In 1949, when John Giolas was just 19, he started work at the U.S. Steel mill in Gary, Ind.
For a while, he had a plum job working in the metallurgical lab, testing all the steel. But then U.S. Steel started its downward slide, laying off workers. By the late 1950s, Giolas found himself working a series of increasingly “low, demeaning jobs” at the mill.
Giolas visited the StoryCorps booth with his sons Markus and Dale to remember the day he walked off the job and how he made a new life, despite his battles with depression.
John Giolas: When you went in the mill, the gates closed. And there was no way you were going to get out until the next shift started, and that’s when the gates opened. So I always called it a prison.
While Giolas was working at the mill, he started taking photographs of the other mill workers and their families.
John: These guys would say, ‘You do good work, this is your opportunity to get out of here, it’s too late for us.’
Lay-offs had started at the steel mill, and things grew worse:
John: I ended up in a pit of steaming water with coke falling off of a conveyor belt, and it was my job as it landed in the water to scoop it up and put it back on the conveyor belt. And on one midnight turn I just lost it, I blew up. I asked the foreman, I said, ‘Where’s the gate? I want to leave, I want to quit,’ and he said, ‘You can’t quit,’ so I stayed there ‘til morning, daylight - walked out of the mill and never went back.
To find out how what Giolas did next, click on the audio above.
Katie Mingle is a producer for WBEZ and the Third Coast Festival.