EASTON, Pa. — An Easton man, who came from humble origins, Russell K. Laros built his company into one of America’s top silk manufacturers and he gave a good deal of his fortune away.

His charitable foundation has given away about $7.4 million to support causes in the Bethlehem area over the last 65 years.

But Laros is not a household name in the Lehigh Valley, like Charles Schwab or Eugene Grace.

That’s why the R.K. Laros Foundation is collaborating with the Industrial Archives & Library on the Laros Oral History Project, an endeavor that aims to document the history and impact of the R.K. Laros Silk Company on the region.

They’re seeking the stories, memories and insights of company employees and their families, so the history can be recorded before it is lost to time.

“Russell K. Laros, founder of the company, was a true innovator, shrewd businessman and a forward thinking, community icon and philanthropist who cared deeply for his employees and his community,” said Sharon Jones Zondag, foundation executive director. “But despite all this, his life and legacy are somewhat hazy in the public conscience today. Through this project, we are hoping to begin changing that.”

The Laros story is an important part of the Bethlehem community’s industrial lore, said Stephen G. Donches, president and CEO of the Industrial Archives & Library, which is the production partner and repository institution for the project.

“Mr. Laros occupied a unique place in the industrial and social fabric of the Lehigh Valley. Joining the likes of Charles Schwab, Eugene Grace and General Harry Trexler,” Donches said. “R. K. Laros helped to build a small town into an industrial center known far and wide. He just never sought the spotlight or the accolades.”

Laros graduated from Easton High School and then Lafayette College in 1914.

Laros founded his silk company in 1919 opening the first mill in the Miller Heights section of Bethlehem Township. In 1922, he opened the above Bethlehem mill at Broad Street and Stefko Boulevard, which still stands today. He built the company into one of the top American silk manufacturers.

The company initially focused on producing raw silk and then ladies undergarments. Laros, who had a reputation as an innovator, shifted production to parachutes and a pioneering synthetic blood plasma product during World War II and the Korean War years.

The company introduced the Laros dimensional slip in 1938, billed as being capable of fitting all nine basic body types due to its unique cut and design.

Laros had a fervent belief that he was called to serve his community, according to the foundation.

He served on the boards of St. Luke’s Hospital, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Rosemont Lutheran Church, Lafayette College and the Bethlehem Community Chest. He was also a founding board member and chairman of the Bethlehem YMCA and president of the Bthlehem Rotary Club.

Continuing that spirit of philanthropy, Laros and his wife, Helen, established their foundation in 1952. Laros died in 1955.

The company was sold in 1957, making the foundation the last vestige of the “once highly prominent Laros enterprise,” a news release states.

Laros’ legacy of service lives on through the foundation, which has awarded nearly 650 grants totaling about $7.4 million to more than 150 organizations and causes.

“Through this project, we are hoping to gain a much more thorough and richer understanding of the R. K. Laros Silk Company and fill in some of the gaps of knowledge that are widening as the Laros story begins to fade from the community’s collective memory,” Jones Zondag said.

The two groups are putting out a public call for help.

Sixty years have passed since the R.K. Laros Silk Company was sold.

“We realize that there are fewer and fewer people out there who might have any firsthand knowledge of the Laros story,” Jones Zondag said. “…We invite anyone with any knowledge they might have about the Laros Silk Company, R. K. Laros or the Laros family to come forward and contact me to share their story. Whether you might be a former employee, a family member of a former employee or just an individual who has some information of interest, your participation will be much appreciated.”


Online:

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Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com