PHILIPSBURG — John Streno, 71, has been a familiar face in Philipsburg for decades, though he didn’t originate here.
Born and raised in Detroit, Streno, his wife and two daughters moved nearer to his in-laws in Philipsburg in the early 1980s.
“We decided we didn’t want to [raise our family] in the big city anymore, to find a small place to live, so we ended up moving to Philipsburg,” Streno said.
“I liked it here. Having grown up in the city, I never saw a lot of trees, so when I found out the woods were out there, and you could go wander around in them, I thought that was great. I fell in love with the area, and I’m more than happy to be here. It’s nice to be accepted as somebody who moved into this community as part of the community.”
Leaving behind a career as a nursing home administrator, Streno operated a business that handled service work for the local coal mining companies.
“Then coal got shut down and everything changed,” Streno recalls.
“That was the first big hit I lived through here in Philipsburg, where government changed our life, and not for the better.”
Streno’s life has been one of variety and adaptation. After the coal business died out, he sold cars — mostly Jeeps and Chryslers — for 20 years. Then he went to work at the local prison for another 10 years.
Streno has been the mayor of Philipsburg for 16 years. He’s also a member of the Philipsburg Historical Foundation, a firearms enthusiast, a dapper dresser and an upbeat leader.
“I went from being a nursing home administrator to working around coal mines,” said Streno.
“Went from that to selling cars. And then went to prison for 10 years. And there are always opportunities that open to you. You do the same things your whole life — it’s kind of boring. I don’t think I’ve accomplished a lot, but I was never in anything for money or fame. I like peace and quiet. I like walking in the woods. I like my shooting hobbies, which have gotten ridiculously expensive now. I like history, and I think we can learn a lot from it, and one of the biggest irritations I have today is people are trying to remove or change history.”
“We have so much to offer for a little town,” Streno says.
“The population is down, businesses are gone, but they are starting to come back a little bit. The year I moved here was the year of the highest unemployment in Philipsburg. Everything was dead then. I figured if I could live through the worst of it, better times are coming.
“The town looks much, much better than when I moved here. When I bought my house, it was a plain white box. It doesn’t look like that anymore. It took me all this time to make it to what it is. Now it’s a nice house. It’s my house. And I look at the town the same way. I look around, and I see a lot of houses that were kind of dumpy looking a while ago look good now. People are trying to make it look better. I just love seeing that.
“We have our jewels — we have the Rowland Theatre. We have the Union Church, the Simler House. We have a lot of fantastic old houses, and a lot of them are being repaired right now. Property values have gone up because State College has gotten so expensive.
“I want to see a few more businesses on Front Street. The Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation has done a great job promoting (the town). I would love to see the dance hall above the (Rowland) theater be opened again.
“The parks look great — there’s a lot we’ve already accomplished. I shouldn’t say ‘we’ — the borough crew has accomplished. You look at the Cold Stream area, and the paths that they’ve built, and the foot bridge. It’s just beautiful. And for the most part, it’s pretty darn safe.”
“After living in the town and settling here, I thought maybe I should try to do something,” Streno remembers.
“(I ran) at the suggestion of Rep. Lynn Herman. I don’t think anyone else wanted it. That’s a problem I see with most small towns. People want to talk and want to complain, but they don’t want to help, and it’s not much work. You don’t get rich. It’s not about fortune or fame. It’s just about doing the right thing.
“I’ve been mayor for 16 years. If I win this next election, it’ll be 20, and then I really, really want to find somebody else to do it. Somebody who loves the town, wants to promote the town and will only say good things about the town.
“It’s not work, it really isn’t. It’s been mostly fun. Or I choose only to remember the fun parts. But this is just a good community. I wish more people would get involved. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made. There are some hard ones coming up, unfortunately.
“With the loss of the prison, things are going to get more expensive. Most of the decisions the council makes are based on mandates from state and federal government. We haven’t raised taxes in a long time, and I hope not to while I’m mayor. I’ve never signed a bill to raise taxes!
“The future is always iffy. But I still see it being pretty good for the next 10 to 20 years. We’re isolated enough from everybody.”
HOBBIES AND HABITS
“The weapons I own are more of a historic value than a modern value. I do believe in carrying. I do carry, partly because we do not have a police force. I’m trained. I’m comfortable with weapons.
“Since I like history, I am primarily interested in old weapons. Civil War weapons — I am an expert on. I’ve done the re-enacting thing too long. And the cowboy action thing I did for about 10 years. That was good, exciting fun. Dress like a cowboy, shoot guns. Now it’s too expensive.
“I quit smoking about when I moved here. When I started working around the mines, I wore a respirator, so I couldn’t smoke anymore. But I like the taste of tobacco, I’ve always been addicted to nicotine, so it’s the easiest thing. I tried chewing the snuff stuff, but that’s nasty in your mouth. A cigar — you chew on it, you get the nicotine out of it, and it irritates the hell out of liberals. And I like doing it on purpose. I chew up one a day. Bad habit, but it fits my personality, like wearing a fedora. It’s just me.
“That traditional look — I always like the traditions of looking like my grandfather. I just think you should take pride in your appearance if you can.”
ADVICE AND MANTRAS
“You remember and see what you want to see. If you’re looking for good in people, you’ll see good. If you’re looking for bad in people, you’ll see bad. And that’s a balance for everybody.
“There are things worth fighting for, and there are a lot of things not worth fighting for. The things worth fighting for are few, and you have to be very selective and pick your battles and truly, truly be totally dedicated to it. If it’s not something you can be totally dedicated to, then what are you worrying about it for?
“Only be positive and only say positive things about this town. There’s so much negativity out there. I want to be here. Most people want to be here. So why piss people off for the hell of it? Everybody’s different, but try to get along. If you point out the niceties, you point out the plusses, you point out the goodness in people, you’ll get a lot further ahead.
“Try not to let people irritate you. Do like you were taught when you were a kid — count to 10, and keep your mouth shut. Think about what you’re going to say before you blurt it out. I don’t always listen to that myself, but. … Try to be nice. Go out and say ‘Hi’ to someone, make someone new feel good.”