It has been over five years since I talked to Lance Metz.
A long-time historian of the region’s industrial history, he had suffered a stroke about five years ago and was admitted to a nursing home. People who saw him regularly told me he could communicate with people who knew him but suggested he could not hold a conversation for any great length of time.
So when I heard about his recent death from the coronavirus, I was extremely sorry that I had not had a chance to tell him how much I owed him in guiding me as a mentor into the realm of local industrial history.
I cannot remember exactly how or when I first met Lance, but it had to be in the early 1980s. Although I had grown up in Livingston, New Jersey, I had spent 13 years in the Midwest attending college and graduate school and working a variety of jobs that included being the assistant archivist for the State of Missouri.
When I arrived in Allentown in February 1981 to take a job with The Morning Call, I had little knowledge of local history. I quickly began to educate myself. In the process, I met a number of people who told me I had to meet Lance Metz. Once I did, I was floored by his depth of knowledge and particularly by the intensity with which he approached the subject.
It was through Lance that I met other iron and steel enthusiasts, some of whom worked for Bethlehem Steel in a variety of capacities, most of them non-academics who shared his fascination with all things Lehigh Valley industrial. And what struck me about all of them is their concern that this industrial history would be lost due to neglect and indifference.
One outstanding example I recall was Lance’s description of how he and a number of others rescued from the trash bins the contents of Bethlehem Steel’s Charles Schwab Library that was being tossed out the window. Some of the details of that event may have been a bit fuzzy in Lance’s retelling but about the subject he loved he could not be passionate enough.
Lance could hold me spellbound as he talked of the role of Josiah White, the great builder of the Lehigh Canal, and Asa Packer and the development of the Lehigh Valley railroad.
Lance was particularly interested in those historical figures who he felt had been overlooked. One in particular was Robert Sayre, the right-hand man to Packer.
When Lance heard that Sayre’s daily diaries were available from a relative, he moved heaven and earth to get them for the National Canal Museum. Similarly, when the diaries became available of John Fritz, one of the leading figures in 19th century steel making at what was then Bethlehem Iron Company, Lance traveled to suburban Philadelphia to get them from a relative, who had kept them for years and didn’t think anybody was interested. I was with Lance that day and saw his eyes light up as he flipped through this priceless historical resource
Where did Lance get his love for the past? Well, he seldom talked about his past, but recently I was talking to someone who knew one of his brothers. As he told it, on family vacations Lance was always having them stop at some obscure historical site that even the state hadn’t gotten to yet.
"He was always taking us to see some pile of rocks or other," his sibling noted, apparently less than impressed.
He always seemed at his happiest when he was sharing his knowledge. Each new discovery he shared with me in the hope I would do a story on it. And many times, I would indeed write about them, and he was thrilled when the readers would respond with interest to what had been discovered. As a teacher, Lance could catch the minds of students.
With time, Lance became involved with national groups, like the Society of Industrial Archeology and his significant Canal Museum symposiums held at Lafayette College. Here scholars from across the region and at times national figures would attend and give papers. They usually drew an enthusiastic audience. I participated in two of them.
In truth at times, Lance could by unintentionally funny. One evening at a friend's home he got so into a particular subject that he walked from one room to another, talking all the way, closing the door behind him and continuing his conversation through a closed door.
That was all part of the Lance Metz I knew, and I will miss him terribly.