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Even after retirement, Kennywood maintenance chief can't leave the park behind

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the morning, before the park erupts into a jangle of shrieks, swooshes and clanks, a man walks up and down the roller coaster tracks.

"I never had a bad day at work," says Fred Weber, former maintenance chief at Kennywood. Weber started there in 1950, and in 1951 operated the Racer (in background), the ride that is his personal favorite at the park. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Climbing the wooden mountains, descending the rickety valleys, he gazes at both the sweeping vistas ahead and the tiniest details down by his feet. If something is just a bit off -- a missing bolt, a loose board -- he senses it.

Fred Weber always has had a sixth sense about Kennywood rides, this man with the intuition about the health of the Thunderbolt, the safety of the Turtle, the balance of the merry-go-round.

"He's half machine," says mechanic Keith Kuzma. "We call him the Legend, the Man, the Myth."

For decades, Weber, 68, has been repairing rides, tearing them down to their frames, building them back up, walking the maroon tracks of his beloved Racer -- his favorite coaster -- until he can feel every dip and turn. Just by listening to the cars clattering by, he knows if something is off.

Weber, superintendent of maintenance, retired this spring, hanging up his sockets and wrenches after 51 years at Kennywood. He was such a presence that there are now two men replacing him.

But there's a hitch about Weber's so-called retirement. He still shows up at work.

At first, it was every day. So often that his fellow mechanics changed his radio call from "Maintenance One" to "Retirement One."

Now Weber leaves his Irwin home and comes to work maybe a few times a month, whenever the mechanics have a purchasing or mechanical question. It's not as though they can look up the answer in his computer. Weber's computer has always been in his head.

He has a barrel chest that juts out from his waist, bulked up from years of lifting the 210-pound wheels of the Turtle and the rest of the metal underbelly of an amusement park.

"We don't lift weights," he says. "We lift parts."

He's tough, seemingly impervious to pain.

How tough?

Just go to the maintenance garage and the maintenance men and carpenters -- Fred proteges -- will start telling Fred stories.

There was the time in the early 1980s when a backhoe operator didn't see Weber and rammed the bucket into him, flinging him some 30 feet smack into the Flying Carpet ride. His back and hip hit the metal ride with a loud thud.

"Fred just shook his head and kept on walking," says Bryan D. Bartley, one of two superintendents replacing him and trained by him.

The worst injury occurred 40 years ago, when he was repairing the Racer and the air cylinder hit his face. Weber put away his tools before walking to the first-aid station.

For years during the summer season, he would work 14-hour days to make sure the 34 adult rides and 13 kiddie ones were inspected daily. His wife, Bonnie, was always understanding of his long hours, he says. Their 17-year-old daughter Kristen works at the park in the summer.

Whenever mechanics had a problem with a ride, they would go to Weber, the master troubleshooter.

"If Fred can't fix it, you might as well take the ride out," Kuzma says.

Weber would sometimes walk the roller coaster tracks himself to stay in practice. During the off-season, he and his crew would strip rides down to their frames, inspect every part and build them back up.

Thrill-seeking riders didn't even know Weber existed or understand his devotion to their safety. But at industry safety seminars, Weber always has been a celebrity. People from Disney, Busch Gardens and other amusement parks are constantly approaching him and saying, "I have this problem? How can I fix it?" says Chuck Ashoff, a mechanic.

Not bad for a guy who started at Kennywood in June 1950 as a teen-ager who would run the pony rides and clean up the manure afterward. That grunt job led to jobs as operator of the Racer in 1951, head of Kiddieland in 1955 and full-time mechanic by 1962, with most of his training on the job.

Even in his late 60s, he never lost his stomach for rides, especially roller coasters. He rides them to listen to them and understand them. He even rode the Skycoaster, the bungee-jump-like ride with a 60-foot dip. No big deal.

"Yes, I'm fearless," he says matter-of-factly.

He was a tough boss, a stickler for details, but managed to stay beloved. When he comes back, it is as guest celebrity.

"Hey, Fred, welcome back to Paradise," a mechanic says driving by in a cart.

These days he putters around the yard, watches sports and -- who knows? -- might even take up golf soon. It's a quieter life.

Sometimes, the master mechanic misses the roar of the crowd.

"There was the excitement of seeing people riding, having a good time and enjoying themselves. I never had a bad day at work."

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