Parade lost its marshal
Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade was one man short.
“I’m always accustomed to seeing Bob O’Connor in the front of the parade. That’s a big loss this year. He always walked in front,” said Harry Gundel, of Upper St. Clair, who was among a throng of thousands of parade-goers lining Downtown sidewalks Monday.
O’Connor, 61, a former steelworker, restaurateur and city councilman who took office eight months ago as Pittsburgh’s 58th mayor, died Friday of brain cancer.
The 2006 Labor Day Parade — among the nation’s largest — wound through Downtown yesterday as public viewing of O’Connor’s flag-draped casket continued in the City-County Building on Grant Street. O’Connor loved parades, especially this one, his friends said. Yesterday’s event was dedicated to his memory.
“His blue collar turned into a blue, button-down-collar shirt, but he never forgot where he came from,” said Dick Skrinjar, O’Connor’s spokesman, as he fought back tears.
More than 10,000 mourners streamed past the casket from Sunday through 10 p.m. Monday in an around-the-clock procession, officials said. Afterward, O’Connor’s body was transported by police escort to the John A. Freyvogel & Sons Funeral Home in Shadyside, where visitation continues today and Wednesday.
“To me he just didn’t die. He can’t die. He will always be in my heart,” said Charlotte Love, 83, of Squirrel Hill, choking back tears after pausing beside O’Connor’s casket. She frequently saw O’Connor strolling in Squirrel Hill, where he lived.
“He was a king among commoners,” she said.
The casket, flanked by two color guards, sat in the center of the main hall by a portrait of O’Connor, beaming his trademark smile.
Some in the procession left handwritten cards, notes, poems and flowers on the floor beside the casket. Many signed a guest book and received a card with a photo of O’Connor on the front and a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem printed on the back.
Irene Jackson, 76, of East Liberty, said she met O’Connor once and was immediately impressed by his enthusiasm, charm and personality.
“I never forgot him. He was a sweetheart,” she said. “I’m heartbroken.”
Mark Fissore, 38, of Ohio Township, who knew O’Connor only through news coverage of his campaigns and life, said he just felt a need to stop at the casket and pay silent tribute to a political leader he had come to respect.
“I think he had the right idea of everybody working together. He understood that when people say you are from Pittsburgh, it’s not just the city of Pittsburgh, it’s the whole community. He was the region’s mayor,” Fissore said.
The three-hour parade sported its usual marching bands, color guards and an endless stream of labor organizations. Yet, it took on a somber mood.
Many in the crowd wore black ribbons pinned to their clothing. Burly men wearing steelworker T-shirts removed their hats, placed them over their hearts and wiped away tears. Children broke rank to lay flowers on the steps to the City-County Building. Marching bands stopped playing music and instead drummers tapped out single, mournful beats. Hundreds of people saluted the building while openly weeping.
There was little of the cheering, clapping and candy-throwing common at most parades.
“It’s a sad, sad day in Pittsburgh,” said Sylvester Sell, 77, of East Liberty, who worked on several of O’Connor’s campaigns. “But Bob’s up there watching and praying for us. He loved Labor Day, so I know he’s enjoying the parade, and I don’t think he would want us to be sad. He’d want us to celebrate.”
City police officers on motorcycles rode slowly past the City-County Building with sirens wailing. A cluster of politicians, including Gov. Ed Rendell and newly installed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, followed with a large black banner that read: “In Memory of Mayor Bob O’Connor.”
The group stopped in front, turned toward the building and stood still while bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.” Then, they stood looking through open doors toward the casket during a moment of silence.
O’Connor’s wife, children and other relatives and members of his administration arrived at the City-County Building at 2:15 p.m., flanked by a police escort. A long line of mourners — stretching around the building — was stopped from entering as the family grieved in private.
When the public was allowed inside again, Judy O’Connor, the mayor’s widow, and other relatives stood inside the door, personally greeting each mourner. Pittsburgh police officers, with black stripes across their badges, wiped tears from their eyes.
Ravenstahl arrived shortly after and said he’s not making plans for his administration this week, but rather is concentrating on O’Connor’s legacy and the grief of the mayor’s family.
“It was fitting this morning to have a tribute here to Bob O’Connor because he was a true fan of labor and this day meant a lot to him,” Ravenstahl said. “He was a great Pittsburgher, and he brought out that spirit in people that made them proud to be from Pittsburgh again. I hope I can keep that legacy moving forward.
“He was a great, great man,” the new mayor said.
Visitation for Mayor Bob O’Connor will be noon to 8 p.m. today and Wednesday at the John A. Freyvogel & Sons Funeral Home, 4900 Centre Ave., Shadyside.
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl will celebrate a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Thursday in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 108 N. Dithridge St., Oakland.
O’Connor’s body will be transported from the funeral home to St. Paul’s Cathedral by a horse-drawn hearse with glass sides.
The O’Connor family asks that in lieu of flowers, people can make donations to the Caring Foundation, SIDS Alliance or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Those who paid their respects to Mayor Bob O’Connor and signed the guest book received this card in his memory:
Mayor Bob O’Connor, 1944-2006
‘To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the earth a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because your have lived. This is to have succeeded.’
–Ralph Waldo Emerson