Residents, family members and friends celebrated the 100th birthday of Pat Sapaurx, one of 17 charter members of Pipe Fitters Local No. 195, on Thursday, Jan. 9, at the College Street Health Care Center in Beaumont.
Sapaurx was born in 1914, the same year of many American milestones such as the baseball debut of Babe Ruth, the forming of the Federal Trade Commission, the incorporation of Beverly Hills, Calif., the opening of the Federal Reserve System and the passing of the first steamboat through the Panama Canal.
With a century under his belt, Sapaurx is a wealth of knowledge and experience. He worked as pipe fitter superintendent at the Pennsylvania shipyards — formerly known as the Beaumont Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company, a small shipbuilder, which had been in continuous operation since 1917, and later known as Bethlehem Steel Company before being bought out by Trinity Industries in 1989.
Although he wasn’t drafted to fight in World War II, Sapaurx — who made 40 cents an hour at his first pipefitting job — said he had an important job working on refrigeration ships or stores ships such as the USS Kerstin that were assigned to carry thousands of tons of refrigerated and dry provisions to U.S. soldiers fighting overseas in Africa and Europe. Sapaurx said he also worked on salvage tugs, a specialized type of tugboat used to rescue ships in distress or in danger of sinking, or to salvage ships already sunk or run aground.
Sapaurx was unintentionally responsible for adding manpower to the military, he said.
“The foreman would tell me if somebody missed a lot of time, and I’d let ‘em go and if they were under 30 years old, they would get a greeting card within a week to go to the Army,” Sapaurx said.
Sapaurx said he and about 16 other pipe fitters decided to form a union in April of 1937 — hence Pipe Fitters Local No. 195 was born, a union where Sapaurx held nearly every position, including doorman, executive board vice chairman, business manager, business agent and secretary treasurer.
“Pat has one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever run across,” said James Williamson, business manager and financial secretary/treasurer at Pipe Fitters Local No. 195. “He kept the local going strong. He didn’t have any hobbies; the union was his hobby. He helped a lot of guys through the years have the backbone to stand up and get the rights that they deserved.”
Before the union was formed, pipe fitters had to furnish their own tools and the work was not distributed evenly, Sapaurx said. Only a certain amount of pipe fitters were chosen each day to work; the rest were sent home.
“We figured there was bound to be a better way,” Sapaurx said.
After the union was founded, conditions improved for the pipe fitters.
“We got them to furnish the tools and got a little bit better conditions,” he said. “The union’s come a long way.”
Perhaps one of the most valuable benefits to pipe fitters today was the creation of a pension fund, said Sapaurx.
“We put in say 25 cents an hour into the pension, and pipe fitters now, they get about $2,000 a month,” he said.
The union hall, which is now in Nederland, was originally located on Crockett Street in Beaumont, next door to the Dixie Hotel, a bordello operated by the infamous madam Rita Ainsworth. The hall was also located across the street from The Texas Club, a bar known to house illegal gambling operations during the 1950s, Sapaurx said.
Sapaurx, who worked as a business manager at the union hall during the 1950s, said he remembers the street as being quite dangerous.
“There was prostitution and any kind of gambling you wanted,” he said. “I would go in (The Texas Club) and get me a Coke or some chewing gum. There were fights in there all the time. A man could get killed in there — quick.”
Sapaurx said he remembers looking out the window of the union hall and seeing a man hit another man over the head with a beer bottle in front of the club.
“A cab came by and they put him in the cab, and the police came and cleaned it up,” he said. “I don’t know what ever happened to him.”
Jefferson County remained corrupt until the arrival of the James Commission in the early 1960s, Sapaurx said.
The prostitution ring was kept well under wraps, but the gambling was out of control and nothing was done by local law enforcement to try and nullify the operation, he said.
“The chief of police knew it, the district attorney knew it. Hell, everybody knew it,” Sapaurx said. “It wasn’t a secret.”
Listening to Sapaurx tell stories of Jefferson County vice and corruption, among a myriad of other interesting topics, is something that College Street Health Care Center maintenance worker Michael Mcgee said he enjoys on a daily basis.
“Mr. Pat is the best man in the world,” Mcgee said. “You can’t get a better friend. We talk every morning. He’s sharp.”
Sapaurx also enjoys talking about his wife, Frances, who died in 2008. A stroke victim and former resident of College Street Health Care Center, Frances died while being evacuated from the rehabilitation center during Hurricane Ike.
The two, who were wed in 1935, were married for 73 years and had two children. Sapaurx outlived his children, as well. His daughter, Patricia, died of a blood disease at the age of 66 and his son Pat Jr. died of lung disease at 49. His brother, Eddie, died from a ruptured appendix at the age of 23.
“That’s the trouble with being old,” he said. “You outlive everybody.”
Among many other historical milestones Sapaurx said he experienced, including The Great Depression — which he jokingly said he didn’t have to worry about because he didn’t have any money — desegregation was near the top of the list, he said, pointing out that he was a great admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. and it was terrible when he was assassinated.
Segregation was something Sapaurx said he witnessed for approximately 50 years even as a doorman at the Loew’s State Theatre (State Palace Theatre) in New Orleans, where he met his wife in 1934. She worked as a cashier in the “blacks only” ticket booth.
“I used to watch her run and get on the street car,” Sapaurx said. “She had a good personality. She was a good-looking woman. Well built, too.”
Sapaurx said he experienced another revolutionary breakthrough while working at the theatre — the showing of the first motion picture with sound.
“It was just when talking pictures first came out,” he said. “A friend of mine told me he heard they were going to have talking pictures. I said, ‘Who the hell ever heard of that?’ It was silly to think.”
Sapaurx shared the secret to surviving a century of life — perhaps advice we all should heed.
“The secret is not to worry,” he said. “Don’t worry; smile and make friends. That’s the main part of living.”
Sapaurx, who was also responsible for expanding the pipe fitters union into Houston — now Pipe Fitters Local 211 — will be honored at the Thursday, Feb. 6, meeting of the Pipe Fitters Local No. 195 for many decades of service to the union. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.
The Pipe Fitters Local No. 195 union hall is at 3246 U.S. 69 N. in Nederland.