The ones who knew him still had to look twice.
When they realized for sure who it was, they started smiling.
At first, they whispered: “It’s him.”
Then everyone started saying hello.
For some, it was a formal, “Mr. Puskar, how have you been?”
For still more others, though, it was heartier (and heartfelt), “Hey, Mike. How ya doin’?”
Milan “Mike” Puskar always preferred the latter.
“Well, that was dad,” Johanna Puskar said of her father, the co-founder of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the plant he brought to Morgantown in 1965.
“Dad was proud of his employees,” she said, “but he never called them that. It was always, ‘My co-workers and friends.”
Heck, more like family, she said.
If you worked there, you were issued an employee badge, but the Big Guy already knew your first name.
He knew the first name of your wife or husband. He knew your kids’ names.
He knew you didn’t have to pay for your medical insurance — and that he would pay for major hospital treatment or surgery outright, out of his pocket, if you or someone in your house was seriously ill.
Walking the shop floor was just something he did — without security or any kind of entourage. It was his way of checking in.
On that day in late September 2011, he was dropping in to say goodbye. He was tired, and in the twilight of his battle against cancer.
He wasn’t strong enough to walk, and Johnna gently guided his wheelchair. A week later, Puskar was dead from the disease even he couldn’t outwork.
This past week at the plant, others have been doing walk-throughs just as poignant. Today is its last day.
Desks and lockers have been cleaned out. Those employee badges have been surrendered.
Viatris, the current parent company formed by a merger of Mylan and Upjohn, is shuttering the place and moving its manufacturing operations to India.
The echoing footfalls in the plant today are the coda to an American business tale in Morgantown as celebratory as it is cautionary.
That tale picked up in 1961, when Don Panoz, a pharmacist who served in the military in Japan with Puskar, picked up the phone and posed a venture to his old Army buddy.
“Mike — why don’t we start a drug company in West Virginia?”
Panoz grew up in Spencer. That’s where his Italian immigrant father settled after his arrival.
The patriarch demanded his kid study in school and the scary subjects were scary-easy. Biology. Chemistry. All of the hard sciences.
Panoz would go on land more than 300 patents in the pharmaceuticals industry.
When Puskar’s parents landed on these shores from Serbia, it was in working-class Hubbard, Ohio, right down the road from Youngstown, in an apartment over the nightclub they owned and operated.
“Butch” Puskar, as the once-and-future pharmaceuticals magnate was then known, muscled beer kegs as a little kid and learned that simply treating people with respect, customers and everyone else, meant everything.
When Panoz asked, Puskar chuckled and answered the question — with a question.
Doing everything wrong – the right way
They moved into a condemned roller rink in White Sulphur Springs. A coin toss decided which partner would put his name on the company.
“Partnership,” was the watch-word. The pair riffed on one another and were both personally secure enough to give each other credit for each company success.
They joked about it, using movie terms of the day. Panoz, he said, “dreamed in Technicolor,” while “Mike worked in black and white to get the deal done.”
“They did everything ‘wrong,’ ” Johanna Puskar said, “but they did it the right way.”
Free healthcare for employees.
People over profit.
A Thanksgiving turkey and a Christmas bonus for every one of those co-workers and friends, no matter what the numbers on the cost ledger said.
“Who does that today?” Puskar’s daughter asked.
It didn’t take long. Just four years later, in 1965, they were established and successful.
Puskar and Panoz were also paying attention to the doings in Morgantown.
The city’s still-gleaming WVU Medical Center (now the university’s Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center) was transforming itself into a premiere hospital for the state and region.
In one momentous span, the hospital recruited pioneering heart surgeon Herb Warden and the equally pioneering neurosurgeon Robert Nugent to the staff.
The hospital was a medical destination and Morgantown, with its spinoff jobs from the state’s land grant university, was an economic one, as well.
There was that, and that other thing.
Mike Puskar, an avowed sports nut, went and morphed himself into a WVU Mountaineer football fan.
In the 1965 edition of the Backyard Brawl, WVU outlasted Pitt 63-48 in a thriller at old Mountaineer Field — and a gum-chewing, aw-shucks assistant coach named Bobby Bowden would be on the sidelines for the Old Gold and Blue that following season.
“Things are happening in Morgantown,” Mike Puskar said.
Fast, as it turns out.
The company, and the community
The 22-acre Chestnut Ridge Road site where the plant is now was hills, trees and a little house — occupied by the Panoz family, Johanna Puskar said.
“Yeah, it was Don and his wife and their five kids,” she said.
“It was a tiny house. They started building [the plant] to the left of it. Then, the house was gone and the plant was there.”
For years, Mike Puskar’s office was in a double-wide trailer on the lot while the extensive, specialized construction went on.
If double-wide trailers suggest impermanence, no matter — Puskar and Mylan, by then, had a strong foundation in Morgantown.
The company was a global success and known for providing a good paycheck and work environment.
Its leader, in turn, was known just as much for his community altruism as for his business acumen.
“I’m making my dad out to be a goody two-shoes and he wasn’t,” Johanna Puskar said.
“He wasn’t a saint, but I’ll tell you what. He was a good boss. And he was a benefactor to Morgantown. He said, ‘I want to help. I want to treat people the way I want to be treated.’ It was his name, and the company name out there. And you’re not getting that now.”
Union leaders, a host of lawmakers, and grassroots groups have vowed to keep the fight to save the plant and its jobs, even after today — which Johanna Puskar said will feel like “my Dad’s funeral all over again.”
Meanwhile, there was that afternoon 10 years ago on the shop floor.
Those co-workers and friends gave their old boss a standing ovation, and they let loose with the “Let’s go, Mountaineers!” cheer.
Just because, Johanna Puskar remembered.
Mike Puskar laughed and joined in. Couldn’t help it.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”