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Historical marker honors Kevlar inventor's humble New Kensington roots

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Jan Pakler | For the Tribune-Review
New Kensington police Officer Mike Netzlof holds a program for an event Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, commemorating the late Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar. Kwolek, who died in 2014, was raised on Seventh Street where an historical marker was placed Saturday.
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Courtesy of The Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
New Kensington native Stephanie Kwolek was a DuPont research chemist in 1965 when she invented a synthetic fiber that was five times stronger than steel but lighter than fiberglass. It came to be known as Kevlar, which is used in everything from body armor to tennis rackets to suspension bridge cables.
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AP/The News Journal, Jennifer Corbett
Stephanie Kwolek, shown at age 83 in this June 20, 2007, photo taken in Brandywine Hundred, Del., wears regular house gloves made with the Kevlar she invented. Kwolek died in 2014 at age 90.
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Courtesy of The Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
New Kensington native Stephanie Kwolek holds a Kevlar fiber in this 1970s-era photo. Kwolek invented Kevlar in 1965 while working as a research chemist with DuPont.

Not only does a new historical marker on Seventh Street denote the past success of a New Kensington native, but it also serves as a reminder of the potential future for the city's youth.

“I hope it serves to inspire all of you to work as hard as she did to better our world,” said Ken C. Turner, a commissioner with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Turner joined historians and city officials to unveil a historical marker to the late Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist who invented the synthetic fiber Kevlar while working at DuPont in the 1960s.

Not only did Kwolek excel during a time when it was atypical to find women working in science, but she came from humble roots.

“She started with nothing,” said Tootsie Sobolak, 88, of Arnold, a childhood neighbor of Kwolek. “It was a struggle for them. I was surprised to see how far she went.”

Sobolak and Rich Kwake, 79, of New Kensington said they grew up next to the Kwoleks in what was then a tight-knit Polish neighborhood on Seventh Street.

The marker is in the empty lot where Kwolek's, Sobolak's and Kwake's childhood homes once stood, across from Freeport Road and Mount St. Peter Roman Catholic Church.

Sobolak remembers the community assisting widowed Nellie Zajdel Kwolek and her children, Stephanie and Stanley, when her husband, John, died.

All four Kwoleks are deceased. Stephanie Kwolek died in Delaware in 2014. Neither she nor her brother were known to have children.

In interviews, Stephanie Kwolek fondly remembered her love of sewing, which she learned from her mother, and an appreciation for the natural world she inherited from her father.

“She always was an honor student,” said Sobolak, who attended grade school with Kwolek at the former Catholic school at St. Mary Czestochowa Church in New Kensington. Kwolek went on to New Kensington High School and Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, the women's college attached to what became Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Kwolek said she intended to work at DuPont only long enough to earn the money for medical school, but she grew to love chemistry and the discoveries she made. She worked at DuPont until her retirement in 1986.

“She saved more human lives (by inventing Kevlar) than she ever could have done as a medical doctor,” said Rita Vasta, a DuPont coworker who called Kwolek a mentor.

Jay Rodriguez of Brackenridge is one of those lives: Rodriguez, a Texas native, said he depended on bulletproof vests during his 12 years as a Marine, especially during a tour of Iraq.

“It just made you feel safer,” said Rodriguez, who noted he felt nervous not wearing his Kevlar even when he was in non-combat situations in the Middle East. “It offered a sense of security.”

New Kensington police officers displayed several examples of bullet-resistant vests, helmets and other tactical items during Saturday's dedication.

“Her contribution to the world cannot be understated,” said New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo. “The thousands of people whose lives have been saved thank her and owe her a great deal of gratitude.”

Vasta said Kwolek always enjoyed talking about science, especially with children.

Kwolek likely would have appreciated the efforts of volunteers Saturday to organize a “Science Spectacular” with hands-on demonstrations at and around Peoples Library of New Kensington.

Carnegie Science Center “Science on the Road” presenter Philip Williamson led a program on luminescence, showing students how light is refracted or absorbed by different materials.

Mary Queen of Apostles Catholic School eighth-graders Isabella Florian and Marco Vigilante demonstrated electrical currents and circuitry while fifth-graders Anthony Florian and Veronica Koval showed children how to program robots built from Lego building blocks.

Also participating were the Valley Junior-Senior High School Science Club, Girl Scout Troop 20134 and Penn State New Kensington.

Organizer Maria Guzzo of New Kensington said the science program was spun off from the city's Better Block revitalization initiative, which also hosted a sidewalk sale featuring downtown businesses Saturday.

Guzzo said she wanted to promote creativity, curiosity and education for local children.

She said connecting the event with Kwolek sent an important message to the city's youth: “That woman was from New Kensington. You're from New Kensington. You can do that, too.”

Liz Hayes is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or 724-226-4680.

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