BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The R. K. Laros Foundation and the Industrial Archives & Library hosted a reception on May 22, 2019, at the National Museum of Industrial History to salute Mrs. Marge Tarola, a longtime Laros Silk Company employee and recent interviewee for the R. K. Laros Oral History Project and to reflect on and to celebrate the 100-year Laros legacy in the Bethlehem community.
Launched in March 2017, the R. K. Laros Oral History Project is a collaboration between The R. K. Laros Foundation and the Industrial Archives & Library of Bethlehem, Pa., that 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, like Marge, and their families.
Others joining the gathering to meet Marge and hear her story were Norman King and Judy Molder, children of much beloved Laros sewing machine mechanic and machinist, Norman King, and David Jones, son of Roland Jones, a former top Laros executive. All have been interviewed as part of the Oral History Project over the past two years. Accompanying Marge to the event was her daughter, Marjorie Mainhart. Also on hand from The R. K. Laros Foundation were vice chair, Laura Bennett Shelton, who is also secretary of the board of the National Museum of Industrial History, and Laros trustee, Elizabeth Shimer Bowers. “We thought we would bring together all these people who are really connected through time,” said Sharon Jones Zondag, executive director of The R. K. Laros Foundation, who organized the event.
Marge Tarola began her career with Laros at fifty cents an hour right out of high school in 1946 at the company’s “Learner School,” where she learned to sew. In 1954, Marge became a “zigzag” operator and went on to complete a 20+ year career at Laros and its successor companies, Warner’s and Sure-Fit. As if it were just yesterday, and with remarkable clarity, Marge regaled the group with story after story about her time at Laros Silk Company and how special it was to work there. One such example was in the late 1950s when Marge was juggling the demands of a young family and her husband’s shift work at Bethlehem Steel. When made aware of Marge’s problem, Mr. Jones allowed Marge to work a flexible work schedule that allowed her to coordinate with her husband’s shift work and be home with her children after school. “Places just didn’t do that back in those days,” she said. “I get the sense that Mr. Laros was benevolent with the employees,” said David Jones. “Otherwise, he would not have given my dad the latitude to do that for Marge.”
“Thanks to the vision and foresight of Russell K. and Helen Laros, the R.K. Laros Silk Company has passed into history.”Sharon Jones Zondag, Executive Director, R.K. Laros Foundation
Laros quality was also second-to-none, according to Jones and Tarola. “Laros undergarments were so highly valued that they were sold in all the upscale department stores,” said Mr. Jones. “Whenever you bought a garment form Laros, you knew it was made well and it was done the right way – and almost to perfection,” Tarola added. “I think that’s why he [R. K. Laros] was in business for as long as he was’” she quipped. “It was a very, very good product and we were all proud to be there.”
The reception was also the first of a series of special events planned for 2019 to mark the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the R. K. Laros Silk Company in 1919 in Bethlehem.
Born in Easton, Pa. and rising from very humble beginnings, Mr. Russell K. Laros founded the R. K. Laros Silk Company and built 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 Warner’s and Sure-Fit names.
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, that since his death in 1955 and the sale of the company in 1957, remains the last significant vestige of the once highly prominent Laros enterprise.
“As evidenced by what Marge and our other interviewees have told us, R.K. Laros was building an amazing and progressive workplace culture ata time when those concepts weren’t even on the radar at other companies.”Robert Bilheimer, General Manager, Industrial Archives & Library; Co-Manager and Producer/Director for Oral History Project
“Thanks to the vision and foresight of Russell K. and Helen Laros, The R. K. Laros Foundation is continuing to have a very positive impact on the Bethlehem community long after the R. K. Laros Silk Company has passed into history,” said Jones Zondag. “And, at a time when family foundations are leaving our area and are finding it difficult to stay effective and relevant, The R. K. Laros Foundation is keeping the Laros history alive and translating that legacy into continued and sustained community support,” she said.
The gathering also served to showcase a variety of artifacts that have been donated to the National Museum of Industrial History and to the Industrial Archives & Library by oral history interviewee’s over the past two years, including Norman King’s Laros employee badge and his 25-year service watch, photographs, several hand-written notes from R. K. Laros to Norman King and Roland Jones and a variety of Laros produced apparel, including Judy Molder’s custom made christening gown made by Laros employees. These and other artifacts will be used for future exhibits.
“We are thrilled to have these artifacts in our collection,” said Andria Zaia, curator of collections at the National Museum of Industrial History. “Silk manufacturing and textiles played such a key role in the industrial development of America and the Lehigh Valley and is one of the central focus areas of our museum,” she said. “These artifacts will really bring that story alive and personalize it for our visitors.”
Speaking on behalf of the R. K. Laros Oral History Project team, Robert Bilheimer, general manager of the Industrial Archives & Library, co-manager and producer/director for the Project said, “in the course of our Project, a clear picture has emerged 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 “as evidenced by what Marge and our other interviewees have told us, R. K. Laros was building an amazing and progressive workplace culture at a time when those concepts weren’t even on the radar at other companies. He was a real visionary and forward thinker and his company was perhaps second only to Bethlehem Steel in shaping and influencing the most individual lives and families in Bethlehem area during the first half of the 20th Century.”
“I think what matters most to the Foundation is that there is a shared pride in Laros Silk and all that it did in the community and how it continues to contribute,” said Jones Zondag. “So, as we look to continue the Project into our centennial year, 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 contacted at via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Longtime Laros Silk Company Employee, Marge Tarola, recounts her memories and experiences at the Laros Silk Company to reception guests.
R.K. Laros Foundation Trustee and R. K. Laros’ granddaughter, Elizabeth Shimer Bowers (L), speaks with Marge Tarola (R)
(L to R), Oral history interviewee, Norman King; IAL General Manager Bob Bilheimer & Marge Tarola
Laura Bennett Shelton, R.K. Laros Foundation Vice Chair and wife of R.K. Laros’ grandson, Peter Shelton (L), speaks with Marge Tarola (R)
Marge Tarola (seated) is honored at NMIH Reception May 22, 2019. (Standing L to R) Daughter, Marjorie Mainhart; oral history interviewees, Jacqueline & David Jones; Norman King; and Judy King Molder.
Marge Tarola (circled in yellow) at her sewing machine at the Laros Silk Company, Bethlehem, Pa. Circa 1948.