Dan Laughlin and his familyDAN LAUGHLIN’S HANDS have known a hard day’s work and his heart knows the happiness that comes of a job well done and a dream made real.

Among the moments that shaped him, one stands out: the sacrifice his parents made to keep his baby sister alive.

Mary Laughlin was born with a hole in her heart and the family’s health insurance refused to cover the cost of what was, at that time, experimental surgery to install a patch. Dave and Shirley Laughlin struggled to do it, but over the next 20 years, they paid the $25,000 bill.

“They never complained. And there was never any hesitation. I was raised by people who knew that you did the things that needed to be done,” Dan says today.

Born in Erie and raised in the Erie Heights housing project, above 38th on Garden Avenue, Dan was the son of a decorated World War II combat veteran who worked as a union carpenter for Local 81. His mom spent the war years assembling fighter planes at the Curtis Wright Plant in Buffalo. Dave and Shirley Laughlin later saved up a down payment for a family home on Allegheny Road, and the growing family moved there.

One of four children, Dan contributed to the family income by mowing lawns, and delivering the Erie Daily Times after school.

Dan went on to study electrical shop at Tech Memorial High School and his father surprised the family when he decided to move them into an unfinished barn in the nearby countryside. That was during the winter of 1976. With a wood stove to heat the place and the roof and walls leaking, Dan sometimes awoke with snow on his bed.

In the summer of 1977, Dan went to work in the strawberry fields of nearby Claron Farms. That was also around the time a labor dispute put the Carpenter’s Union members — including his father — out of work. Dan’s father received $50 a week in strike benefits. The family was eligible for food stamps, but declined to accept them.

That winter Dave Laughlin sold his hunting rifles so the family could eat. Too poor to buy fuel for the barn, Dan and his brothers walked the train tracks leading into the old E.L. Heard Lumber Yard, gathering fallen pieces of coal for the stove. That Christmas, Dan recalls asking for orange juice as a gift.

In the summer of 1978, Dan and his brothers worked for a construction company and spent the following summer installing aluminum siding. Two years later, at 18, he graduated from Fort LeBoeuf High School, wearing a $7 green suit and a Timex watch – his graduation gift.

Dan enrolled in a local skill center to train as a machinist by day, and worked the night shift at National Forge in Erie, running the same huge, vertical lathe on which his future wife’s grandfather had once shaped metal.

The collapse of western Pennsylvania’s steel industry eventually put Dan out of work. He enrolled briefly at Penn State’s Behrend campus but, with no income, he knew he had to return to the workforce.

Dan joined his brother Jerry’s construction firm and later bought into the company as a full partner.  Laughlin Builders was one of the region’s premier builders of quality homes.  Twenty years later, the brothers formed Waste Away disposal company, which they later sold to Pro Waste Corp. Their portfolio of companies expanded to include Clear Water Foam, an insulating firm, as well as Laughlin Properties, a rental company.