Mt. Pleasant historian, researcher embarks on close-to-home journey
Cassandra Vivian can rattle off the minute details about the area’s role in coal production in the 1800s.
Her eyes light up — even while those of listeners may glaze over — and her passion for telling those unknown stories pours out.
“I know all this information that no one really wants to know, but it makes me happy,” said the Mt. Pleasant researcher and historian.
From that pleasure, Vivian, 74, has derived experiences, artifacts, stories and many a printed page. Her story winds through Westmoreland County to Egypt and back, all while collecting photographs and adventures that later found a home in her small apartment.
Now, as she’s finding new places for some of those cultural items to live, she’s embarking on a close-to-home journey telling the stories of those who built the Connellsville Coke Region.
Vivian first realized she could write when she was a sophomore at Monessen High School.
At California University of Pennsylvania, she honed those skills, eventually earning a master’s degree in English and teaching in the area for several years.
“I was in the creative writing class and I kept getting As,” she recalled, laughing. “I said, ‘You know, I think I can write.’”
She left the area in 1976 for Cairo, living there until the 1990s when she returned to care for an ailing family member.
“I enjoyed teaching … but there was something waiting for me someplace else,” she said.
She found that something in Cairo — a wealth of teaching, learning, map-making and photographic opportunities, eight of which now hang from the wall in her living room, a culture in sharp contrast to life in Mt. Pleasant.
She taught at Cairo American College and The American University in Cairo, but her free time was spent traveling around in her Volkswagen Beetle and exploring the desert.
She wrote “The Western Desert of Egypt,” which Kent Weeks, professor at The American University in Cairo, has relied on heavily this year while working on a project. Weeks called the book, later translated into Arabic, a “significant contribution” to that area’s history.
“She was truly a pioneer: imagine one person heading off in a single vehicle into the most barren landscape on earth, the Sahara Desert, searching for archeological sites and remote living cultures, recording what she saw in careful detail, and helping the modern world to appreciate it and safeguard it,” Weeks wrote in an email. “Cassandra’s Egyptian treks are a story of a woman’s courage, dedication, and caring. Her books … are major contributions to human understanding and they will continue to be important for many generations to come.”
Vivian is proud of her experiences and the documentation of her time in Egypt. Many of the artifacts she brought home have been used in museum exhibitions and others have found new homes, including at the Rare Book and Special Collection Library of the American University in Cairo.
The quest for knowledge did not end when she returned to Monessen, and later in Mt. Pleasant.
“All I know is nothing was ever enough,” she said. “I wanted more. I’ve been all around the world. I’ve photographed it, I wrote about it.”
Just as she focused on the culture of Egypt, research for her other books — 20 in all — have involved Western Pennsylvania history and local Italian-American heritage, including her own.
“It’s the same because I grew up at a time when ethnicity was very strong in Monessen,” she said. “When I went to Egypt, that’s the same thing — I fit right in.”
She started two historical organizations in Monessen and later founded the Mt. Pleasant Glass Museum, which closed this year.
Peter O’Rourke recalled Vivian’s foresight. He runs O’Rourke Cut Glass and Crystal in Mt. Pleasant.
“She took the bull by the horns and she started it, really, by herself,” he said. “She was very passionate about it.”
Now, Vivian wakes early to get started on the day’s research for the coal project that has consumed her for the last six years. She is focusing on the local workers who started bituminous coal production in the Youghiogheny, Morgan Valley and Mt. Pleasant areas. That research could be book-ready in 2019.
“Most of the time I’m sitting in front of a computer,” she said. “You go where your brain leads you. I did it all because it needed to be done.”
She’s perfectly happy there, diving into — or “nebbing,” as she referred to it — old newspaper articles and other information.
“I have been frustrated a lot of times in my life because what I want to do” isn’t the most lucrative business, Vivian said. “I am rich in a thousand different ways.”