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History's Headlines: R.K. Laros- more "than just a plaque on a wall"

History's Headlines: R.K. Laros

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Jeremy Hachey grew up in the Lehigh Valley. He was born in Allentown and graduated from Central Catholic High School. Currently he is a student majoring in English at Moravian College.

So he was thrilled when the Laros Foundation of Bethlehem, dedicated to fulfilling the philanthropic ideals of its founder, early 20th century textile maker Russell Keller Laros, had selected him to write a biography of its founder. It is scheduled for publication in October.

Hachey admits that despite growing up in the region he had little knowledge of Laros. So he was not totally surprised when others he talked to expressed ignorance of him and his significant role in Bethlehem and Northampton County in both industry and good works.

When Hachey explained to them what he found doing his research they usually were fascinated. "Many said all they knew about Laros was sometimes seeing his name on a plaque on a wall," he says.

It is Hachey and the Laros Foundation's hope that this new publication will fill in some of blanks and create a better understanding of who he was and what he did. Sharon Zondag, the foundation's executive director, notes that St. Luke's Hospital, the Bethlehem YMCA and the City of Bethlehem are among the top ten beneficiaries of the foundation. Capital projects, like repairing the roof on the YMCA, are the kind of thing many foundations will not do. Laros does them. 

R.K. Laros (1893-1955) was born in Easton. "His family was French by descent," says Hachey, "although they had been in America and Easton for many, many years." His father, Alvin was a carpenter. Like many working class families, their income was modest.

"It was only by winning a scholarship from Easton High School that Laros was able to attend Lafayette," Hachey notes. Some of his more wealthy, fellow students looked down on Laros because he was a "town boy." Hachey says that was among the first things he admired about Laros. "He never forgot where he came from," says Hachey. "Laros never forgot his roots." 

While at Lafayette Laros took an interest in music, serving as chapel organist and producing and composing music for a student show called "Getting Away With It."  Interestingly, in a portrait photo taken of Laros in his later years by Fabian Bachrach, he bears a striking resemblance to Arturo Toscanini, the iconic classical music conductor of the 1930s and 40s.   

Once Laros graduated in 1914 with a degree in electrical engineering, he went to work with a variety of companies. They included Standard Oil of New York and the Lehigh Valley Power and Light Co., a predecessor to PPL. On September 18, 1918 he married Helen Kostenbader, a member of the Catasauqua brewing family.

Laros' fortune was made in silk and textiles. In 1919 he established the R.K. Laros Silk plant in the Miller Heights section of Bethlehem. In 1922 he opened a plant at East Broad Street. "They began by making lace," says Hachey, "but then the fashions changed and they started to make women's undergarments."

Laros was at the cutting edge of his industry. In the 1920s young women in droves were abandoning tight fitting corsets for silk slips and lingerie. "The men won't dance with you if you wear a corset," one "flapper" is quoted as telling her outraged parents.

Laros' business thrived. During the 20's he became a figure in the community. In 1926-27 he was president of the Bethlehem Rotary Club.

In 1929 Laros built an estate on 60 acres of ground in suburban Bethlehem called Sunset Acres. Today it is owned by Laura Eugenia Bennett, architect, fashion designer and author. Laros was her husband's maternal grandfather.

The Great Depression began shortly after Sunset Acres was built. Hachey tells a story that has been passed down in the Laros family's oral tradition.

"Just before the 1929 stock market crash, a banker he knew went to Laros and advised him to pull all his money out of the market," says Hachey. "Laros cashed in his investments and put the money in a safe. Supposedly it was that money he used to keep his business going in the worst part of the Depression."

Throughout that decade Laros never forgot the obligations he had to both his workers and the community of Bethlehem. Although he was forced to cut the wages of employees by 10 percent, he did not lay them off. In return, despite labor unrest and strikes in other Bethlehem industries, there were none at R.K. Laros.

As a trustee of St. Luke's Hospital and president of its board from 1931 to 1934, Laros kept it running in spite of severe stress on its finances. In the 1940s Laros served as vice president of Bethlehem's Bach Choir. Motivated by his love of music and sense of community responsibility, he kept the choir afloat. The Laros Foundation still works closely with them today.

In 1946, the same year he was named a trustee to Lafayette College's board, he "lobbied" Eugene Grace for land for the creation of the Bethlehem YMCA. It was completed in 1951. Laros was also a strong supporter of Moravian College.

During World War II, Laros was one of the first producers of fragmentation bomb parachutes. Laros also worked with the U.S. government to catch a corrupt FBI agent seeking a bribe from him. The family also maintained a "Victory" vegetable garden at Sunset Acres.

Hachey believes at least part of the silk maker's philanthropy was motivated by his sincere religious beliefs. He was chairman of the Rosemont Lutheran church's building and financial drives and in 1947 was president of its board. "I think his religious beliefs informed his philanthropic impulse rather than being dominated by it," says Hachey.

So the next time you see the name R.K. Laros on a plaque, remember the man behind it.

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