Worker, a key to beryllium scrutiny, dies

August 19, 1999

ELMORE - Galen "Butch" Lemke of Elmore, a former Brush Wellman worker who became a leading activist for victims of beryllium disease, died yesterday in St. Charles Mercy Hospital after a long battle with the illness. He was 58.

Mr. Lemke, who had been hospitalized for three weeks, had been connected to an oxygen tank for 15 years because of the disease, which results from exposure to the dust of the metal beryllium.

An outspoken member of the local support group for beryllium victims, Mr. Lemke was featured in a recent series of Blade articles that detailed how federal government and industry officials knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.

Toledo Blade photo
Lemke is credited with helping others cope with beryllium disease.
(Toledo Blade photo)

In fact, it was Mr. Lemke, a Blade reader, who first brought the issue to the newspaper's attention.

A 22-month investigation followed. The series has sparked numerous reforms and reactions, including two congressional investigations. In addition, a top U.S. Department of Energy official and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) have credited the series for sparking interest in a federal plan to compensate beryllium disease victims - a proposal supported by the White House.

For the last several years, Mr. Lemke had used his condition to raise awareness about beryllium disease. He wrote to newspapers, complained to lawmakers, and circulated petitions in his Elmore neighborhood.

"He was a strong-willed person, a fighter, and he would just never give up," said Gary Renwand, another former Brush worker who contracted the disease. The two became close friends as they soldiered together in the support group.

Mr. Lemke often could be seen walking for exercise in the neighborhood, carrying his portable oxygen tank, or at the Woodville Mall, where he attached the tank to a golf pull-cart.

He told The Blade this year that he wanted to be buried with his oxygen tank on, "because that's how people know me."

A high-school football star in Elmore, Mr. Lemke started at Brush in 1959, first working at the firm's former plant in Luckey, then moving to the current facility outside Elmore. For more than nine years, he made parts for the federal weapon program.

He left in 1969 to work for Owens-Illinois, Inc., in Toledo, where he helped develop the company's ceramic facility. His perfectionist nature and attention to minute detail helped him do the delicate work, said his wife of 35 years, Betty.

"Working in ceramics, you deal with tiny tolerances. He had to use a micrometer and calipers - they made parts that were very, very small," she said.

It was a physical examination by Owens-Illinois doctors in 1970 that revealed spots on Mr. Lemke's lungs. At 29, he was diagnosed with beryllium disease.

The condition was limiting for the active man, his wife said. He loved bass fishing in nearby Leeman Lake, doing yard work, and bowling. The deterioration of his lungs eventually forced him, in the early 1980s, to quit the Harris-Elmore fire department after 20 years.

"He kept right on going," his wife said. "It became a struggle for him to do things physically, but he understood it was what he had to do to survive."

In 1979, he left Owens-Illinois and started his own ceramic company with some colleagues, his son, David, said. As plant manager, he oversaw the production of substrate packages - the ceramic components that protect and insulate computer chips.

When his health forced him to step down in 1987, he stayed on as a consultant. By then, the oxygen tank had become a permanent, 24-hour-a-day part of his appearance. His son became the plant's supervisor.

"He brought me up in the business," his son said. "He started me out making the materials, cleaning them, firing them. He taught me everything."

Following in his father's footsteps, David is a supervisor for Ferro Corp., a specialty ceramics company.

Mr. Lemke's plant, which by then was part of the Boston-based Cabot Corp., was closed in 1991. "It started out a family business, and that's pretty much the way it ended," his son said.

With the money from his plant, Mr. Lemke built a spacious brick house in Elmore, to which the family moved in 1994. He bought a tractor with mower and snowplow attachments and an enclosed cab so he could tend his lawn and plow his driveway in comfort, his wife said.

He continued to fish with his children and grandchildren and attend Cleveland Indians games, his daughter, Natalie Fork, said.

All the while, he depended on his support group for friendship and sympathy - and they depended on him. "He was a brother to me," Mr. Renwand said.

Surviving are his wife, Betty; daughter, Natalie Fork; son, David; brothers, Lyle and Wayne; sister, Maxine Whitten, and four grandchildren.

The body will be in the Crosser Funeral Home, Elmore, after 7 p.m. today. Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Genoa.

The family requests tributes to the church or to the Harris-Elmore fire department.

Back to the top

Email comment

© Copyright 1999 The Blade. All rights reserved.
The Blade, 541 North Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660 USA. (419) 724-6000