a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A hero story from Webster, Pa.


Former Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Ernest P. Kline, standing third from right in the middle row, is shown with fellow classmates at Rostraver High School in 1987 at their 40-year class reunion.

A poignant story was told to me the other day about Ernie Kline, a former Pennsylvania lieutenant governor who died Wednesday of heart failure.

Shortly after taking office in 1971, Kline was confronted with an urgent matter involving women barricading a dangerous road in his hometown of Webster, Pa., a tiny village about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, his daughter, Monica Kline, said while we chatted for her father's obituary.

The small crowd of women was demanding a traffic signal at an accident-prone intersection approachin the Donora-Webster Bridge. A state representative at the time, James Manderino of nearby Monessen, was quick to recommend to Ernie Kline that the state police be summoned to arrest the women.

“Then someone said to my dad, ‘Your mother is in the middle of them,’ ” Monica Kline said for the article that appeared in the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa.

My mother and I were there, too, standing off to the side watching a news camera capture the protested. The threat of state police making arrests leaked to the women, and it only seemed to infuriate them all the more.

The police never came, but Kline made sure the traffic signal was installed while also leading the charge to establish the Pennsylvania Commission for Women.

The same traffic signal still hangs above that intersection, while it hasn’t done much to prevent accidents. Today, many of the people in this speck of a town also have no idea that it was once home to Ernie Kline.

But in 1971, the Webster mothers and grandmothers who picketed the intersection were empowered by knowing a man from their ranks had achieved something that, until then, was unimaginable in their neighborhood. For years, people from neighboring communities looked down on folks from Webster, where our family also lived, because many of them were poor, and, some had earned themselves and the town a bad reputation. This is the same village that had its vegetation striped from the land by pollution from a zinc mill, leaving many of the houses to fall into disrepair. So there wasn’t much to take pride in until Ernie Kline became the second-in-command in Harrisburg.

A year before he took office, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.

He chartered a bus to bring his suporters from Webster to a rally to hear him announce his candidacy for the office, and I went along as a 13-year-old supporter proudly wearing one of his campaign badges. I don’t remember much about the speech because everyone’s cheers drowned out most of what he said. When we returned home, he sponsored an all-you-can eat pizza and Coca-Cola party at the Webster fire hall. By nightfall, there was no denying his status as a hero in his hometown.

Four years later, Shapp came under criticism for overlooking corruption in Harrisburg that led to numerous indictments against state and party officials. Shapp and Kline were never indicted, but I remember my dad saying then that Kline’s political career would be finished because of his association with Shapp.

Kline’s friend, Bill Northrop Sr., of Washington, Pa., said Kline once admitted to him that he “was a bit na├»ve” when it came to working early on with those in command of Harrisburg politics.

“He did know how to get things done and was on the up and up, even as an insider,” said Northrop, 74, formerly publisher of the Observer-Reporter.

Kline retired from public office after his second term was up in 1979, and started a second career as a lobbyist.

A six-sentence story about the this morning's funeral for Ernest P. Kline moved a few hours ago on the Associated Press news wire that noted his devotion to faith and how mourners wore blank blue buttons to honor his habit of handing out blank campaign buttons.


Ernie Kline and his wife, Josephine, pose with Barack Obama on a campaign swing last year through Pennsylvania.

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