Deborah Rudacille, 52, was born and raised in Dundalk and graduated from Our Lady of Hope elementary school and The Catholic High School of Baltimore. Her father and most of her male adult relatives earned their paychecks at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point. A medical and science writer, author of "The Riddle of Gender" and "The Scalpel and the Butterfly," Rudacille revisited Sparrows Point, chronicling its history, the men, and later, the women, who worked there, as well as her own childhood. A compelling mix of dedicated reporting and personal stories, "Roots of Steel," was published by Pantheon Books earlier this year. The paperback is due out early next year.
Patch: What are you doing and where do you live now?
Deborah Rudacille: "I now live in New York, since August, after 52 years in Baltimore because I got a great job offer. I edit the newsletter for an autism research foundation—the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative."
Patch: Do you miss the Baltimore area?
DR: "I've haven't had time to miss Baltimore. Every two weeks I've been here visiting family or friends. And I co-curate a monthly a non-fiction reading series (New Mercury Readings) in Federal Hill."
Patch: Where did the inspiration for Roots of Steel come from?
DR: "Around the time of the 2004 presidential election, the standard portrayal of the working class in the national media was of people, who the Democrats were trying to help, voting against their own economic interest. I'm a Democrat and I was a Green Party member in the past. I'm on the left, but it was clear to me that the national media doesn't get working class people. It was that characterization, coming from Dundalk, which started me thinking about the community where I was raised. There is a lot of frustration, a lot of resentment, over the evaporation of jobs, and that was the seed of the book."
Patch: Describe the Wood Brothers, the founders of the company town at Sparrows Point.
DR: "Frederick Wood was an engineer from M.I.T., a brilliant guy who had worked for Pennsylvania Steel. They sent him to look for a tidewater location for a new plant. At that point, it'd all been shipped by rail. Frederick brought his brother, Rufus Wood, to build the town. He was the one really responsible for the good education in the town. He built the first kindergarten south of the Mason-Dixon line."
Patch: Do you think they had the best interests of the workers at heart?
DR: "I do think they had the best interests of the workers at heart. Of course, when you need a note from a foreman to buy a house that gives the company a lot of power over people's lives. They also got the Maryland legislature to bar the sale of liquor in town, which also tells you how far their power extended. You know, they still have family in the area. Frederick's great-grandson lives in Towson."
Patch: What was the biggest surprise in researching the book?
DR: "The number of deaths at the Point. From my earliest days researching, one the many surprises was the deaths that you didn't read about in the newspapers. It was always dangerous and at Steelmakers Union meetings I always met someone with a family member who died working there."
Patch: Other surprises?
DR: "The racial issue. The experience of black workers, particularly before the 1950s, is so different. They had a long, hard struggle for equality on the Point, as in other steel towns. And in the 70s, many more women came in, they all had interesting stories as well."
Patch: Do you follow the current issues at Sparrows Point?
DR: "I just met with three guys, two who'd worked there for 30 years. With the paperback being published in the spring, I wanted to bring the story up to date with what's happening with Severstal. We talked about the situation there. The guys I talked with are hopeful about making steel on the Point in the future, with new green technology, building steel for high-speed rails. But that hasn't been possible since Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy. They've had four owners in 10 years. What they need is someone committed to building the place back up."
Patch: What about the environmental issues?
DR: "The remediation issue should've been take care of when Bethlehem Steel was sold to I.S.G. (The International Steel Group) and they weren't. Everyone knew about the ongoing problems."
Patch: It's a shock today reading about early Sparrows Point workers in town just dropping a line or trap in the water, pulling up enough fish and crabs for a family lunch like it was nothing.
DR: "The people who grew up there in 30s and 40s describe it as idyllic as it could be: swimming, fishing, crabbing. Everybody who grew up there, until the 1970s, describe it as an Eden-like environment. It was rough and dirty, but they were all a part of the community because it was so small. They still get together through the unions. It's a ghost town today, but when I go down with people who grew up there, they point where they grew up and where they used to work. It's still a living memory for a lot of people."