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Annual picnic another victim of pandemic

You can add the name of Ron Baker to the list of people who have to sit back and watch as events that have long been a staple of life in the Tri-State Area have been canceled.

Baker is the president of the Weirton Steel 25-Year Club, and he and the organization’s members had been looking forward to being able to put on the 74th rendition of the annual event on July 18. Sadly, all of the protocols and restrictions that have been put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that it can’t be held.

“I’m very disappointed,” Baker explained. “It was something that has been going on for more than 70 years, and they never missed a year. A lot of the older guys always lived for that. They made it a point to come every year. It was a reunion, it was a chance to get together — it was a chance to share good times.”

That always has been important, Baker added, especially because the membership of the club has gotten older.

“It’s sad that we can’t have the picnic this year,” Baker explained. “We just couldn’t, especially because of the age group.”

With officials across the Tri-State Area warning against large gatherings and urging people in the highest-risk age group of those who are older than 60 — the demographic of the organization — to keep a safe distance, it just became impossible for the tradition to continue.

“Every day,” Baker said, “you pick up the paper and see that some of your co-workers have passed away.”

That dwindling number continues to hit home. While some years have seen thousands of members who put in a lot of work in the mill that dominated the skyline of downtown Weirton take part in the event, attendance has been dropping off for years.

“We usually plan for between 450 and 500 people,” Baker said. “In the past years, though, we had to open it up to the younger guys, the guys who were still working, just to keep the club going. There were a lot of them looking forward to being there.”

There was the Serbian Picnic Grounds, located in the Kings Creek Area of the city.

Baker credits Brenda Ice, the club’s longtime vice president, for helping to keep the event special, and for helping to ensure the logistics of providing food, drink and entertainment for the attendees were handled.

“I just couldn’t do it without her,” Baker explained.

For many people, the event has become a regular stop in their summer travels, one which many vacations have been planned around.

“Sure,” Baker said. “People would come not only for the picnic, they’d come into town for other events.

“In the past, they have come from everywhere. We’ve had people come from Florida and Kentucky, and even Texas,” Baker explained. “They all have family here, they all have ties here. They plan their trip back for around the picnic. I get phone calls all the time from people who want to know that date we plan to have it on.”

For now, that’s all changed.

“I think everybody just kind of anticipated it was going to be canceled,” said Baker, who has worked in the mill for 48 years, first for the Weirton Steel Corp. and now for ArcelorMittal.

“This is normally a busy time of year. We would have been planning to participate in the Fourth of July parade and the picnic,” said Baker while lamenting that neither event could be held this year. “I told Brenda it feels like we should be doing something — getting food ready, making sure I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.”

What hasn’t changed, though, Baker said, is that everyone is working to ensure that the tradition will continue next year and well into the future.

Mark your calendars now, he said, for July 17, 2021. That’s when the annual gathering of the 25-Year Club will once again be renewed.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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