Long after layoffs in Bucks County, this Men of Harmony steelworker choir melts tough-guy hearts | Maria Panaritis
Men of Harmony were born in U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works. The mill is largely gone. But those beautiful voices refuse to be silenced.
We’re in a Langhorne retirement community and the boys from Men of Harmony are in a side room. They’re in Mad Hatter top hats, vests, and candy-cane scarves — a few of them former laborers at the old Bucks County U.S. Steel plant that employed more than 8,000 before imports decimated the place. I turn to the one man in a rust-red hat, Keith Summerville, and ask: “When did you retire from the plant in Fairless Hills?”
I should have chosen my words more carefully.
Keith, I would soon find out, used to sing shock-rock Alice Cooper songs while mowing his Fairless Hills lawn as a 40-something dad. Now he’s 66, and when he talks, he says “them guys” instead of “those guys” because this guy is that kind of guy. So Keith set about setting me straight real quick.
“Well,” he said with a smile, because enough years have passed that you can smile about having been left unemployed midcareer thanks to global trade gutting your industry, “They kind of retired me.”
With that dark-humor wisecrack, the group dashed to a stage in front of an audience of nearly 90 people at Attleboro Village on Tuesday night. And they sang as though the layoffs and destruction of lives had never happened at U.S. Steel Fairless Works a generation ago.
They sang in rich, resonant harmony. They sang the way steel guys would sing with this same group 68 years earlier, when the owners of the mill decided its men were working such long hours they might as well have a choir.
They sang, as they have across the region for years now, even though the industrial behemoth that birthed their group — and Levittown itself — long ago abandoned them.
They sang — and will continue to sing — because no one can take away your music. Not even a cruel downsizing economy.
Postal workers. A Marine veteran. Teachers. An electrician with a bass voice richer than dark chocolate. A call center worker and a retired computer specialist. All of them have found one another since U.S. Steel cut its ties with the group maybe 30 years ago. They all sing alongside the only two former steelworkers left in the group, Keith and fellow tenor pal Bob Thompson of Levittown.
All are bound by the transcendent glue that is music, and the sense that they all, even those with no direct ties to the old steel mill along the Delaware River, remain defined by the industry that built their hometowns: Levittown, Morrisville, Fairless Hills.
“We used to have six or seven of us who lived in New Jersey who used to work at the mill,” said retired letter carrier Rich Behrmann, who delivers beautiful solos in German. But those members have died. Or, as hammy bass-singer-jokester Dave Burkhardt, a 67-year-old industrial safety consultant from Morrisville, put it:
“They’re singing in the choir eternal.”
“My grandfather was a conductor on the [steel mill] railroad and was a member of the chorus,” said Fairless Hills landscaper-tenor Brandon Schadler as I quizzed the group afterward. Brandon is 34.
It was three decades ago that U.S. Steel, in the throes of shutting down the bulk of its local operations after hitting a peak in the 1970s, stopped supporting the in-house chorus it had founded and funded in Bucks. The manufacturer blamed imports for destroying business.
The singers, though, wouldn’t let the group die. They formed a nonprofit to take in just enough money to pay a choir director and pianist. With each year, they find new members through word of mouth; they’re now up to 28.
Keith Summerville joined only after his next-door neighbor suggested it 18 years ago, long after he’d been let go by U.S. Steel in 1986. He’d never sung with anyone before. He says it feels amazing.
“It kind of makes you wanna cry,” he told me.
None other than Keith’s daughter is now at the helm of the choir. Her name is Lee Neamand, she’s 44, and she still lives in Levittown, despite years spent as a marching band director in New Jersey and now as a public school district administrator up in New Brunswick.
Their impeccable harmonies are what caught my attention this past weekend when I was at Narberth’s annual Dickens Festival with my family. I was all the more stunned when Neamand announced to the crowd that this group had its roots in the old steel mill in Fairless Hills.
She couldn’t say no when the choir sought her help a few years back. There’s something about pulling gorgeous music out of these steely, mostly blue-collar men.
“They are tough. They are witty. They are men,” Neamand explained.
Music is so powerful that it transcends human differences. Look no further than these gruff guys, dropping their one-liners just long enough to create the cascading sounds of four-part harmony.
“Music is their opportunity to look at the other side with permission,” she said.
And it is ours to behold the determination of the human voice to soar, even after tough times.