At Play In The Archive
Today, August 15, 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.
The entire world is fêting the 8th wonder of the world today (and the internet has lots to offer on the topic), but I’m celebrating in a very personal way because four generations of my family worked on, in, beside, and in support of the Panama Canal. The Big Ditch is truly our family business — one of my People helped build the canal way back in the day, and one of my People still guides ships through the canal today.
I’ll leave coverage of the facts, figures, maps, construction, and politics to the many excellent museums and societies dedicated to the preservation of Panama Canal history — this post is dedicated to my own Panama Canal People.
Here they are, in rough generational order.
Roger H. Adams (1879 – 1930) – My great-grandfather, and holder of a Roosevelt Medal. Issued by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, the Roosevelt medal recognized American citizens who completed at least two years of service to the Panama Canal construction effort between May of 1904 and December of 1914. For every additional two years of service, a bar was added to the medal. Great-Grandpa Roger’s medal had two bars, for a total of six years of service during the construction era.
Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder (1890-1986) – My great-grandmother, known to the family as Mama Helen, who worked as a secretary in the Finance Bureau of the Panama Canal Company. After my great-grandfather, Roger H. Adams, passed away in 1930, Mama Helen remained in the Canal Zone, raised three children (future Panama Canal employees, all), and eventually remarried.
Austin Flagel “Buck” Yoder (1917 – 1982) – Mama Helen’s second husband, and my step-great-grandfather, the one I actually knew. I’ve already written about my Pop Yoder’s extraordinary life as a jazz musician, but he also worked as a property inspector in the Accounting Department of the Panama Canal Company. He and Mama Helen were married in Pedro Miguel Union Church in the Canal Zone in 1945.
Robert K. Adams (1912 – 1997) – My grand-uncle, son of Roger H. Adams and Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder. “Bob Adams” as we called him (always one word strung together) was a 2nd-generation Zonian who served as Balboa Harbormaster until he retired and moved to California with my grand-aunt Ruthie.
Roger W. Adams (1918 – 2006) – My grand-uncle, son of Roger H. Adams and Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder. My mom and I both called him “Uncle Roger Sir” for reasons I can’t remember, but the name sure stuck. Uncle Roger Sir was a 2nd-generation Zonian who served as Superintendent of the Motor Transportation Division. He and his wife Katy (below) eventually moved to Sarasota, FL, and later settled in the Seattle, WA area.
Katherine “Katy” Schafer Adams – My grand Aunt, and the wife of Roger W. Adams. Katy taught Biology and Physiology at Balboa High School on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone for many years. Prior to moving to the Canal Zone, Katy was on the faculty of the Zoology department at the University of Florida in Coral Gables, FL.
Katherine Adams Lessiack (1920 – 2012) – My maternal grandmother, the daughter of Roger H. Adams and Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder. Grandma Kathi was a 2nd-generation Zonian who worked as a secretary for the Panama Canal Executive Planning Staff. I owe a special debt of gratitude to her, because so many of the treasures in my archive came from her.
Robert Lessiack (1921 – 1984) – My maternal grandfather. Grandpa Bob came through Panama a couple of times before officially becoming a Zonian, once as a child, and again as a USMCR officer during WWII, when he met and married my Grandma Kathi. Grandpa Bob worked in finance in the Panama Canal Administration Building, and he retired as Assistant Financial Vice President of the Panama Canal Company in the early 1970’s. He and Grandma Kathi settled in Kerrville, TX after retirement.
Joseph Stabler (1916 – 1999) – My step-paternal grandfather, and a career fire fighter in the Panama Canal Fire Division at Pedro Miguel. Grandpa Joe arrived in Panama in 1944 as a Chief firefighter with the U.S. Army. Grandma Blanche was a floating receptionist working for the U.S. Army, temporarily assigned to the desk where Grandpa Joe reported for duty. Grandma was dating another fellow at the time, but the rest is history. After WWII, Grandpa Joe joined the Panama Canal Fire Division.
Helen “Howie” Adams Laatz – My first-cousin-once-removed, the daughter of Robert K. and Ruth Adams, and a 3rd-generation Zonian. Howie worked as an administrative assistant for the Industrial Division and also as an assistant to the Governor of the Canal Zone.
Gerry Laatz – Husband of Howie Adams Laatz. Gerry worked in both the Motor Transportation Division and the Electrical Division on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.
Susan Lessiack Stabler – My amazing mother, a 3rd-generation Zonian, and the daughter of Robert Lessiack and Katherine Adams Lessiack. Mom taught English and Life Science at Cristobal Jr. Sr. High School on the Atlantic side; I can personally attest that she was a superb teacher because I actually had her for 8th grade English. She later worked as a journalist for Panama Canal Public Affairs, where her byline and photographs were familiar to readers of the Canal Zone’s weekly newspaper, The Spillway. She couldn’t stay away from her beloved classroom forever, though, and today she teaches English in the middle school at the International School of Panama, inspiring a whole new generation of kids.
Lewis Stabler – My adored stepdad, son of Joseph and Blanche Stabler. Lew completed 40 years of service to the Panama Canal in October of 2013. His long career with the Panama Canal (which isn’t over yet) began as an usher at the Balboa Movie Theater. He later became a schoolteacher at Curundu Jr. High, an electrician with the Electrical Division, and later still, a Tugboat Master, the job he still holds today.
Bobby Adams – My first-cousin-once-removed, son of Robert K. and Ruth Adams, and a 3rd-generation Zonian. Bobby served in the Panama Canal Construction division. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of him.
Donnie Adams – My first-cousin-once-removed, son of Robert K. and Ruth Adams, and a 3rd-generation Zonian. Donnie served as a Marine Electrician in the Industrial Division. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of him either.
Lorin Lessiack (1949 – 1974) – My uncle, son of Robert Lessiack and Katherine Adams Lessiack. Lorin was a 3rd-generation Zonian who worked in the Panama Canal Dredging Division. If you read David McCollough’s epic book The Path Between The Seas, you will quickly understand why dredging is an essential part of canal operations. Lorin passed away on August 15, 1974, a sad anniversary we also observe on this day.
John Lessiack – My uncle, son of Robert Lessiack and Katherine Adams Lessiack. John is a 3rd-generation Zonian who worked in the Canal Zone Schools carpentry shop, for a Smithsonian scientist researching Panama core samples, and on Barro Colorado Island at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station studying frogs, tadpoles, and their predators.
Frank Stabler (1941 – 2010) – My uncle, son of Joseph and Blanche Stabler, and 2nd generation Panama Canal employee. Frank worked in Canal Protection.
John Stabler – My uncle, son of Joseph and Blanche Stabler, and 2nd generation Panama Canal employee. John worked as a Canal Zone Police officer and continues to do business in Panama today.
Francis Stabler Meyer – My aunt, daughter of Joseph and Blanche Stabler, and a 2nd generation Panama Canal employee. Fran started with Pan Canal as a movie theater usherette, and later worked as a clerk for both the Administration Division and the Transportation Division.
Ron Meyer – My uncle, husband of Fran Stabler Meyer. Uncle Ronnie began his Pan Canal career as a movie theater cashier, and later became an electrician in the Electrical Division. He eventually became Lockmaster at Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores locks. No ships got through unless Uncle Ronnie let them through.
Craig Meyer – My cousin, son of Ron Meyer and Fran Stabler Meyer, and a 3rd generation Panama Canal employee. As a teenager, Craig held a Student Assistant job at the Tugboat office in Diablo for one summer. Hey, it counts. Like me, Craig now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Pancho – Daughter of Susan Lessiack Stabler and stepdad Lewis Stabler, and a 4th generation Panama Canal employee. While it feels a little silly to list myself among all these folks who had long, honorable careers in the service of the Panama Canal, I did hold a Student Assistant job in the Housing Division office prior to college. So, if Craig’s legit, I’m legit.
And there you have it, my own personal Panama Canal centennial. I leave you with a line from the speech that Theodore Roosevelt made to the assembled Panama Canal force in Colon, Republic of Panama on November 16, 1906. It’s worth noting that Roosevelt’s visit to Panama marked the very first time a U.S. President made an overseas trip while in office. It was that important.
“You are doing a work the like of which has not before been seen in the ages, a work that shall last through the ages to come.”
And the work goes on.
Happy 100th birthday, Panama Canal, and a happy centennial to all of my People who made it sing.