Virginia Guffey, 87, credits her positive outlook to her upbringing during the Depression. "I don't worry about anything I can't do anything about," she says. "During the Depression days, you learned to work and work. And you learned to accept a lot of things…." She counts chopping wood and shoveling coal among her chores while growing up. Her father was in poor health so she and her six siblings "knew there were jobs to do," and they did them without complaint.
Guffey's outlook has served her well and continues to do so. She shows a true grit that could serve as an example to almost anyone. No matter the task in front of her, she tackles it head on and gives it all she has—from replacing the plumbing under a kitchen sink, to making ten-pound batches of peanut brittle, to going above and beyond her job requirements at Gary Works - U.S. Steel (U.S. Steel), Indiana. That attitude is why, at the age of 83, she found herself tidying up at U.S. Steel's Warehouse #7. "I was moving some truck tires from the south dock where I worked," she says. "They'd been laying there for quite a while. So I was rolling these tires to the dumpster…. And when I got to the roadway, I seen this tractor and I figured he'd seen me." The driver did not see Guffey. "He hit me," she says. "He happened to get my left foot."
That day, March 26, 2008, may have marred Guffey's 59-year-long safety record at U.S. Steel, but not her attitude. She suffered a traumatic amputation of her lower left leg as a result of the accident. "But like I say, I could be dead because I could have been under the wheels of that tractor," Guffey says. "I thank God every day that I am alive."
With a strong work ethic firmly entrenched, Guffey started working at National Veneer & Lumber Company in her hometown of Seymour, Indiana, in 1944, to support her parents and siblings financially. She started at $0.37 an hour, and worked there for five years. Upon her uncle's suggestion, she applied for a position at U.S. Steel. Guffey began a job in the sorting room in February 1949, making $1.36 per hour. In the beginning, she lived with relatives so she could send her earnings to her parents and siblings back in Seymour.
Guffey has held myriad jobs at U.S. Steel. In the beginning, she sorted tin. In 1968, she was moved to the warehouse. She was an inspector for 18 years. At the time of her injury, she was an inventory clerk in the tin division's coating-packaging warehouse. And, at the time of her retirement on April 30, 2009, she was helping the secretaries at U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant, Portage, Indiana.
In 2007, Guffey was honored at the American Steelworkers National Day of Recognition, a day that honors steelworkers who have been committed to improving the quality of life for people in Northwest Indiana. The award was given to Guffey to mark her longevity at U.S. Steel and honor her contributions to the mill, the industry, and to ensure women's equality in the workplace. As recorded in the Indiana Congressional Record, a colleague said this about Guffey: "Virginia's work ethic of pride, dedication, concern, and 150 percent effort takes a back seat to no one. She is not just an employee at U.S. Steel, but is a living legend…."
Up and At 'em
The day of her accident, Guffey was airlifted to Loyola University Medical Center (Loyola), Maywood, Illinois, for treatment, where her damaged left leg was amputated. However, she wasn't down for long—less than 24 hours. The day after her surgery, "I was walking with a walker, and it didn't have wheels on it," Guffey says. "I had to hop." Despite the pain, Guffey showed her determination. "I did what they told me to do so I could get out of there," she says. At Loyola, Guffey did more than focus on her own recovery, she set an example and bolstered the spirits of some of her fellow patients. "Some of them people that were in wheelchairs sat there and sat there, and after they seen this old lady doing what she done they said, 'If she can do it I can do it,'" Guffey says. In less than a month, on April 21, she was released from Loyola and returned to work on April 23.
As much as Guffey was dedicated to U.S. Steel, the company was as dedicated to her and her recovery, she says. The company furnished her with a wheelchair, installed a chairlift to her basement, rebuilt the shower to accommodate seating, and built a ramp into her house. A company van and driver took her to and from work. "They couldn't have done any more for me than what they've done," she says.
Ron Pawlowski, CPO, began seeing Guffey when she was referred to his company, Calumet Orthopedic & Prosthetics, Hobart, Indiana, by U.S. Steel's medical clinic in Merrillville, Indiana, where she was an outpatient. He says she is not typical of his patients, many of whom have undergone diabetes-related amputations, are on medication, or have struggled with the emotional and physical challenges presented by an amputation. None of these descriptions apply to Guffey.
"Aside from working with the prosthesis, you also deal with that person…[and] in most cases people who are in depression," Pawlowski says. "Virginia is delightful. She looks at the bright side of things in life."
Pawlowski says he initially fit Guffey with a temporary prosthesis in June 2008—a pin system with SACH foot—and saw her every four to six weeks while her residual limb continued to change in size and shape. When the physician's orders arrived in February 2009, she was fit with a definitive prosthesis—a standard pin-locking mechanism with an Ottobock, Axtion® dynamic foot. "The [surgeons] left the [residual] limb long and lank…and she's not a tall person," he says. "Our problem was that a lot of things we would have liked to have used on her were not going to happen…. That Axtion foot worked out really well."
Guffey says learning to walk with a prosthesis "wasn't too bad," and that she is "doing marvelous." She credits the rehabilitation she continues to receive three times a week and Pawlowski for her well-being. "Ron says anytime I need his service he's available," she says. "He's a wonderful person."
Despite saying that she has "no problems," Guffey acknowledges some amputation-related limitations. She says she uses a cane to go out shopping or to rehab but walks without it at home. She has had to restrict her gardening to a small plot because the length of her residual limb does not allow her to bend down on her knee. And she can no longer climb a ladder for fear of falling, although she will get up on a stepstool.
These admittedly few restrictions do not prevent her from living an active life, Guffey says. She tends to her birdfeeders and garden, she runs errands and shops, she watches television and reads uplifting stories. She meets with a group of U.S. Steel retirees for breakfast monthly, and recently helped care for her ill friend and housemate. Making peanut brittle and taking care of her poodle, Happy, also keep her "quite busy," she says.
"Happy is as happy does" is Guffey's personality reduced into four words, and she agrees. "I'm always smiling…because I'm happy," she says. Attitude is everything.
Laura Fonda Hochnadel can be reached at