico believes, despite the struggles, Altoona isn't doing so bad, at least compared to other mid-sized urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest. "Sometimes we, as locals, get tunnel vision and only see what problems we have, as if nobody else has them," he says.
Pacifico cites the $325 million annual economic impact of tourism and the prospects of a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone that will provide tax breaks to new businesses. He also thinks blight can be reduced by a land banking effort. This will allow the city to take possession of tax delinquent properties that are often seized by speculators who ignore property maintenance.
ABCD's Pat Miller shares Pacifico's optimism and believes that a restoration of pride in the community is a good place to start. "Pick up a little, pull weeds, cut grass and take care of sidewalks. Little things like this can make a huge difference. We must create a vision that all communities buy into--like making Blair County the 'litter free capital of the country,'" he says.
Ultimately, community aesthetics affect the tourism sector greatly. People tend to not just live and work, but vacation and recreate more at scenically pleasant places that have unique landmarks and attractions. Visitation and spending in a region decreases when suburban sprawl and urban decay ensues. It also impacts jobs, the business climate and general livability of a community. This loss of vibrancy and opportunity pushes Millennials to look elsewhere for jobs, recreation and residence.
Blair County Historical Society Executive Director Joseph DeFrancesco believes a broad based coalition is vital to the city's resurgence. Rather than concede the loss of younger people, he encourages them to work with community members to revive the county. "Millennials can change that. A vacant building is not a building that should be condemned; it is a building that is waiting for someone to come along with a vision and the ability to make something good," he says. "You should not see it as a dying town, you should see it as a town waiting for a new birth."
History Instructor Jared Frederick encourages everyone to stay hopeful. "Altoona finds itself at a tipping point in regard to its future. It will never be the town it historically once was, however, there is room for much optimism," he says. "Education, medicine and tourism are essential components for success. Above all, local government must nurture downtown revitalization, as it should once again become the heart of the community."
Leland Melvin's life has been an unexpected journey. It stretched farther than any football field and beyond the typical American dream. His experience as an astronaut not only allowed him to discover outer space, but himself.
Melvin appeared at the Penn State Altoona's Distinguished Speakers Series last evening in the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts on the Ivyside Campus. The African-American astronaut spent 25 years in the United States space program following a short spell in the National Football League (NFL), overcoming some notable challenges along the way.
Melvin had no lack of childhood role models. One of them was Nichelle Nichols, the prominent African-American star from the original television series, Star Trek. Many believe that she was a significant contributor to breaking down racism and discrimination in television. Nichols caught young Melvin's attention, not only because of her groundbreaking television role, but also because of her good looks. "If there are women like that in space....I want to go there," Melvin joked.
African-American tennis stars Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe and aviator Chauncey Spencer all had a connection to his hometown of Lynchburg, VA. "They were all planting the seeds for me," Melvin concluded.
His great love of science, a superior work ethic and astounding athletic gifts helped him secure a football scholarship and a chemistry degree from the University of Richmond. In 1986, after a successful collegiate career, he was drafted into the National Football League's Detroit Lions as a wide receiver. However, injuries cut his football dream short leading him back to science.
Melvin started his career with NASA in 1989 and was selected as an astronaut in 1998, but yet again, a major injury halted him. During a training exercise in the neutral buoyancy pool, Melvin temporarily lost his hearing. As a result, he was told he could not travel into space. Though disappointed by this news, he decided to stay on. "There was something that told me to stay the course," Melvin reflected.
Luckily, Melvin's health issues were resolved and he was assigned to two missions on the International Space Station. While living in the station, he came to appreciate the diversity of the crew. "Breaking bread with people who used to be our enemies…is when I had this cognitive shift." Melvin has traveled across the country to educate and promote science, space, and technology to people of all ages, hoping to "prepare students for jobs we can't yet imagine."