How I Became Ensnared in the Pittsburgh Web
How did a native of Minneapolis, a Viking fan, fall in love with Pittsburgh? It’s a long story, but a good one.
In 1968, I was assigned as a newly minted VISTA Volunteer to the community action program in McKeesport’s Third Ward, a tough but lively section of town. Hanging out on Walnut Street, in the Swing Club and Dave’s Walnut Inn, and on the hoops court in the Harrison Village housing project, I started to feel a part of the community.
Western Pennsylvania was so different from Minnesota, but I began to feel at home. However, while I returned to Minneapolis after my year of service, I kept coming back to Pittsburgh to visit, until in 1979, when I enrolled in the Masters in Social Work (MSW) program at Pitt. Within a year, I had purchased a house in Fineview, completely renovated it, and had enrolled my son in Rogers Middle School for the Performing Arts. The Viking fan had become a Steelers fan, a Pirates fan, and what a year! A Super Bowl, a World Series, and great football and basketball teams at Pitt. I felt more at home in Pittsburgh than I ever did in Minnesota.
Good fortune seemed to greet me nearly every day. Dave Bergholz, deputy director at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD), invited me to do a field placement at ACCD and create the Community Technical Assistance Center. I had a great job waiting for me as soon as I graduated. Within two years at CTAC, the board chairman of the newly formed East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) asked me to be the first executive director of that organization.
While serving at ELDI, Sylvia Clark, then president of Mellon Bank Foundation, created a new program called Discover Total Resources. This program was designed to help small nonprofits develop effective fundraising strategies. Sylvia asked me to be her first consultant, and my first client was Neighborhood Housing Services, a struggling nonprofit on the Northside. When I met with Dorothy Richardson, the founder, and Steve Roberts, the executive director, they were both enmeshed in a board issue; so Steve asked me to work with his assistant, Rita Dillingham. I found Rita to be extremely smart and capable, and when we had completed my assignment and presented Steve with the proposal, I asked Rita out to lunch. She suggested dinner instead, and we’ve now been married 35 years. (She says she got the proposal!) We were married by a Pitt classmate, John Scotland. Rita soon found another job, working for John Paul at UPMC’s predecessor, MHCD.
Bob Pease, ACCD’s president, connected me with a headhunter in 1989, and I was soon selected as the new president of Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc. But our Pittsburgh connections were still strong. Tim Stack, former president of Southside Hospital in Pittsburgh, had just been hired as president of Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo. He immediately offered Rita a job as assistant to Dr. Sandy Tolchin, chief of medical staff. Sandy’s family owned Katz and Kids, a great deli in Squirrel Hill. Most of Tim’s top staff were from Southside, so social affairs often featured Pittsburgh themes.
Then my advisor from Pitt, Jim Cunningham, invited me to be part of a research team involving the School of Social Work and University College Dublin (UCD). A chance to go to Ireland, and study youth employment programs in Dublin and Pittsburgh! While in Dublin, I discovered I had a cousin, John Feehan, teaching at UCD. My Pittsburgh good fortune continued to pay unexpected dividends.
My downtown management career took me to Detroit and Des Moines, and then to Washington D.C. as president of the International Downtown Association. I arrived in Washington in early 2001, to find out that our next annual conference was in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2001.
As president of IDA and as a private consultant, I conducted a number of expert panels for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, examining downtown housing and parking issues, and helping the city prepare for the visit by international leaders at the G-20 Summit.
Thanks to Paul Brophy, former Urban Redevelopment Authority director, I was asked to write the lead chapter in “Community Development in the Steel City” a publication of Oxford Press. I also prepared a proposal with my colleague Dr. Jack Hopkins, former president of the Kalamazoo Foundation, for ELDI, to expand their effective crime reduction program.
But fortune keeps bringing me back to the Burgh. I was nominated and elected to the board of directors of the University of Pittsburgh Alumni Association, and was named a master community organizer by the School of Social Work.
And then, a friend called and said I should check out a documentary about Monessen. He knew I had done some work as a VISTA in 1969 in Monessen, so I did a quick on-line search, and found out that Monessen had recently elected a new City Council member named David Feehan! I had to call him and introduce myself, and after a short conversation, he recommended that I speak with the City Administrator, Mike Korposh. Mike and I agreed to meet during my next trip to Pittsburgh, and he introduced me to the mayor, Ron Mozer. Together we organized a study tour of community leaders, starting with a morning meeting at CMU’s Remaking Cities Institute, with Don Carter and Rick Stafford, then a panel discussion at ACCD with Bill Flanagan hosting and three national experts speaking, and finally a tour and meeting at ELDI with Skip Schwab.
Since that meeting, Monessen has held a community summit, and is moving forward on demolition and clearance of abandoned properties and developing plans to revitalize downtown. There seems to be both new energy and a sense of direction in Monessen, and a hope that success in that town could provide guidance for the entire Mon Valley. Could my involvement bring my wife (who is from Sharon) and me back to Pittsburgh? We are looking.