A tearful goodbye
Thousands of mourners filed past Mayor Bob O’Connor’s flag-draped casket at the City-County Building on Sunday, exactly eight months after a jubilant inaugural celebration lifted him into office.
“It’s amazing how quickly you could go from the highlight of someone’s life eight months ago to this,” said Public Works Director Guy Costa, who helped organize both events. “We put the inauguration together here. Now, eight months later, we’ve put together his funeral. It’s sad — a sad day for Pittsburgh.”
The casket, flanked by two color guards, sat in the center of the main hall by an official portrait of O’Connor standing proudly with his trademark smile. The mayor died Friday of a rare form of brain cancer.
Throughout the day, well-wishers filed between his portrait and casket, stopping to touch the flag or mouth a silent prayer. The line paused about every 10 minutes for the changing of the color guard.
By evening, a dozen guest books were filled with visitors’ signatures, with pages often having to be replaced. John Freyvogel, whose mortuary is handling funeral arrangements, said about 8 p.m. that the line of visitors had been steady throughout the day.
Guests were offered a card with an image of O’Connor’s portrait and a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote on the meaning of success: “to laugh often and much” and “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”
Donna Baranowski, 40, and her son, Matthew, 11, arrived at 10:45 a.m., an hour and 15 minutes before the scheduled start of public viewing, and were first in line.
They said they felt important to be the first two members of the public to pay their respects.
Donna Baranowski, who lives in a Downtown shelter, said she planned to tell the mayor, “Sorry that he had to go the way he did and he’s going to be missed.”
She had never met him, but, she said, “Now I can say I did.”
Lula Gittings, of the Hill District, met O’Connor a decade ago in Squirrel Hill’s Davis Parklet, where he often took his son, Corey, now 22.
“Corey was only about 12 years old then,” said Gittings, 61, who worked as a nanny near O’Connor’s home on Phillips Avenue, Squirrel Hill. “He was just somebody at the park, with his kids, who was just a nice guy.”
“He’ll get his reward in heaven, I’m sure,” she said.
The municipal boundaries that often fragment Allegheny County faded away, as suburban residents came to pay respects.
“He was a very good mayor and a very good person. He was not even our mayor, and we still came,” said Barbara Burdette, of Mt. Lebanon, who came to the viewing yesterday evening with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Barbara Jean, 14. “He was always out there helping people. He was a nice man. In politics, you don’t see that a lot.”
Friends Joe Mizikar and Terry Sabatine came from Jefferson Hills and Monroeville, respectively.
“He was a great leader for the short time he was in office. He had a vision. He had confidence,” Mizikar said.
“He cared about the city and the people in it. He loved the city. It was his city,” Sabatine said. “He sets an example for all of the politicians and mayors for every city.”
O’Connor arrived at the City-County Building about 8:30 a.m. yesterday for the last time.
“We brought him in feet first and then we turned him around head out so he could watch the parade. He loved a parade,” said Costa, who is battling a slow-growing brain cancer.
Shortly after noon, the mayor’s family and closest friends arrived as church bells rang in the distance.
O’Connor’s wife, Judy, was wiping her eyes as she entered the building. A son, the Rev. Terrence O’Connor, and daughter, Heidy Garth, were beside her.
Judy O’Connor rubbed the flag before laying her head over the stars and sobbing. The family prayed softly before the group of about 25 friends and family recited the “Hail Mary.”
The mayor’s executive secretary and longtime friend, Marlene Cassidy, held hands with Judy O’Connor across the casket before the two women, Chief of Staff Dennis Regan and the O’Connor family lined up to receive well-wishers.
Eight members of the Greater Pittsburgh Police Emerald Society Pipes & Drums played “Amazing Grace” and other mournful songs, prompting many onlookers to sob.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, sworn in just two hours after O’Connor’s death, paused before the casket and kissed and hugged the O’Connor family.
The city’s Law Department said Ravenstahl’s term will last through November 2009, when O’Connor’s term would have ended. The opinion is likely to face legal challenges, because the city’s Home-Rule Charter is vague about when a replacement mayor must face an election. Ravenstahl spent the afternoon greeting mourners as they shuffled into the hall to pay their respects to his predecessor.
Mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar, General Services Director and former Deputy Mayor Yarone Zober, who sobbed heavily, and City Councilman Doug Shields, who kissed the casket, led the mayor’s staff. His department heads and city chiefs, many crying openly, privately paid their respects before the doors were opened to the public at 12:25 p.m., 25 minutes later than scheduled.
Many of O’Connor’s staff and campaign workers sported small blue and white buttons from his Jan. 3 inauguration, with his first name and inaugural date.
Dave Dobosh, 49, of Oakdale, wore the gold-colored Roy Rogers name tag he first pinned on 30 years ago as a fast food server and manager under O’Connor. The mayor spent 20 years as a district manager for restaurateur Lou Pappan’s seven Pittsburgh-area Roy Rogers restaurants.
“He was a people’s man. He came from a family with values, and he tried to instill that in a lot of people and bring people back together,” said Dobosh, who took his 14-year-old daughter, Brittany, to the viewing.
A sense of loss permeated the gathering.
“He brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the city. He made the city really feel good about itself. It’s sad to see that energy lost,” said Ken Zapinski of Squirrel Hill.
Regina Spinale, of Downtown, stopped by as a way of thanking the mayor’s older son, a Catholic priest, for making time in his schedule to bless her uncle Aug. 27. That was the same day the mayor’s condition worsened from an infection and the onset of seizures. Spinale’s 84-year-old uncle is recovering in the hospital from triple-bypass heart surgery.
“The least I could do was keep the family in prayers,” Spinale said. “Father Terry is my inspiration, especially with the way he held himself through all of this. I need that same type of faith.”
Terry and Judy O’Connor and Heidy Garth left the viewing after two hours. Judy O’Connor rode in the same black Crown Victoria LX that carried her husband to hundreds of events in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods during his time in office. She flashed onlookers a thumbs-up.
The mayor’s other son, Corey O’Connor, did not want to leave his father’s side, planning to stay by the casket late into the day and greet mourners.
Many city and former campaign workers volunteered their time over the holiday weekend to organize the event, said Costa and Anna Dobkin, O’Connor’s campaign event planner.
“It’s a gorgeous building, and he was stately and he was dignified, and he’s deserving of the same,” Dobkin said.
Michael and Karen Bezilla, of Hampton, were showing their daughter, Meghan, the statue of former Mayor Richard Caliguiri, who also died in office. It was Meghan’s first visit to the City-County Building.
“He always seemed to be an average guy. He didn’t feel he was above or better than anybody else,” Karen Bezilla said.
Beverly Terry, of Schenley Heights, said she came at the urging of her son, Juan, 8, along with her daughter, Kayla, 5. She said the atmosphere in the building was a loving one.
“He was going to do wonderful things. I just felt it in my heart,” she said. “In the little bit of time he served, he accomplished a lot.”
Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, his wife, Shelly, and their three children were among those who paid their respects.
“We entered this building together in January of 1992 as the only two new council members,” Onorato said. “It’s hard for me to believe he’s not going to be walking through these doors again.”
The mayor’s greatest legacies will be “redding up” the town and convincing citizens to again believe that Pittsburgh can be great again, he said.
“That’s a great legacy for him, and if we want to honor him, it would be to continue that,” Onorato said. “He was the No. 1 cheerleader.”
Charita Archibald, 41, of the South Side, who went to the viewing with three friends, agreed.
“The mayor was an awesome mayor. He was good for the city of Pittsburgh. He’ll be sorely missed. He was personable. He was a people person. He didn’t hide behind his office,” she said.
“He left such an impact,” she said. “He’ll live on. He won’t be forgotten.”
People remember the mayor
Lula Gittings, of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, met Bob O’Connor 12 years ago in Squirrel Hill’s Davis Park, where O’Connor often took his son, Corey, who is now 22.
“Corey was only about 12 years old then,” said Gittings, 61, who worked as a nanny near O’Connor’s home on Phillips Avenue. “He was just somebody at the park, with his kids, who was just a nice guy.”
“He worked so hard to get to (the mayor’s office),” Gittings said. “He’ll get his reward in heaven, I’m sure.”
Dave Dobosh, 49, of Oakdale, Allegheny County, walked past O’Connor’s coffin wearing the gold-colored Roy Rogers name tag he first pinned on 30 years ago at age 19, as a fast-food server who worked for O’Connor.
O’Connor spent 20 years as a district manager for restaurateur Lou Pappan, who owned seven Pittsburgh-area Roy Rogers restaurants. Dobosh rose through the ranks of Pappan’s franchise to become a manager until he left for another job.
O’Connor took time to try to convince Dobosh to stay. Dobosh said that was characteristic of the late mayor’s personal approach to management.
“He was a people’s man. He came from a family with values, and he tried to instill that in a lot of people and bring people back together,” Dobosh said, who brought his Brittany, 14, to the viewing.
Regina Spinale, who lives in downtown Pttsburgh, stopped by the viewing Sunday as a way of thanking O’Connor’s son, the Rev. Terrence O’Connor, for making time in his schedule to bless her uncle on Aug. 27, the day O’Connor’s conditioned worsened with an infection and the onset of seizures.
Spinale’s 84-year-old uncle is recovering from triple-bypass surgery at UPMC Shadyside, where the late mayor was hospitalized.
“The least I could do was keep the family in prayers,” Spinale said. “Father Terry is my inspiration, especially with the way he held himself through all of this.
“I need that same type of faith.”
— Jeremy Boren
Visitation for Mayor Bob O’Connor at the City-County Building, Downtown, continues until 10 p.m. today.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, visitation will be noon to 8 p.m. at the John A. Freyvogel & Sons Funeral Home, 4900 Centre Ave., Oakland.
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl will celebrate a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Thursday in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 108 N. Dithridge St., Oakland.
The O’Connor family asks that in lieu of flowers, people make donations to the Caring Foundation, SIDS Alliance or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.