Monday, February 16, 2009

Little Town to Big World


Past Glory: Clairton, PA used to be a pleasant little mill town of about 20,000 souls. It was what I would call middle class prosperous. The steel mills and coke works paid the bulk of taxes for the city and the first generation middle European American immigrants and their offspring worked side-by-side with Anglos, Germans, African Americans, and much of the post-World War II melting pot that made up industrial America. With the death of the steel industry in America Clairton fell into a similar fiscal malaise that much of the rest of the country faces today. Home values plummeted and jobs were lost. The younger generation went to college and often did not return. The older generation, frugal sons and daughters of the Great Depression had paid off their home mortgages and were unwilling or unable to move. But from the glory days, and from that city of 20,000 or so came an unusually large number of people who made their mark on the American scene. I asked fellow Clairtonians to send me examples of some and I will chronicle some success stories in this post. Below are some of the responses.

The Smartest Girl in Clairton: Nancy Bekavac was the daughter of Tony Bekavac and Patti Yavor Bekavac. Her Dad owned the local funeral home. The descendent of Slavic immigrants was a super student at Clairton High School and graduated at the top of her class. During her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College she was captain of the team that defeated five other teams on consecutive weeks during the highly successful run of the TV game show “College Bowl.” Nancy graduated Phi Beta Kappa and moved on to Yale Law where she formed a long-lasting friendship with two other students – Bill and Hillary Clinton. After college Nancy practiced law in Los Angeles, then returned east and entered higher education as a counselor to the president of Dartmouth. In 1990 she began a 17-year career as president of Scripps College in Claremont, CA. During her tenure she quadrupled the Scripps endowment fund and opened a new art center, dining commons, residence hall, and many other improvements to the prestigious college. Nancy Bekavac, Clairton girl.

Home of the Brave: Reggie Desiderio grew up in the Woodland Terrace section of Clairton, a housing project where many families of modest means called home. Reggie joined the Army and rose to the rank of Captain during the Korean War. The following citation that accompanied the posthumous awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor describes his heroism: DESIDERIO, REGINALD B.
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, commanding officer, Company E, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Ipsok, Korea, 27 November 1950. Entered service at: Gilroy, Calif. Born: 12 September 1918, Clairton, Pa. G.O. No.: 58, 2 August 1951. Citation: Capt. Desiderio distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the repeated risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. His company was given the mission of defending the command post of a task force against an enemy breakthrough. After personal reconnaissance during darkness and under intense enemy fire, he placed his men in defensive positions to repel an attack. Early in the action he was wounded, but refused evacuation and despite enemy fire continued to move among his men checking their positions and making sure that each element was prepared to receive the next attack. Again wounded, he continued to direct his men. By his inspiring leadership he encouraged them to hold their position. In the subsequent fighting when the fanatical enemy succeeded in penetrating the position, he personally charged them with carbine, rifle, and grenades, inflicting many casualties until he himself was mortally wounded. His men, spurred on by his intrepid example, repelled this final attack. Capt. Desiderio's heroic leadership, courageous and loyal devotion to duty, and his complete disregard for personal safety reflect the highest honor on him and are in keeping with the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army. Reggie Desiderio, Clairton boy.

The Little General: Woodland Terrace was also home to the Lancaster family and their 12 children. Their eldest, Ron, was a star quarterback at Clairton High School but at 5’5” tall he was too small to play major college football so he attended Wittenburg College in Ohio, where he won “Little All American” recognition. Again, too small for the NFL he moved to Canada to play professional football. After leading his team to a stunning victory in the Grey Cup, Canadian football’s equivalent to the Super Bowl, he earned the nickname, “The Little General.” Ron spent the next 48 years as a Canadian football legend as a player, coach, and sportscaster. He still holds many records long after his 16-year playing career ended, and he is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. After beating cancer twice, The Little General succumbed to a heart attack last September. Ron Lancaster, Clairton boy.

Mayor of the City: Donna Lancianese Lajack was another daughter of Clairton’s rich culture of immigrant families. Her move was to Loveland, OH, a small city with many similar attributes to Clairton. Her interest in civic activities led her to run successfully for the city council twice, and then serve as the city’s third female mayor since 1876. During her tenure as mayor Donna served on committees and projects with mayors from JeSu City, Korea and Barcelona, Spain and villages in Africa. Of course, Donna became active with the U.S. Mayors Conference and took part in activities ranging from assisting with the opening of the Madison, WI Flower Garden replete with a red and gold pagoda, a gift from the King of Thailand, to meetings in Detroit where she helped rededicate the Fox Theater with a gala dinner in the lobby and afterward enjoyed a concert by the Four Tops. Donna Lancianese Lajak, Clairton girl.

Everybody’s All American: Jim Kelly hailed from a section of Clairton called Wilson Newtown. He was every girl’s heartthrob as a Clairton High School Prom King and football All American hero. Awards night at Clairton High School probably should have been called “Jim Kelly Night” as he garnered nearly every leadership, academic, and sports award available. Scores of universities sought his services but Jim chose Notre Dame, as might be expected of a fine young man named Kelly. There he became an All American tight end catching passes from Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte. Oh, and by the way, when not leading the team in catches, Jim also played defense and made 21 tackles and broke up 2 passes during his senior year. Jim was drafted first in the second round by the Steelers and played there until traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. Jim Kelly, Clairton Boy.

Words in Season: Joan Cutuly lived on Constitution Circle in Clairton. Her father was a doctor and her mother a scientist so it was logical that she would become… a writer and teacher. After a stellar high school career Joan went to college just a few miles downriver at Pitt. She dabbled at several careers ranging from selling insurance to teaching college English. But she really hit her stride when she moved to Las Vegas to teach English at the inner-city Las Vegas High School. It was from that experience that she wrote, “Home of the Wildcats; Perils of an English Teacher.” The book, an iconoclastic look at the education system, brought not only fame but infamy, particularly from the school administration. Joan moved on and currently resides in a bucolic Oregon village where she still writes. Her most recent book, “Prisoner of the Second Grade” is a wildly funny and tragic book about life. Score another point for the intellect of those who spent their childhood inhaling quencher. Joan Cutuly, Clairton girl.

Author’s Note: Clairton, PA, the little village that could; City of Prayer, setting for the movie “The Deer Hunter,” and birthplace of mayors, poets, educators, athletes, and civic leaders. I would like to hear about other Clairtonians who have made an impact on the world. By the way, all Clairtonians were not pristine citizens – one of my neighbors growing up gained fame as a bank robber, a relative did time for scamming the government and another became a doctor before going off the deep end and doing time in a mental institution. Please comment below and send information about other Clairtonians whom I’ll feature in future blog posts.

A little blogging Maestro… “My Little Town” by Simon and Garfunkle

Dr. Forgot

No comments: