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Two journeys from Slovakia to the Mon Valley

John D. Lesko, center, receives an award at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works in the late 1940s.

Disease, coal and steel flung both John D. Lesko and Michael Cmar into the Monongahela Valley. There, the lives and families of these two Slovakian immigrants became intertwined.

Michael arrived in New York in 1900, stepping off the steamship Graf Waldersee and, shortly after, finding work in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Soon, he moved to Duquesne and became a laborer in the town’s steel mill. He and his wife Mary began raising a family.

By 1918, the couple’s house on South First Street in Duquesne was crowded with seven children. Then came a deadly flu pandemic. Mary succumbed on March 11.

The infection devastated lives across the globe. In Slovakia, the flu killed John Lesko’s mother. John was a teenager at the time. He’d already lost a brother in the “Great War.” John’s future seemed bleak, so he walked to Vienna, then traveled to Germany and Sweden and finally wound up in Johnstown, where he worked in one of the area’s coal mines.

John and Anna Lesko on their wedding day in 1923.

After surviving a cave-in, John moved to the Mon Valley and took a job at the Homestead steel mill. He then sent for Anna, a young woman he’d left behind in Slovakia. The couple married at St. John Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Munhall in 1923.

By then, Michael Cmar had found a new wife. Her name, too, was Anna. She was his wife’s younger sister. Anna had come to Duquesne to help care for her sister’s children and ended up marrying Michael. “It was a big deal and a bit of a scandal,” said Regis Francis “Frank” Cmar, a grandson. “But the church eventually said it was OK.”

The couple brought 13 more children into the world. Two died in childbirth and another ran away, never to be heard from again. “The total may be 21,” said Regis, who now lives in Ohio. “There’s enough chaos in a large family that not all the stories get straightened out.”

Michael and John worked a few miles from each other, in massive steelmaking facilities that cast long shadows over the Mon Valley. The Cmars lived just a few blocks from  the Duquesne Works, in a house certainly shaken by the mill’s constant pounding and rumbling.

During one workday in the late 1940s, John and several of his colleagues at the Homestead Works were instructed to stop their labors and gather for a brief ceremony. A manager wearing a white shirt and striped tie stepped forward. Fellow steelworkers gathered around John. Some workers smiled. Others remained grim-faced. John was now a middle-aged man with thinning hair, but still slender. A photographer raised a camera, the shutter clicked.

Regis Cmar has closely examined the photograph and believes it depicts John receiving a watch in honor of 25 years of service at the mill. If so, the picture was shot in 1948. Two years later, John’s daughter Mildred would marry Michael’s son Frank and the two family’s would be forever intertwined.

At Pitt’s graduation in June 1961 are, from left Regis Cmar, age 9; his father Frank Cmar and mother Mildred Cmar; grandfather John Lesko; aunt Mary Ann Lesko; grandparents Anna and Michael Cmar.

John and Michael appear together in a picture taken in June 1961. The occasion was the graduation of Michael’s son Frank from the University of Pittsburgh. John is in the center of the picture. Standing on the far right of the photograph is Michael. Next to him stands Anna. They’re both glancing at their son, standing tall in a graduation gown and mortarboard.

Young Regis is in the picture, too. He was then age 9 and wore a bow tie.

Rising in the background of the photograph is the Cathedral of Learning. The mills that had brought the families together and sustained them thus far were a few miles distant, their presence seen only in the slight stoop of the aging Michael Cmar and proud, direct gaze of John Lesko.

— Steve Mellon

Steve, a writer and photographer at the Post-Gazette, has lived and worked in Pittsburgh so long that some of his images appear on "The Digs."

11 Comments

  1. Paul Makousky
    5/16/2017
    Reply

    This is a great special interest story and is very appropriate for our members of the CzechoSlovak Genealogical Society International. We will be reliving these mining and steel mill experiences in a tour given on Tuesday October 17. For more information go to http://www.CGSIEvents.com.

  2. Mary Sykora Reisinger
    5/16/2017
    Reply

    This is a wonderful story of this family, and nice for relatives to know them.

  3. Marianne Conklin
    8/23/2017
    Reply

    Happy Birthday to my grandfather who had the courage to walk from his homeland for America and its dream.

    • Regis Francis Cmar
      8/24/2017
      Reply

      Thanks, Gina, for remembering…

  4. Jane Cappellano
    4/4/2019
    Reply

    I knew Gusty Cmar who lived nearby me
    He was friends with my ex, Babe! He lived a block from Gusty and went to the same Catholic School in Duquesne……then they all went to the Junior High School (Edison).

  5. Regis Francis “Frank” Cmar
    6/22/2019
    Reply

    Hello Jane:

    Actually my Dad’s nickname was Babe as well. I know of others nicknamed Babe back in that area, back in the day.
    As far as my Uncle Gusty is concerned, sadly he died a little over a year ago in suburban Atlanta GA. He was a VietNam veteran who was only 9 years older than me. . He led a good life, had a marvelous family, and when I was small, he was something like a big brother figure to me. He is greatly missed. Of all the 16 Cmar sisters and brothers who made it to adulthood, the only one left is my Uncle Bernie, who still lives in the Pittsburgh area.

  6. John E Cmar
    9/23/2019
    Reply

    Regis:

    Shortly after my daughter was born in 1983, Your father, “Babe” Frank, came to our home in Pleasant Hills to visit. He once told me that even though the Cmar family is huge that all Cmar’s are related if you trace back far enough. My father, John A. Cmar was born in alliquippa, PA but grew up in Duquesne, PA on Savey Street. His mother was Mary (Boch), not sure of the spelling, He had two brothers, Joe and Albert and two sisters, Ann and Mary. I was wondering if you had any information your father may have had on our side of the family tree. I was curious as to where in Czechoslovakia that originated from.

    • Regis Francis (Frank) Cmar
      9/23/2019
      Reply

      Wow! Thanks for replying, John…Are / were you the police chief / policeman in Pleasant Hills? I remember at my Mom’s funeral in May 1983, I believe you were there, if you are the same John Cmar I am thinking of…I do have a well documented genealogy book for the Cmars that are mostly my grandfather’s offspring, but some material there includes his brothers with a lot of Duquesne background.. I have found Cmars from other areas as well, via internet searches… In Slovakia there are only 9 Cmars in the phone listings, so there must be at least a general link for all people named Cmar…My email may or may not be shown to you once I post this, although for sure not to the general public…If you don’t get that email address, I can call or text you back with that if you call or text a cell phone at 937-313-0161…Many things to share…Also you can look up the Duquesne Hunky website for other Duquesne references…I posted in item about my Dad there…Thanks again for replying…Regis Francis (Frank) Cmar

  7. Regis Francis (Frank) Cmar
    9/23/2019
    Reply

    Hi John:

    I also had an inquiry about a Joseph Cmar who was a sargeant in WWII and commanded a lot of respect from his squad…I wonder if the Joe Cmar you speak of may have been him…Thanks…

  8. Regis Francis (Frank) Cmar
    9/23/2019
    Reply

    John:

    Go ahead and contact me at cmarrf@yahoo.com if you have any further notes / correspondence…I can get back to you with a scan of the genealogy info that I have..Thanks…

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