Reception recognizes interviewees whose Personal Stories about the R.K. Laros Silk Company Highlight the Life and Legacy of Russell K. Laros for Oral History Project
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The R. K. Laros Foundation and the Industrial Archives & Library hosted a joint reception on November 7 at the Industrial Archives and Library to thank the nearly 30 individuals who have participated in the organizations’ joint Laros Oral History Project and to provide an interim report on the results of the Project to date. Launched in March 2017, The Laros Oral History Project is documenting the history and impact of the R. K. Laros Silk Company on the Lehigh Valley community from the perspective of the everyday lives of employees and their families.
Born in Easton, Pa. and rising from very humble origins, Mr. Russell K. Laros founded the R. K. Laros Silk Company in Bethlehem in 1919, building it into a highly successful and leading American silk manufacturer. Initially focusing on the production of raw silk and then ladies’ undergarments, Laros – always the innovator – shifted production to parachutes and a pioneering synthetic blood plasma product during the Korean War years, called Plavolex. Mr. Laros passed away in 1955 and the company was sold in 1957, ultimately operating under the Sure-Fit name.
“Unfortunately,” said Sharon Jones Zondag, Executive Director of The R. K. Laros Foundation and Co-Manager of the Laros Oral History Project, “over time, the Laros story is slowly beginning to slip away. The goal of this project,” she said, “is to get as much of the Laros legacy on the record before it is completely lost to time.”
Speaking on behalf of the Project team, Robert Bilheimer, General Manager of the Industrial Archives & Library, R. K. Laros Foundation Trustee, Co-Manager and Producer/Director for the Project, thanked the Project participants and provided an interim report on the Project’s progress to date and its initial findings. “Since March 2017, we have completed a total of 18 audio and videotaped interviews of 27 separate interviewees, or narrators as they are called,” he reported. “that has included former Laros Silk Company employees, family members of former employees, Laros family members and R. K. Laros Foundation Trustees. We are in the process of scheduling additional interviews into 2019.
“Through this project, we are hoping to gain a more thorough and richer understanding of the R.K. Laros Silk Company and fill in some of the gaps of knowledge that are widening as the Laros story begins to fade from the community’s collective memory.Sharon Jones Zondag, Executive Director, The R.K. Laros Foundation
As to the findings to date,” he said. “although the Project is far from being completed, a consistent and clear picture is emerging of R. K. Laros as a caring, compassionate and innovative individual, who was deeply committed to his employees and his community and who built a very progressive company that fostered an unusually close-knit company culture among its employees.” He went on to say that “the company was also an anchor to its East Bethlehem community and was perhaps second only to Bethlehem Steel in shaping and influencing the most individual lives and families in the Greater Bethlehem area during the first half of the 20th Century.” Rounding out the Project Team in addition to Zondag and Bilheimer is Lead Interviewer and fellow R. K. Laros Foundation Trustee, Diane Donaher.
The Laros Oral History Project is a collaboration between The R. K. Laros Foundation and the Industrial Archives & Library. The R. K. Laros Foundation owns the interview recordings and materials and helps publicly promote the Project and identify and recruit potential interviewees. The Industrial Archives & Library produces and directs the interviews and permanently houses the resulting recordings and transcriptions and coordinates their availability for public research.
In 1952, looking to establish a far more permanent legacy of service to the Bethlehem community, R. K. Laros and his wife, Helen, founded the Laros Industries Foundation, now known as The R. K. Laros Foundation. Over the course of the past 65 years, the R. K. Laros Foundation has awarded nearly 650 grants totaling about $7.4 million to over 150 worthy causes in support the common good in the Bethlehem area. R. K. Laros’ incredible legacy of service lives on through the Foundation, but with his death in 1955 and the sale of the company in 1957, it remains the last, but
significant, vestige of the once highly prominent Laros enterprise.
“Through this Project, we are hoping to gain a much more thorough and richer understanding of the R. K. Laros Silk Company and fill in some of the gaps of knowledge that are widening as the Laros story begins to fade from the community’s collective memory,” said Jones Zondag. “But we are still looking to the community for help. The Project is gathering momentum, but we are certain there are wonderful untold stories out there that we will want to capture that will help round out the Laros story before this Project comes to a close.
“So, as we look to wrap up the project sometime in 2019,” she said, “we invite anyone with any knowledge they might have about the Laros Silk Company, R. K. Laros or the Laros family to come forward and contact me to share their story. Whether you might be a former employee, a family member of a former employee or just an individual who has some information of interest, your participation will be much appreciated.” Sharon Jones Zondag can be reached by telephone at (610) 390-6016, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.