I had a particularly blessed and pleasing past 8 days (September 16-24, 2017) so I decided to write about it. It gave me the opportunity to express gratefulness. Neil Diamond has always been a musician and songwriter that I have liked because his lyrics have meaning. I was fortunate to see him in concert a few years back. His lyrics in “Song Sung Blue,” I think, can resonate with all of us.
song sung blue
everybody knows one
song sung blue
every garden grows one
me and you
are subject to
now and then
but when you take
and sing a song
you sing them out
Last Saturday (September 16, 2017), was the first event in the RMR History Speaker Series.
I can only say that it exceeded all expectations. The first noted speaker was Kelly Anne Sullivan, the granddaughter of Albert Leo Sullivan, one of five brothers who perished on November 13, 1942 during the epic battle of Guadalcanal on the light destroyer, the USS Juneau which was torpedoed and sunk. Her presentation of private family stories and letters coupled with poignant pictures of her grandfather and great-uncles mesmerized the audience of approximately 175 people. That is 175! I believe when the RMR Board of Directors were conceiving the event that the expectation was around 40 people. 175 was a 400+% increase. Needless to say, we were pleased.
So why was there such a wealth of people in attendance?
First of all, I think that Father Vince Kolo (RMR Board member, CV “86) was fastidious in his research of the 33 Pittsburgh connections to the USS Juneau and in pursuing any clue in trying to contact their relatives. It was remarkable how many of the lost from the USS Juneau were represented in the audience. Angie Dietrich who lost her brother Tony Caracciolo in the USS Juneau accepted the flag in a Navy Color Guard Honor Service for all of the relatives who lost loved ones in the sinking. Father Vince’s tedious and persistent work brought fruition to the event.
Second, Emily Keebler (RMR Board member) and a champion of social media brought in the Eventbrite service to allow people to sign up online. The Board had put out a press release and there were attempts to get media coverage, and an extensive article in the Pittsburgh Catholic was published so that people could sign up via the phone or electronically. In our increasingly digital world, the use of such means to communicate is obviously critical.
Third, I think all members of the Board made personal contacts to reach out to people to witness this inaugural event of the RMR History Speaker Series. Many of my former students from years past and colleagues attended. Three of my students from last year, Sam Crivaro, Kate Palma, and Olivia Namee worked the sign-in table along with my daughter, Annmarie.
Numerous community people witnessed the event. And, some interested observers (along with the relatives) came from afar to hear the story of the selfless Sullivan Brothers and their great sacrifices in World War II through the voice of their own personal representative, Kelly Anne Sullivan. Kelly’s great-grandparents, the parents of the tragic loss of five sons, went on to help their country sell war bonds, christened the USS Sullivans, a Fletcher-class destroyer, and permitted a motion picture called “The Fighting Sullivans” to be cut and shown as a feature film during World War II.
Not enough can be said by me of my Board. President and Founder, Garrett Cooper (CV ’98); Vice-President, Mary Kay Babyak; Secretary, Emily Keebler; and Treasurer, Mark Perilman (CV ’88). Other Board members are Father Vince Kolo and my son Justin. The entire RMR Fund is a humbling honor to me and to watch my Board members volunteer their time for its success continues to make me grateful. Our hope is for the next event to occur in early 2018.
On Wednesday (September 20), I met three of my college friends. We had had a reunion in April of this year and over 30 members of the Rogues and many of their significant others attended. The Rogues were a social-athletic organization that I had founded in the Spring of 1967. It targeted mostly commuter students who did not want to join any of the Greek fraternities on the Duquesne University campus. Between 1967-1974, the Rogues were a premier entity at Duquesne University. Most of us had not seen each other in 48 years! Needless to say, we had a lot of catching up to do.
There were six original members of the Rogues when we started in 1967. Four of us met at Bucca di Beppa in Station Square. We called it a Rogues4 reunion. Two of these individuals were the first officers of the Rogues and one served as our Publicity Director. My esteemed friends were Tom Trafalski, Dennis Stasukevich and Dave Sommers. Tom and I and his brother Tim walked to grade school and high school for 12 years. Tom and I have known each other since we were both 5 years old with a 48-year hiatus. We spent over three hours at the restaurant, laughing, reminiscing, chiding one another, and bonding as we had bonded over 50 years ago. Each of these people and many more were all ingredients in my life. I cannot help but be grateful for the superb friendships that we crafted in the early formative years of our lives and how they can be resurrected 50 years later. I think that it is very important to take time to stop and reflect and see how you got to where you are now in life. Who helped you along the way, consciously or inadvertently? What events in your life perhaps did not work out as you wanted them to but played an important part in who you are? When were there times in our life where there was a crossroads and we had to make a difficult decision and how did that affect who we are today? Why are we what we are now?
On Friday (September 22), I met with former students Bryan Seybert and Joe Senchak and Bryan’s dad Dave. We met at the Oyster House in downtown Pittsburgh. The Oyster House plays a special role in my story. My Dad Manuel who emigrated from Portugal in 1923 was a city person. He lived in New York, Bethelem, PA and Danville, VA, a coal town. His Mom, my grandmother, operated a boarding house for miners. She cleaned and cooked for them. One of my Dad’s jobs was to clean out the spittoons. He told me the story of when he found a quarter and he thought he was rich. My thoughtful son Matthew bought me an antique spittoon for my last birthday. I love symmetry.
Bryan and Joe were two of the best overall students that I had in 48 years. Both were eclectic and loved to learn. Bryan was somewhat of a “high school Leonardo da Vinci.” I have often had students who were skilled in Math/Science or English/Social Studies. Bryan was tremendous in all of them. He was a student with an excellent ‘sense of wonder.’ Right now he is in the process of making a specialty beer with another terrific graduate, Ryan Quinn. I am glad that we re-connected and I see Bryan as a young colleague because he plies his trade as a teacher in the South Fayette School District. He is married to Holly and has a one-year-old. Joe was an extremely bright student with a quick wit. I had not seen Joe (except for a Doritos commercial that was wrongly tanked) since graduation in 2006. When he approached our table in front of the Oyster House, I instantly knew him even though he had drastically changed. Joe had an appealing long hair look (to the shoulder) with a full beard. My first reaction was, “OMG, it’s JC.” But, he was still “Joe,” outgoing, humorous, and sharp. We were all given Iron City souvenirs for imbibing with IC Light by two young (20 something) cute girls on our second try. The girls had some leftover prizes and I think that they came back to our table because of Joe. He was a magnet.
Bryan’s dad Dave is quite a man. I first met him when he was the Dean of the School of Science at Duquesne University. He taught microbiology and other science courses at Duquesne. At the time (circa 2005), we were working to expand the “College in the High School” repertoire at the high school. Chartiers Valley High School sought to add Chemistry, Physics and Biology classes to the curriculum aligned with Duquesne University standards so that students could obtain college credits in high school and transfer them to them to the college of their choice. Dave and I worked together to facilitate that happening. I can only say as the Coordinator of that program for 14 years that thousands of CV students walked into their college years armed with credits. I heard the credit total as high as 30 making them a sophomore in college. Sitting outside the Oyster House with his son and Joe was a true pleasure. We enjoyed three hours together and it could have gone on longer. The feeling tone was rich and as I drove home that evening, I felt very grateful that I have former students and now friends and even their Dads in my life space.
That would have been a great week. But my “renaissance” son Justin asked me to go boating with him so that he could pick up my daughter Annmarie and son Bob at the Point after the Great Race (September 24, 2017) in which they had participated. I was reluctant because of the logistics and I must admit that I wanted to watch the Steelers-Bears game (big mistake). But Justin had a plan. Drive to Riverfront Park in the Southside; he will launch from Duquesne, PA and pick me up; we would then boat to the Point where we could pick up Annmarie and Bob and spirit over the rivers and see Pittsburgh from a different perspective; then, he would return me to drive home on my own so that I could watch the game (sorry, I am a Pittsburgh sports fanatic) and he and his siblings could enjoy the day on the Pittsburgh waters. What a plan!
Everything went without a hitch. I sat in the back of the boat and enjoyed my city from a different angle. Heinz Field was empty but glorious in the autumn sun because of its history of achievements and being the home of the Rooney Family team that has graced Pittsburgh since 1933. We floated past PNC Park where part of my heart lies. I love the Pirates and they anger me at the same time. I am a fan. I just wish that the owner was also a diehard fan. I could not believe the magnificence of my city. I call it my city because I have lived here since birth and have no plans to leave. Maybe I am just a curmudgeon now but as I drove to Riverfront Park, my city sparkled—I saw the bicyclers, walkers, shoppers, church-goers, families with young children, and hipsters who populated the Southside. I embraced all of that because it is good and healthy for our town.
The trip up and down the rivers was riveting. I saw the Heinz plant where my Dad worked for 49 years; we went past the office of DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) on Herr’s island where my daughter Nicole works as a lawyer; I viewed the Convention Center and the Rivers Casino from a different venue; there were great stretches of virgin shore untouched by man’s development (where I believe that I could hook a few nice game fish); and, of course the Pittsburgh skyline from the boat was captivating. I remember as a youngster that an old man who lived on my street took me and a couple of my friends to fish in the Monongahela back in the 1960s. We used hot dogs and cheese as bait and in our two-hour stay, I remember that I caught 8 catfish in the 12-16 inch range. They were gray. They were supposed to be yellow and brown. The nice man who took us to go fishing would not let us touch the fish as we disentangled them from the hook. I remember that the smell in the area was like a sewer. We broke down our fishing poles and got on the streetcar back to Dormont. I was happy to have caught fish but it seemed wrong that the fish were so tainted.
In the 1980s at Chartiers Valley High School, I taught in the Civic Education program. It was an academic class with good standards but it also practiced participatory democracy with a community meeting every other Friday with the students at the reigns of power. The students raised money for events like an Ethnic Banquet, community projects, and a camping trip in the Spring. One activity that became popular was to have students meet at the dock where the Gateway Clipper fleet based and have an evening of gala of the Pittsburgh scene with music and dancing. These trips were always enjoyable because the students relished them and they were contained on a ship. But one thing that stood out in my mind was the number of dead fish floating in the water. The rotting smell permeated the cool air.
Our mayor Bill Peduto was a student in my class in 1980. I know that this may sound disingenuous but I believed that he would be a big deal in politics. He had good pro-social skills and the canniness to know what route to take. He was outgoing but also thoughtful. He was clearly a leader amongst the seniors in the year that he graduated. I watched him pop up as a member of the Pittsburgh City Council and then after the dismal failure of Luke Ravenstahl as Mayor, he was the leader of our city. I asked Bill to come to CV and address his antecessors at the school. He obliged. It was a homespun walk through the history of Pittsburgh and his days on the Chartiers Valley campus. But, what I remember most from his talk with the students was how excited he said he was to be at the helm of a city like Pittsburgh with its burgeoning assets, cultural diversity, incredible geography, and a spirited citizen base. “at the helm?” He was piloting a ship. It was a great metaphor for a city graced by three spectacular rivers cleaned up over the past thirty years by leaders of courage and conviction. Bill was the right person at the right time in the right place to steer Pittsburgh to its heights as a city of uncommon traits that allow it to stand out in the 21st century. We should be proud to be Pittsburghers.
And so my 8-day odyssey ended, but with great memories. I had extremely special people in my life who respected my work for nearly 50 years; I had friends that stood the test of time and I believe that we will live out our days together; and, I live in an exceptional and extraordinary city that can claim it greatness in it diversity, geography, and history. Live in gratefulness and you will realize the true appreciation of your life. Say thanks a lot, wave to drivers who let you cut in, smile to people that you cross on the street, and always take notice of the people who are very dear to you in life because life is precious and fleeting. I know that it is a trite expression but in the wisdom of Ben Franklin’s Almanac we find simple truisms like ” The Doors of Wisdom are never shut.” When people are more thankful for the blessings in their lives, they attract positivity and become more abundant in the experience of their life. They are happy and wise people.