Trib photo editor remembers role Tay Waltenbaugh played as Big Brother
Tay Waltenbaugh, CEO of Westmoreland Community Action, plans to retire Feb. 28 after nearly 30 years with the organization. The Hempfield resident previously worked at Adelphoi Village and for five years served as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Westmoreland County.
He also played a role in mentoring Sean Stipp, the Tribune-Review’s director of visuals, when Stipp was growing up in Hempfield.
I met Tay when I was 10 years old. My dad had passed away when I was six, and my mother, a now single mom of two boys and two girls, was desperately searching for a positive direction for her kids — most especially me, her youngest and unarguably most awkward.
The first time I met Tay was in the Greensburg office of Big Brothers Big Sisters in the early 1980s. There we were, Tay and me — a skinny, little, nonathletic, nerdy-looking kid with round glasses and spiked hair, scared and skeptical of basically everything and everyone.
Tay, on the other hand, was one of the cool guys. Confident. Easy going. The 6-foot, 7-inch former college basketball star at Juniata College rocked what was arguably one of the premiere mullets of the decade. The recent college grad drove a Ford Bronco with his faithful German shepherd, Abby, riding shotgun.
We had little in common.
Tay was into hunting, fishing and sports. Me? Breakdancing, cameras and a general fondness for weirdness.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Tay from the start. It was impossible not to. But to my mom, a traditional, first-generation Italian-American Catholic, Tay was a godsend. I’ll never forget the time when I realized how much my mom appreciated and revered Tay.
Once at my house, Tay and Abby were visiting when Abby watched closely as Tay placed a dog treat on the edge of a coffee table in my family room. Abby didn’t take the treat and patiently waited. Well, not patiently at all, but she resisted. Only on Tay’s command did Abby take the treat. I remember seeing the hope in my mom’s eyes as she struggled daily to keep her kids disciplined.
As a Big Brother, Tay opened up his life completely. He introduced me to his parents and regularly invited me to his home. He took me fishing, whitewater rafting, camping and exposed me to activities unfamiliar to my family. Outdoor recreation continues to define my life.
Despite my attempt to push Tay into some sort of activity with each encounter, mostly we just hung out doing daily life stuff — which to an 11-year-old seems boring. Looking back, I give Tay a lot of credit. It likely was boring for him, too.
Soon, Abby would surrender the front seat of the Bronco to Brenda, Tay’s fiancée. I would watch them get married and, yes, I did breakdance at the wedding, spiked hair and all.
I would see Tay and Brenda buy their first home and have their first child before we both moved into different phases of our lives. The time we would spend together would be less frequent, but his impact on my life would be lasting.
It turns out that the daily life stuff that I had so immaturely thought to be so boring would benefit me the most. By just hanging out, I would get to see how a young man starting out would navigate his way through the world.
Tay taught me to be a better son, to appreciate my mom as he appreciated his parents. Tay was proud and frequently talked about how hard his dad worked as a brick layer. His pride radiated as he showed me a metal plate used on a printing press from the Valley News Dispatch where his mom worked. The example would allow me to see my struggling mother as not inferior as a result of our economic situation but rather as a strong and courageous victim of circumstance who struggled each day to make her children’s lives better.
Tay showed me the importance of lasting friendships by taking me to countless social functions and softball games. I still remain in close contact with kids I have known since grade school. I even married my high school sweetheart.
He showed me the importance of defending those who are not as strong or who have less than you. Tay would have all but been guaranteed financial success in the corporate world. Instead, he deliberately chose to pursue his passion for helping others by dedicating his career to social services.
Most importantly, Tay and Brenda would allow me a glimpse as they started their life together. The experience serves me every day as a husband and father.
So when I look back at the entire experience, my mom was intuitively right that her awkward, skinny little boy was more than blessed to have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of a man who was more than giant in size.
Sean Stipp is the Tribune-Review’s director of visuals.
You can contact Sean at 724-836-5454,
[email protected] or via Twitter @SeanStipp.