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Math Teacher ‘Sick of Being Poor’ Launched Cook Forest Business
He got a summer job and ushered in a new industry at Cook Forest.
“I was so sick of being poor, and that’s when I decided to lease the several acres in the middle of Cook Forest on the River from Tom Cook,” said Lerch, recalling his decision at 25 years old to launch the Pale Whale in Cook Forest and rent bicycles and canoes.
He was the first to offer bikes and canoes at Cook Forest, and it has been replicated many times over the years.
“By the end of Memorial Day that year, I made more money there than I did during a year of teaching,” Leach said.
As a teacher, he made $4,533.00 and gross sales were $28,107.00 before expenses at his summer job. He was able to list a lot of qualified expenses, perhaps foreshadowing his later career in the financial investment world.
Lerch had about 10 bikes and two or three tandems built for two people when he first started. The use of canoes provided some challenges.
“The maximum number of canoes I had were six, and I started out with two,” remembered Lerch. “Chuck Alexander drove me up to Forest County Sports Center from whom I bought the canoes. Chuck drove me back to Cook Forest with the canoes sticking out the back out of a station wagon.”
Canoe rentals also required Lerch to transport the customers with their canoes.
“I had a convertible at that time, and we transported the canoes on top of the convertible,” Lerch said. “They sat on top catawampus, and we drove upriver several miles and dropped off the canoes and let the people canoe down the river. We drove the people and the canoes, holding on to the canoes at the same time.”
He was also quick to expand his business.
“The gift shop was always there,” according to Lerch. “It was the same little building that the Cook Forest Post Office was in. The boys that worked for me were responsible for lining up the bikes out front, and the canoes were across the road down by the river.”
“Then, I wanted to earn some more money because the little store and gift shop were doing well, so I had somebody build the tasty freeze. It wasn’t actually a franchise, and we only offered ice cream. That’s still in operation today, and it still has the same equipment that I got in 1964 for soft ice cream.”
Lerch enjoyed finding additional business opportunities. For a short while, he even promoted dances.
“Among other things, I wanted to maximize the space at Pale Whale, and that was at the time when WWCH radio had loud music playing,” Lerch said. “I hired all of these football guys, and we had dances on the parking lot where my gas tanks were. I think I charged 25 cents per person. The high school football players drew girls, and the girls drew more boys. I was tough about alcohol for the dances, but in several weeks, there was a girl who apparently had too much to drink and her friends wanted to dunk her in the river to sober her up. I quit having the dances after that.”
Lerch said most of his customers came from Ohio and Pittsburgh, but he didn’t miss any stops in attracting more, advertising in the Cleveland area and Buffalo newspapers.
“Some of them did come from Pittsburgh, and as a matter of fact, my biggest revenue days for renting bikes were when the urban kids came up from Pittsburgh with money to spend,” Lerch said. “I wanted them to spend it at my place, and they did.”
He also leased cabins for one or two years behind his store.
In 1966, that all ended when he was selected for a position as Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shaffer’s Advance Man.
“I remember the day that I took my resignation as a teacher down to (Superintendent) Herb Schneider’s house giving it to him and his wife,” Lerch said. “I told them I was going to be the advance man for the governor, and they came down hard on advising me not to do it because it was too risky—blah, blah, blah.”
Looking back on his teaching career versus running a business, a teacher would have been his choice.
“I really liked teaching, but you couldn’t make any money, so I had to cobble together all of these other part-time things,” Lerch said.
The next step for Lerch after working for Governor Shaffer was selection as Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Co-Chair, a federal-state partnership that works with the people of Appalachia to create opportunities for self-sustaining economic development and improved quality of life.
On August 5, 1975, Lerch served as guest speaker for the groundbreaking of the Clarion County Area Vocational-Technical School (now the Clarion County Career Center) as ARC Co-Chair. The commission provided over $1 million to help fund the school.
Following his work with the commission, Lerch worked as a consultant and still drew back on his experiences as a young teacher and his summer job.
Lerch didn’t forget his time at Cook Forest and helped guide a grant that made possible the construction of the Verna Leigh Sawmill Theatre in 1984. The theater, still in operation, was constructed with monies from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Pennsylvania State Appropriations.
While he worked at Cook Forest, Lerch would have breakfast at Scotty’s and struck up a relationship with Vera Leigh, and she used to cook breakfast for him.
“She really had a dream in her eye of Verna Leith’s theater,” said Lerch. “The first thing I did for the theater when I had a consulting business (after leaving ARC), I got a grant from the Pennsylvania Arts Council for Verna Leith’s theater.”
Not a bad life for a young boy who moved with his parents after the Great Depression to a farm in Monroe Township, and he credits that life for making possible his later accomplishments and ability to adapt. He attended the one-room Over School in Monroe Township.
“I had great parents,” Lerch said. “My dad was a subsistence farmer for the last 30 or 40 years of his life.”
His parents also taught him to give back to the community.
“I served as president of the Clarion Area Hospital Board, and that evolved because I felt that when I was a young guy in politics and had a lot of support from everybody in Clarion, so I felt I needed to learn how to give back,” Lerch said. “That’s what I learned from my mom and dad. My dad was a school board director in Monroe Township forever, and when I graduated from Clarion High School, my dad gave away the diplomas. My mom was involved in Pomona Grange, that is the Clarion County farm organization.”
Lerch followed the Over School with graduation from Clarion Area High School in 1953 and Penn State in 1957.
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