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John E. 'Slim' Petro

September 19, 2009|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back -- through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others -- at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about John E. "Slim" Petro, who died Sept. 11 at the age of 86. His obituary appeared in the Sept. 12 edition of The Herald-Mail.

"We're moving down south to a little farming town called Hagerstown," John E. "Slim" Petro told his family.

It was 1961, and Petro's employer, Mack Trucks, was coming from New Jersey to establish powertrain and engine production in Hagerstown. Petro decided to pack up his family of six and follow the job.

"It was a very tough decision," said Petro's oldest child, also named John. "Looking back, I didn't think about how tough it was. He needed to support his wife and five kids."

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Young John was 14 at the time. He fondly recalls his family's strong New Jersey roots, and wonders at his father's fortitude to make the move.

"My first memories of my dad go back to Jersey," said John, 62, of Mount Airy, Md. "Most of them are associated with parties and such because my parents were so outward-going."

He remembers an "amazing neighborhood," where the neighbors on either side had five children, totaling 15 children among three houses. The Petros would host get-togethers in the basement that the elder John had finished with a bar and paneling.

John was of Slovak heritage, but he passionately embraced the Italian traditions of his wife of 59 years, Florence. The family gathered on Saturdays, making fresh grape juice and wine in barrels while sausage and peppers cooked. Every Sunday after Mass, they gathered for large spaghetti dinners.

John remembers his father playing guitar and yodeling at his PTA parent talent show, volunteering as a policeman at local events and serving as a Boy Scout leader.

"He had five kids and he did all this," John said.

When the family moved to Hagerstown, the elder John kept up his pace. His son Guy Petro, 52, of Hagerstown, said the family maintained close relationships with their New Jersey relatives.

"Even though we were several hours away, we were always going there or they were coming here," he said.

John quickly made new friends in the area through his work.

"Everybody who met him thought highly of him," Guy said. "One guy at the viewing said, 'Your dad was a great boss. He demanded a great job, and if you did it, he would always come over and thank you.'"

After he retired from Mack Trucks, John won more friends working in security at Washington County Hospital for about 20 years.

Guy said another man told him, "If I had to name five people in my life, your dad was one of the nicest people I knew."

John belonged to several area clubs and was an active member of St. Joseph Catholic Church. Young John said his father was ardently committed to his duties as an usher there for 48 years.

"One time, he was sick at church, but he wouldn't leave," John said. "My sister called and said, 'Dad is turning blue, but he won't go.' I had to get on the phone and tell him, 'Dad, somebody else will take the collection.'"

When John and Florence's children grew and had kids of their own, the couple's home remained the central meeting place.

"You could be talking immediate family and we'd still have well over 30 people," Guy said.

After dinner, John liked to play penny ante or 500 Rummy.

"If you played cards with him, you might as well forget it," Guy said. "He had some luck. But if you lost two dollars to him, he'd give you five bucks back."

John loved to have his picture taken, his sons said.

"He'd say, 'Take a picture of me and my Coke can. Take a picture of me in my new hat,'" Guy said. "He liked the camera and the camera liked him."

John earned the nickname "Slim" from his buddies as a young Marine. He was 6 feet 3 inches tall and so lean he almost didn't make it into the Marines.

"When he wanted in, they had a weight restriction and sent him home rejected," John said. "For two weeks, he ate bananas and milkshakes and tried to gain weight. When he went back, he gained a whole pound. But they realized he was determined, so they fudged the weight thing and let him in."

Over the years, John put on a few pounds. Friends went from calling him "Slim" to "Big John."

"He was a pretty big man, but his smile was bigger," Guy said.

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