by Sara Corbett
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District
March 24, 2019
The generation of people born between 1910 and 1924 are known as “the greatest generation”. They are celebrated for being humble, savers, hard-working and devoted. George Isgitt embodies all of the traits from his generation and more.
Isgitt was born in 1923 in Darlington, South Carolina. He remembers the Great Depression and saving every penny, jobs were scarce so you worked hard at the one you had, but he won’t make a big deal about the struggles he overcame. However, devotion is the strongest “greatest generation” quality that comes through in Isgitt, which is obvious as he talks about his recently-deceased wife of nearly 70 years. Isgitt was also dedicated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District.
At the young age of 18, Isgitt started his federal career on January 23, 1943 with the District. Now, at the age of 95, he fondly remembers his days as a Corps employee.
“When I first started, the Corps was in the courthouse downtown,” said Isgitt. “I was in the basement where we had our reproduction machines set-up. I would get to work at 5:30 p.m. and get off at 4:30 a.m., because the machines would run day and night to make blueprints for companies to build airports, barracks, churches, hospitals, extend runways. We were running prints for all that.”
He loved working for the Corps and working in reproduction. So much so that, despite being 75 years ago, Isgitt is able to recall the tedious process for making blueprints in the 1940s and, with no computers or copy machines, it was no small feat.
“The machine was electric and run by ammonia,” said Isgitt. “You’d get these sheets of blueprint, you’d run them through the machine and the ammonia would develop the print. We’d run off hundreds of sheets a night and we’d have to hand roll them so that each contractor got a set of blueprints.”
He worked for the Corps until 1945 then left to work in the mailroom at the Naval Shipyard. In 1948, Isgitt returned to the Corps, where he stayed until 1961. He finally retired from the Naval Weapons Station in 1980. His return to the Corps only increased his commitment to the organization and the work he did there.
“I had several roles when I returned, I was the photographer, I processed blueprints… I was chief cook and bottle washer,” said Isgitt. “I did a little bit of everything.”
Since the process for blueprint reproduction and photograph reproduction are similar, Isgitt became the District photographer where he was responsible for taking photos, developing the film and prints using a darkroom.
“I didn’t know anything about photography, but in one night they had me trained,” said Isgitt. “I had a darkroom with an enlarger to make 8x10 photos and I had to develop them by hand.”
The District has several of Isgitt’s black and white photos that he took during his time with the Corps, including photos from the infamous fire at the Charleston Tidewater Terminal that happened on June 17, 1955. At the time, the Tidewater Terminal was one of Charleston’s main port terminals and home to the Corps’ survey crew and several other agencies and businesses. When the fire took place, the Corps’ offices were in the Customs House on Bay Street, which was right down the street from the terminal.
Once he mastered the blueprint and photograph reproduction process, he took on the process of making copies, which was similar to the other processes he oversaw. And, like everything else, was a time-consuming process.
“Back then, if you wanted to make a copy of a document you had to use a Photostat sheet, they didn’t have all these computers they have now,” said Isgitt. “You had to get sheets of 8x10 paper and put it in this thing that was like a big camera, you’d take the picture, run down to the dark room to develop it. To develop it, you had to put in the developer, then the stop bath to stop the development, then the fixer to preserve it, then you had to wash it for 20-30 minutes and finally you had to dry it. It’d take hours to do it.”
While Isgitt didn’t start working for the Corps until 1943, he was very familiar with the agency. His father, John, worked for the Corps starting in 1938 as a chauffeur for the District Commander, which he has fond memories of and will humbly talk about his father’s various awards.
“I am in awe of the devotion George displayed in all aspects of his life,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Palazzini, District commander. “He is very proud of his time with the Charleston District, but you can tell he is very modest about all the different tasks and various roles he fulfilled. Talking to him and hearing his stories was incredibly humbling and eye-opening and I am grateful I had the opportunity to meet him.”
Isgitt’s “greatest generation” characteristics are inspiring and the Corps was fortunate to have him as an employee.