Posted by Joan Hanna on June 26, 2017 in Blog
William "Chad" Hanna, back left; Senator John F. Kennedy, right.
At the age of 14, in 1904, George Hanna emigrated from Mashta al-Helu, Syria to Pennsylvania, settling in the town of Clymer, 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. George supported himself as a businessman, selling housewares in a cart to local coal miners. He was charismatic, an astute entrepreneur, and spoke four languages. Through his military service in World War I, George was stationed in Chateau-Thierry, France, he became a naturalized citizen. His parents arranged a marriage for George with a young woman whose family also hailed from Mashta al-Helu. George and Sara married in 1919 and had three children over 10 years, Dorothy, George and William (“Chad”). The Hannas decided not to speak Arabic to their children, opting to more quickly assimilate as so many immigrants of that generation did. However, the family was adamant about retaining the cultural and Syrian Orthodox practices of their homeland.
The Hannas were prosperous in the 1920s, in part due to Sara’s exceptional baking and business skills. During prohibition, Sara opened a bakery and sandwich shop in Clymer where people would come from several towns away to indulge in her highly-regarded pies and cakes and experience the warm hospitality of Arab culture. As a sign of the times and their financial wellbeing, George even bought a motorcycle for himself. But the Hannas were not shielded from the effects of the Great Depression and lost much of their wealth. As the economy improved and with prohibition long over, George planned to open a bar in town but he lacked the financial means to buy a space. It was Sara who came to the rescue, having saved $500, enabling the family to open a bar in the early 1940s.
George and Sara’s son, Chad, graduated from high school in Clymer and attended Syracuse University before dropping out two years later. He eloped with his high school sweetheart, Marcy (who was already engaged to another man) on a romantic whim, and they moved to Cleveland, then to Los Angeles, before returning to Clymer in the late 1940s. Chad and Marcy had three children, Sara (“Sally”), John (“Jack”), and William (“Bill”) before the end of the 1950s. While Chad was working at PENNDOT, he developed an interest in politics and, along with a friend, established the first Democratic Party Club of Indiana County. His political efforts and friendly personality earned him a connection to the state’s former Governor, David Lawrence, working behind the scenes in Democratic state politics. When then Senator John F. Kennedy was making campaign stops across the country, Chad helped to organize a visit to Indiana County. On October 15, 1960, with several thousand people in attendance outside the courthouse, Senator Kennedy became the first, and to this day only, presidential candidate to attend a rally within county limits. In 1963, Chad changed career paths, becoming Cymer’s Postmaster, a position he held for nearly 20 years.
Today, Chad’s children are geographically spread out, but always a phone call away from each other. Sally, the eldest, is retired with a daughter and two grandchildren living around the Bay area, while the youngest, Bill, who moved to Pittsburgh, became an engineer and settled down with his wife in the city. Jack, a West Virginia University and Antioch Law School graduate, became an attorney. He practiced law with his wife, Carol, then an attorney, until she ran and won a Court of Common Pleas Judgeship. Jack has been the Chair of the Indiana County Democratic Party, the one which his father co-launched, and has attended every Democratic National Convention, either as a Delegate or as a credential holder, since 1996. He currently serves as Treasurer for the Democratic Party for the state of Pennsylvania. Jack and Carol have two daughters: Joan, the author of this blog and the Community Relations Associate at AAI, and Frances, a student at Portland State University.
For the Hanna family, the American dream was over 100 years in the making. The sons and daughters of Syrian immigrants are still proud to be Syrian American, and of their accomplishments, struggles and joys. Heritage was a grounding force for those that came here in 1904 and continues to be one for the youngest family members today.