Leon Cassady remembers the day his turn came.
When a man signed on to be a guard at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview back then, nobody asked for volunteers to take condemned prisoners to the electric chair. It was part of the job.
On Sept. 27, 1955, Cassady was one of five guards assigned to take convicted killer John Wesley Wable from the front gate to the electric chair upstairs, strap him in, and turn the proceedings over to the never-seen executioner who stood behind a wall.
“It hits you later,” the retired guard remembered. He described the impact as a “kind of nervous” sensation.
Now, a decade after Cassady retired from Rockview, and 33 years since the last execution was carried out, a new generation of guards and their neighbors will have something to get used to. Barring a last-minute stay, Keith Zettlemoyer, 39, tonight will be strapped to a gurney, wheeled into the room that once held the electric chair, and put to death by lethal injection.
Rockview, the prison situated near this Centre County town, has been the official place of execution since it opened in 1915.
In a town where a prison is one of the major employers, and the rolling farmland surrounding it often is dotted with jumpsuited prisoners working the fields and orchards, residents simply have gotten used to its implications.
“You grow up around here, it’s around, like your school or your church or your shopping center,” said Jim Struble, as he stood in the garage his family has run since 1959. Across Route 26, a Rockview inmate worked a patch of field.
In the homes and businesses that surround the prison, the moan of a siren warns residents when someone has wandered from the prison.
“It’s the eeriest sound you ever heard,” said Nancy Stoner, standing behind the counter of the lawn mower shop she runs with her husband, Tom. “We don’t really get too excited. We just go pull the keys out of our car.”
Tom Stoner was in high school in 1962 when Elmo Smith, of Philadelphia, was
put to death in the electric chair, the last time the chair was used.
“I can remember a lot of talk on it,” he said. “I think there were a lot of mixed feelings. You agree with capital punishment, until the day of reckoning comes.”
After that, Stoner said, you still agree with capital punishment, but the sense of gravity sets in.
Almost everyone encountered on a tour of the area supported capital punishment. “There’s only one way to stop crime, and that’s to scare ’em to death,” said Struble, the garage owner.
Dennis May, who runs a hardware store in nearby Pleasant Gap, played ball with ’em.
In May’s youth, Rockview fielded a team in the local athletic leagues.
“They had a good ball team, I’ll tell you,” said May, who grew up near the prison. His dad, Earl, was a justice of the peace who once was deputized to witness one of the electrocutions.
Ten miles away in State College, home to Penn State, only a few voices have been raised against today’s scheduled execution.
Students at Penn State, said Andrew Shubin, a lawyer who specializes in representing prisoners, aren’t readily aware of the prison and its implications.
“They live by it, but don’t realize,” Shubin said.
He described State College’s activist community as small.
In Florida and Texas, college students have been known to turn out to cheer executions. To date, says Angela Pomponio, editor of The Daily Collegian, no demonstrations for or against appear to have been planned at Penn State.
“We’re in the middle of finals week right now,” she said.
At a coffee house on Beaver Avenue, John Black, a lifelong leftist and refugee from Hitler’s Germany, fairly growled at the thought of the state’s death row.
“Most of the people are there because of poverty. Lack of education and poverty,” Black said. “I don’t see any professors on death row, and I don’t see any millionaires on death row.”
But like many other people in Centre County, Black isn’t about to say ”never” to the idea of a death penalty.
“I’m not against the death penalty per se,” Black said. “There are some people in this world I would gladly pull the trigger on. Do you think we could have possibly had a problem with hanging Hitler?”