Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

I graduated from a four-year vocational machine shop program at Liberty High School in Bethlehem in June 1923, just before my seventeenth birthday on June 14. My father had been deceased since 1918, my mother was very ill, and it was necessary that I go to work.

At that time, the Bethlehem Steel Company and the Bethlehem School District had formed an agreement providing that a graduate of this program would receive three years’ credit (sixty-seven hundred and fifty hours) for a four-year apprenticeship (nine thousand hours) with the company. A graduate could select the shop where he would like to work and begin to serve the fourth year of the apprenticeship at a pay rate of thirty­-nine cents an hour.

On the advice of an older friend, who had entered the program several years earlier, I chose to go to work at the machinist trade in the company’s Saucon Plant Electrical Repair Shop (SSE). SSE served to keep the open hearth, the scrap yards, and other auxiliary departments in good repair. There was a wide range of machine checked the hours an apprentice was assigned to a machine to assure he received well-rounded training. He also taught required related subject classes, one hundred and forty-four hours each year of the apprenticeship, using Pennsylvania State College Extension’s instructional material in mathematics, trade theory, and mechanical drawing. These classes were really refresher course for me because of the rigorous high school program I had completed.

I finished the fourth year apprenticeship in less than ten months because of the long hours we worked, ten hours and twenty-five minutes Monday through Friday, and nine hours on Saturday. In ten months I received my journeyman’s certificate and a raise to the journeyman’s rate of fifty cents an hour. I was very proud to have become a skilled machinist journeyman before I was eighteen years old. It was the best kind of skilled training I could have gotten.

The working conditions then would not be tolerated now: a factory-type building with windows open to allow smoke and air pollution to escape; long hours (for several months of the year the only time we were outside in daylight was at noon for a twenty-five-minute lunch break); no paid holidays, no paid vacation time; no paid health program; no retirement provisions. We did have an excellent safety and first aid program, and an infirmary with a doctor and a nurse. We also had a union representative who met with the shop superintendent once a month over a cup of coffee.

All I went through – good and bad – led to my becoming a high school vocational teacher; superintendent of a state­-owned trade school; a special representative of the U.S. Office of Education in Vocational Education for War Production Workers during World War II; a state supervisor of trade and industrial education; a state director and executive officer for vocational and technical education; and assistant commissioner for vocational and technical education for the U.S Office of Education.


Walter M. Arnold, now a resident of Boca Raton, Fla., was born in Steelton, Dauphin County, in 1906. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and his doctorate from Oklahoma State University. He served as instructor for Lancaster Boys High School, from 1929 to 1937, and superintendent of Stevens Trade School, Lancaster, from 1937 to 1941. He has enjoyed a distinguished career in the field of vocational and technical education. The author is a member of numerous honorary societies and has been named to Who’s Who in America for the past thirty-five years. In 1986, he was recognized as an outstanding alumnus by PSU’s school of education.