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Filed Under: General Nonsense || By

October 31, 2008 | Link to this story

Happy Halloween!

Category: General Nonsense || By

So these blood-sucking monkeys were raised in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, which is really scary territory, kids! Just ask Kennywood's attorneys!

Then the monkeys got too big for West Mifflin, and they hopped on a freight train and went to Sewickley! And then ... well, Count Floyd will tell you the rest.

Just a little blast from the past courtesy of Pittsburgh's own Joe Flaherty and SCTV. Remember, this film won the Western Pennsylvania Fright Award in 1978.

If you want to feel old, I'll remind you that this clip is from 26 years ago. And that is really scary.

(You can get the DVDs from SCTV, Volume 2)

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October 30, 2008 | Link to this story

Mon-Yough Dems, GOP Both Optimistic

Category: News, Politics || By

If enthusiasm translates directly into votes, volunteers at Barack Obama's McKeesport campaign headquarters have nothing to worry about on Election Day.

On the other hand, if local Democratic Party officials really are picking up McCain-Palin signs at the Mon Valley Republican Committee office, the vote in local precincts could be very tight indeed.

. . .

Last night, about 40 volunteers gathered at Obama's office in the former Canopy restaurant on Fifth Avenue to discuss get-out-the-vote strategies and review the rules for poll-watching on Tuesday.

In one corner of the room, four young women made phone calls on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate.

Excitement was high; earlier in the day, volunteers were visited by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary), former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and Ted Kennedy Jr., son of the longtime Massachusetts senator.

"It was a very spirited session, and very upbeat," said city Mayor Jim Brewster, another former Clinton backer who's now working on Obama's behalf. "I'm encouraged, because I'm a big believer as the mayor and the Democratic chairman in talking about issues instead of people."

Brewster said he thinks Obama's campaign largely focused on the war and the economy, rather than on Republican presidential candidate John McCain, is resonating with people.

"In my heart, I think there's a lot of other people who think that, too, including a lot of Republicans," Brewster said. "It's an issues election, and they're world-wide issues."

. . .

As Democrats were working to get out the vote Downtown, a small but hardy group of Republicans in Port Vue was equally optimistic.

Two people leaving the offices of the Mon Valley Republican Committee, located in the former Super Dollar shopping center on Washington Boulevard, were carrying armloads of yard signs that read "Another Democrat for McCain-Palin."

Both identified themselves as Democratic committee members, but would not give their names.

"Four years ago, it was unusual to see so many Democrats coming in the door," Committee Chairman Brent Kovac said as two volunteers busily stamped out "McCain-Palin" buttons. "This year it's been amazing to see so many Democrats."

Some of the newfound McCain boosters are former Clinton supporters disillusioned by their candidate's loss. "They're not satisfied with Barack Obama being their candidate," Kovac said. "A lot of union members have come in --- the Teamsters, for instance --- and say the candidate is being forced on them."

He said interest in McCain has been boosted by two events --- his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and Obama's widely reported remarks that the nation needs to "spread the wealth around."

Kovac said disillusioned Democrats that he's met keep using the word "socialism" to describe Obama's proposals.

Asked if he thinks Obama is a socialist, Kovac demurs: "He's about as far left a candidate as they could have picked. Worst case scenario, I would have preferred Hillary Clinton."

. . .

The charge that Obama is a "socialist," which has been repeatedly leveled by the McCain campaign over the past two weeks, isn't resonating with local voters, at least according to Obama volunteer Fawn Walker, who has been knocking on doors in the city and surrounding boroughs.

In fact, none of the rumors spread about Obama seem to be sticking, she said.

"I get questions about his tax plan, I get questions about his health plan," Walker said. "I don't get many questions about 'is he a terrorist' or 'is he an Arab.' It's not true, and everybody knows it. I think people who believe that weren't going to vote for him anyway."

In the days following the June primaries, when Obama appeared to lock up the Democratic nomination, many local Democrats were angry over Clinton's defeat, Walker said.

"We heard a lot of that," she said, "but since the Clintons have come out for Obama, and since a lot of their surrogates have come out, it's been decreasing. Democrats are starting to come together."

. . .

However, there are an awful lot of "Democrat for McCain" yard signs in the Mon Valley --- many of them alongside signs boosting state Rep. Bill Kortz, a Democrat from Dravosburg seeking his second term.

The yard signs are "flying out" of the Republican office in Port Vue, Kovac said.

"If I were to ride around my neighborhood four years ago, there was a 'Kerry-Edwards' sign in every other yard," he said. "I would be hard-pressed to find an Obama sign."

A big boost for the Mon Valley Republican Committee came after someone threw bricks and a car tire through the office's plate glass window and front door, causing about $2,000 damage. Port Vue police are investigating.

"That brought us a lot of sympathy, even from Democrats," Kovac said.

The most prominent features of the committee's office might be the larger-than-life, color portraits of President Bush and Vice President Cheney hanging on the wall.

Despite public opinion polls showing that eight out of 10 Americans disapprove of the Bush Administration, Kovac isn't worried that potential converts might be turned off by the pictures.

"John McCain is hardly a conservative," he said. "John McCain is not George Bush, and I like George Bush. Besides, he's still the president. The argument 'Bush equals McCain' appeals to the lowest common denominator who wouldn't vote for us anyway."

. . .

The most prominent features in the Obama office Downtown are kids' shoes decorated by volunteers' children with glitter, stars, and expressions of support for the Democratic candidate.

According to Walker, Democrats aren't the only ones defecting to the other party. At least one volunteer in the city office is a registered Republican.

"We just keep working," said Al Washington Sr., another Obama volunteer, "working, knocking on doors, calling people."

Again and again, volunteers hear from residents who are eager to go to the polls, Walker said. "People are excited --- they are really ready for the election," she said.

Kovac is excited, too, despite polls showing that McCain is lagging behind Obama across Pennsylvania. "I'm not discouraged by it," he said. "If anything, I'm excited by the level of attention we're getting."

. . .

The Mon Valley Republican Committee is located at 1515 Washington Blvd., Port Vue. The Obama campaign's McKeesport regional field office is at 211 Fifth Ave., Downtown.

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October 29, 2008 | Link to this story

Shelves Bare at Regional Food Bank

Category: News || By

A "triple whammy" that includes a sinking economy and rising need for help is slamming the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne.

"In September, our warehouse inventory was as low as I've ever seen it," says Iris Valanti, food bank spokeswoman.

The food bank is spending $170,000 of its own savings to boost supplies, but with winter fast approaching, it's going to need outside help.

. . .

And that help might be hard to come by. Valanti says the food bank just sent out fundraising letters to people who have donated money in the past.

One man wrote back that he's been donating money for 17 years. This year, he isn't sending anything. Instead, he's a client of the food bank.

"People on the low ends, the working poor, used to maybe send us $50 a year," Valanti says. "Now they need the money for gas."

. . .

It's not just small cash donations that are threatened. Charitable foundations that make large grants to the food bank are watching their investment incomes vanish in the stock market's swoon.

And some manufacturers who used to donate "extra" cans and boxes to the food bank now sell them to dollar stores or other discounters at a profit. Others who used to route a truck or two to the food bank can't afford the diesel fuel.

"We're fighting on three fronts," Valanti says. "We have less to work with and more people who need it."

. . .

Although the official unemployment rate in the Pittsburgh area (5.4 percent) is actually lower than the state's reported 5.7 percent, there are still plenty of people out of work.

Take service jobs, for instance. Consumer spending has dropped and restaurants and retailers are cutting back staff.

Many of the people still working in those industries are living from paycheck to paycheck. A bad run of luck --- a prolonged illness, for instance, that runs up big hospital bills --- can force them to seek help.

In August, the food bank had 1,300 new applications for food assistance in Allegheny County. During the last week of September*, 635 families showed up for assistance at a distribution center on Pittsburgh's South Side that typically serves about 500.

. . .

It's about to get worse. When winter arrives, pensioners and people working low-wage jobs have to decide whether to buy food or pay their heating bills.

"People in lower income brackets don't have a lot of flexibility," Valanti says.

Many churches, employers and civic groups will be running food drives during the holidays, but frankly, the food bank could make better use of checks and money orders. About 25 to 30 percent of its food is purchased in bulk.

"The good news is we can purchase what we need --- more nutritious foods --- and we can use our wholesale buying power," Valanti says. "But some people feel it's mercenary (to give cash) or they don't know where the money is going. They know I can't run off to Jamaica on a can of beans."

On the other hand, monetary donations, unlike beans, are tax-deductible.

. . .

Despite the bare shelves, Valanti and other food bank employees are urging any Mon Valley residents who need assistance to call (412) 460-3663 and ask for guidance signing up for food stamps or finding a food pantry in their neighborhood.

"Our message is that we need help --- and our second message is that if you need help, call us," she says.

. . .

For more information or to donate, visit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's website or write to Fundraising, 1 N. Linden St., Duquesne 15110. Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is also eligible for United Way funds; make sure to designate Code 361.


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October 27, 2008 | Link to this story

WPNB Disappeared 35 Years Ago

Category: History, Local Businesses, News || By

Mostly unnoticed by McKeesporters was the announcement that PNC Bank is about to acquire Cleveland-based National City Bank.

Maybe we've just become inured to bank mergers after the disappearance over the last 20 years of Union National, McKeesport National, Great American Federal, First National of Herminie, First Home Savings, First Federal of Pittsburgh, etc., etc., etc.

After all, who ever thought that Mellon Bank would disappear? But we got used to that, and we'll get used to National City's disappearance.

. . .

One of the last of the locally owned banks in the Mon-Yough area, Irwin Bank & Trust, was sucked up by Indiana's S&T Bank a few months ago.

Irwin Bank's disappearance is a potentially serious blow to jobs in the Norwin area and to the downtown Irwin business district. The bank was a major employer in the small borough and a big contributor to local charities in eastern Westmoreland County.

If you don't like big banks, there are a few local independent banks around --- First Federal of Monessen has offices in Monongahela and Rostraver. Compass Savings Bank in Wilmerding remains very involved in the Mon-Yough area, particularly in lending money to first-time home buyers.

And Dollar Bank is the last Pittsburgh institution still run as a mutual savings bank, meaning that it operates for the benefit of depositors, not stockholders.

. . .

As for the PNC-Nat City deal, there are obvious implications for the city's Downtown business district. PNC Bank has a drive-through office on Lysle Boulevard, while National City Bank is stuck on the corner of Fifth and Walnut streets in the old First National Bank of McKeesport building, which doesn't have adjacent parking and lacks a drive-through window.

Chances are that if the merger goes through, the Fifth and Walnut office will close. That will leave three of the four corners vacant, and the fourth corner occupied by a gas station.

People of a historical bent might recall that National City Bank entered the Pittsburgh market in 1995 by acquiring Integra Bank, which two years earlier had acquired Equibank, which could trace its roots directly to Our Fair City.

'Tis true. Equibank was founded in 1871 as the Commercial Bank of McKeesport. It changed its name to First National Bank of McKeesport in 1875.

. . .

When banking laws were relaxed in the 1950s, First National under the leadership of the late M.A. Cancelliere began opening branches and acquiring other banks in neighboring towns. In 1956, it changed its name to Western Pennsylvania National Bank.

While headquartered in McKeesport, WPNB added a new annex at the corner of Walnut and Sixth streets (currently the Coker Building) that had an real drive-through ... cars drove through the first floor of the building, under the offices, to reach the teller windows.

In 1964, after acquiring two Beaver County banks (Beaver County Trust Co. and Fort McIntosh National Bank), WPNB moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh and gradually downsized its McKeesport operations. It changed the name of its holding company to Equimark in 1971.

Two years later, on Sept. 17, 1973, WPNB became Equibank, and I have the audio proof right here:

Though the bank's home office was gone, Equibank memorably helped save the city's police force in February 1989, when a budget deficit of $90,000 nearly forced McKeesport to let go half of its officers.

Equibank promised to match any donations raised in the community; about $109,000 was turned over to the city's coffers in March.

"Equibank's roots are in McKeesport," said the bank's president, James H. McLaughlin. "this is our birthplace and we felt that it was necessary to make every effort to assist the city in its time of need."

Unfortunately, Equibank was on shaky ground itself. Millions of dollars worth of bad loans to Florida condo developers and Latin American "banana republics" had pushed the bank's credit rating into "junk bond" status by 1991, and it was swallowed up by Integra Bank.

. . .

Don't have enough WPNB/Equibank history? Then we're pleased to direct you to a new article in Tube City Online's "Local History" section.

(And a tip o' the Tube City hard hat to Pat Cloonan of the Daily News, who was the only reporter to remember the history of WPNB and Equibank when he covered the PNC-Nat City deal.)

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October 26, 2008 | Link to this story

Republicans: Known for Subtlety

Category: Politics, Rants a.k.a. Commentary || By

(Danger: Politics ahead. You have been warned.)


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October 24, 2008 | Link to this story

The Electric Maglev Jackass Test

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

McKeesport Model Railroad Club photo/Rob Mihalchik

For land's sake, why won't the federal government's unnatural fixation with maglev in Pittsburgh die?

Courtesy of Chris Briem's Null Space, we note that Uncle Sugar is finally soliciting applications for up to $90 million in grants to "magnetic levitation (maglev) projects" including the proposed high-speed Pittsburgh-to-wherever system that's been on the drawing board since I was in elementary school.

As Prof. Briem notes, if George Romero were into transportation, he'd build zombie maglev systems. Can't you see them, roaming the countryside, groaning "T-R-A-A-A-A-A-A-INS"?

As noted before by Tube City Almanac, despite spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money over the past 20 years, magnetic levitation proponents haven't constructed so much as a kiddie ride at Kennywood.

One of the few commercial magnetic levitation trains in existence in the world runs at 20 percent capacity. And two of Germany's largest industrial powerhouses scrapped further development of maglev earlier this year. This should lead a reasonable person to conclude that maglev is a solution in search of a problem.

With the credit and bond markets cratering, it seems unlikely that any large sums of money will be forthcoming to complete a U.S. maglev system.

. . .

Make no mistake about it: $90 million is a lot of money. But maglev costs about $50 million per mile.

Ninety million doesn't get you from Dravosburg to Duquesne.

What should really frost your cupcakes regarding maglev is that $90 million would go a long way toward helping repair and upgrade current transportation systems.

According to the California Department of Transportation, constructing a bridge costs up to $400 per square foot.

A span like the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge is about 362 feet long and 36 feet wide. Even assuming that demolition and engineering work would at least double the cost, you could build three or four new McKeesport-Duquesne Bridges for $90 million.

Or --- and this is even more relevant --- how far would $90 million go toward re-booting public transportation in the Pittsburgh metro area?

. . .

As Oct. 16's cartoon pointed out, the current contract negotiations between the Port Authority and the transit union are going nowhere. New reports suggest that the talks are completely stalemated, and that PAT is considering a lockout that would shut down all bus and trolley service.

This would be a disaster for a lot of people who are students, senior citizens, or on "welfare-to-work" programs in the Mon Valley.

But I'm strongly convinced that the only solution to the Port Authority's current problems --- uncoordinated transit routes, half-empty buses, escalating labor costs --- is blowing up the agency and starting over. If a shutdown gets us there, maybe it's a good idea.

. . .

Despite what's been suggested by the letters to the editor of the Daily News (and strident op-eds in its parent newspaper), privatization of public transportation is not going to happen. No metropolitan area has a privately operated transit system.

It's not creeping socialism that forced public ownership of transit; it's the fact that public transportation doesn't make money. If it did, private industry would be clamoring for the chance to take over Port Authority, Philadelphia's SEPTA and other agencies.

Transit is a money-loser around the world. Outside of a few big metro areas, public transit serves sparsely populated areas, it's labor and capital intensive, and it generally serves economically depressed populations, who by definition can't spend a lot of money on fares.

Public transportation only makes sense if you accept the idea that providing transportation for the poor, elderly and disabled is a public good. (If you don't, then you're probably beyond help.)

Providing for the public good (or as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution puts it, "promote the general welfare") is a job for government, not private industry.

. . .

The main problem with Port Authority is that it's built on the bones of the old Pittsburgh Railways Co. (which was in bankruptcy from 1937 to 1951) and the 32 private bus companies (most of them also financially feeble) that the transit agency took over in 1964.

The labor contracts are designed to be competitive with steel industry jobs that no longer exist; the route map is designed to serve an urban core whose commercial importance has been eclipsed by the suburbs.

And despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people now live just outside the Allegheny County border, in communities like Cranberry Township, Peters Township, Murrysville and North Huntingdon Township, Port Authority doesn't provide them with any service.

Instead, suburban residents get service ranging from excellent to honky-tonk from things like the Mid-Mon Valley Transit Authority and Westmoreland Transit.

. . .

If someone wants to show some political leadership (Marc Gergely and Bill Kortz ... are you reading this?) they'd suggest abolishing the Port Authority and the suburban agencies and creating one truly useful regional transit agency, with new routes and union contracts.
  • Why shouldn't McKeesport buses go to Norwin Hills Shopping Center?

  • Why couldn't the T be extended from South Hills Village down to Southpointe, for instance, instead of the North Shore stadiums?

  • Why couldn't commuter trains run on existing rails (not maglev) from Pittsburgh to Latrobe?

Those are ideas that would offer immediate benefits to the entire Pittsburgh area.

Instead, we're stuck with things like the Mon Valley Progress Council, which does almost nothing but beat the drum for the Mon-Fayette Expressway --- a highway that no one can afford to build for a wasteful, polluting method of transportation.

And we're stuck with a federal government that insists on stuffing another $90 million down the maglev rat hole.

. . .

Ninety million dollars for a maglev system that will probably never be built. Good grief.

If Uncle Sam has $90 million to spend on electric trains, the model train club will take it.

For $90 million we'll build McKeesport a train layout that will blow your mind.

Heck, for that kind of money, who needs electric trains? We could build tiny steam engines that run on real coal. That would support local coal-mining and manufacturing jobs.

It's no dumber than maglev. Maybe I need to start writing a grant application.

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October 22, 2008 | Link to this story

Horn-Tooting Dep't

Category: Shameless Horn-Tooting || By

Tony Sanfilippo, marketing and sales director at Penn State Press, has put together a short online video to promote the G.C. Murphy book:

Says one wiseacre (who'll I bet is an Almanac reader) at Penn State Press' website: "That's some amazing footage of the shootout during the hostile takeover by Ames. And when you hear over that the letter from the account executive to his wife who he'll probably never see again -- well, I had to wipe a few tears away."

Honestly, people. We can dress you up, but we can't take you anywhere.

By the way, the book will be shipped over Halloween weekend. Pretty scary, eh, kids? Maybe April Fool's Day would have been more appropriate.

No, I haven't even seen it yet. Yes, I am anxious. I always wanted to be a bookmaker, but I didn't think it would happen this way.

In fact, at one point, we thought we were going to be running these books off at Kinko's, but I understand Penn State has put a little bit more money into production than that.

Good thing, too, because I hate those plastic comb bindings.

If this book was really in the finest G.C. Murphy tradition, of course, it would have been typed on an IBM Selectric with headlines done in Letraset rub-off letters, but I guess Penn State did OK.

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October 22, 2008 | Link to this story

Sign of the Times

Category: News || By

Tube City Almanac photo

My friends, somebody has a sense of humor at Columbus Brothers Homes and Supply on Lebanon Church Road in West Mifflin.

This is the kind of changeable sign we can believe in.

I approve this message.

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October 21, 2008 | Link to this story

Just Plain Folks

Category: Commentary/Editorial, History || By

In 1926, a struggling evangelist named Dr. Bob Jones was trying to get a national ministry off the ground. A group of prominent Protestant businessmen from McKeesport read of his plight and invited him to lead a month-long crusade in the city.

Just after New Year's Day, 1927, a revival tent was erected on the football field at McKeesport Technical High School at the corner of Cornell and Spring streets, and the Daily News led a loud and boisterous publicity campaign, devoting several pages every night to Jones' sermons.

Thousands flocked up the hill to Tech High to hear Rev. Jones speak. One night, a school board meeting had to be canceled for lack of a quorum; most of the school directors were at the revival tent.

. . .

On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 16, according to the Daily News, "interest and enthusiasm was keyed to fever heat by the presence of no less than 3,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan from McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton, Swissvale, Homestead, Elizabeth and Irwin."

The Klansmen brought with them a wooden cross illuminated by "a clever electric arrangement (that) caused flames to shoot from the cross during the entire service," according to the News.

Rev. Jones "welcomed the Klansmen" by saying that they had been misrepresented by propaganda. "He declared that he had always noticed that in every fight, it seemed that the Klansmen were fighting on the right side," the Daily News reported. "You might have some things that don't suit my taste, but I've found that in most cases, you're the finest bunch I've ever met."

(Following the revival, John Sephus Mack, president of G.C. Murphy Co., promised to do whatever was necessary to help Rev. Jones launch a bible college. Bob Jones University to this day has a library named for Seph Mack.)

. . .

It happened 81 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. None of this suggests that the Mon Valley or Western Pennsylvania are inherently racist.

Nor am I suggesting that Bob Jones University is racist. (I should also note that the university was very helpful when I was working on the G.C. Murphy book.)

But 81 years isn't that long ago in terms of Western Pennsylvania, which is home to some of the oldest areas, demographically, in the United States.

. . .

You wouldn't have to look very hard in Olympia Shopping Center to find people alive when the Klan openly marched in the streets in Western Pennsylvania. You also wouldn't have to look very hard to find people who remember when blacks weren't served in certain restaurants in McKeesport.

And you really wouldn't have to look hard to find people who still sling around racial slurs. (D.J. Coffman has been all over this issue.)

. . .

Racism is deeply ingrained in this area. Someone would have to be pretty thick to be outraged over John Murtha's comments last week to the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review.

Luckily, there's no shortage of thick-headed radio talk-show hosts, bloggers, and other cranks who spend all of their time getting outraged over something or other.

No, supporting John McCain doesn't make you a racist, and supporting Barack Obama doesn't make you a snob. Both Democrats and Republicans could stand to tone down the rhetoric: Obama could lose the election for a lot of reasons besides racism.

But instead of working up a lot of fake outrage over Murtha's comments, we all need to step back and look at ourselves.

. . .

Take a ride through North Huntingdon or Sewickley townships and count the number of Confederate battle flags flying from houses, or decorating trucks and cars.

Down South, they say the "stars and bars" are a symbol of heritage. Maybe that's true if you had a great-grandfather who fought in the Confederate army, but I'm pretty sure Westmoreland County never seceded from the union.

Heck, it wasn't too long ago when a local police department got in trouble for having a stars-and-bars sticker on the back of one its patrol cars. The police chief said he sure didn't authorize it, and it's entirely possible someone stuck the sticker on there as a prank.

But there's only one reason you fly the Confederate flag up north, and it isn't because you're a "Dukes of Hazzard" fan.

. . .

Murtha's a lot of things, good and bad, but he didn't create the reality. He's just callin' it as he sees it.

Whether we like it or not, this dirty old shoe fits us.

We do have a choice as to whether we want to keep wearing it.

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October 19, 2008 | Link to this story

Famous Sculptor Caused Local Scandal

Category: History || By

State officials last week unveiled a historical marker honoring the late Frank Vittor, a sculptor famed for his bronze statues of Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Vittor also designed a 1938 half-dollar commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. An article by one of my old bosses, Craig Smith, in the Tribune-Review notes that Vittor "did more than 50 memorials and fountains throughout the Pittsburgh area, including many that have become landmarks."

But as with every other story, there's a McKeesport connection to this one, too --- and it's a semi-scandalous one.

In 1935, Vittor crafted a controversial statue that depicted city resident Henrietta Leaver --- better known as Miss America 1935 --- in the nude.

It's not Vittor's only Mon Valley connection. He designed the bas reliefs on the George Westinghouse Bridge in North Versailles and the larger-than-life bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands near the entrance of Jefferson Memorial Park in Pleasant Hills.

But the Leaver statue created the most controversy of anything in Vittor's career. It left Depression-era newspapers shocked, and Vittor was threatened with legal action.

. . .

Henrietta Leaver was a native of Monongahela, born March 28, 1916, to George and Celia Applegate. She never knew her father, who left before "Hen" turned one year old.

Celia Applegate then married George Leaver, a foundry worker, who adopted infant Henrietta. The Leavers moved from place to place as George looked for work --- to Charleroi, Washington, all the way to Cleveland, and back to Mon City, where they divorced.

When Henrietta was 15, she moved to McKeesport along with a baby sister, her mother and her grandmother, Hettie Ebert. In McKeesport, Ebert and Celia Leaver secured an apartment in the back of a building at 416 Ringold St. in exchange for cleaning the offices and a beauty parlor.

Henrietta entered McKeesport High School, but dropped out at age 16 and got a job behind the cosmetics counter of G.C. Murphy Co.'s five-and-10 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sheridan Street. There she worked, on and off, for the next two years.

. . .

In the summer of 1935, Henrietta's friends encouraged the 5-foot-9, blue-eyed brunette to enter the "Miss McKeesport" pageant being held at the Liberty Theater on Fifth Avenue. Cox's sponsored her and donated a dress.

To Henrietta's surprise, she won the Aug. 1 pageant (defeating 12 other contestants) and was automatically entered in the "Miss Greater Pittsburgh" pageant, held one week later at the Skyvue Supper Club on Lebanon Church Road near Bettis Airport.

Among the five judges of the "Greater Pittsburgh" pageant was Frank Vittor. Leaver won that pageant, too, which meant that she was automatically entered in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.

. . .

There was one tiny problem --- Henrietta Leaver wasn't a "miss" any more. In May she had traveled with 24-year-old John Mustacchio to Wellsburg, W.Va., where they were secretly married.

Leaver met Mustacchio, whose parents owned a tavern on Locust Street, during a picnic at Olympia Park.

The marriage would have disqualified her to serve as Miss America (and for a job at the G.C. Murphy Co.), so John Mustacchio drove back to Wellsburg and bribed a records clerk to alter the names on their marriage license.

By the time the happy couple confessed their deceit, Leaver had been Miss America for nearly a year.

. . .

The months following Leaver's Sept. 3 crowning as Miss America were a whirlwind of activity. Twentieth Century-Fox wanted Leaver to come to Hollywood for a screen test. A group of department store executives named her "Miss Model America."

And Vittor, calling her a paragon of American beauty, asked her to pose for a sculpture. Leaver wore a bathing suit during both of her modeling sessions, but when Vittor unveiled the statue, she was stunned to see that he had depicted her in the nude.

Worried that the Miss America Pageant would strip Leaver of her crown for moral turpitude, her manager, George Tyson, threatened a lawsuit. Henrietta "is an old-fashioned girl," he said, and very modest.

The story caused a national sensation, though a few newspapers suspected Tyson was just trying to keep Leaver's career alive. ("Sounds like press agent hooey to us," sniffed the Uniontown Daily News Standard.)

"Go ahead and sue," said Vittor, who commissioned a jury of local artists to examine the sculpture and decide whether it was "licentious."

. . .

The art experts included Henry Hornbostel, head of the architecture department at Carnegie Institute of Technology; Raymond Simboli and Joseph Bailey Ellis, art professors at Carnegie Tech; painters Pio Pizzi and Vincent Nesbert; sculptor Sue Marshall Brown; and art critic J.B. Davis.

Along with Leaver, Tyson, and several newspaper reporters, the jurors gathered in Vittor's studio on Nov. 1 to view the statue. What the Daily News described as a "long and voluble discussion" followed.

Tyson's suggestion that the statue be draped to cover Leaver's breasts and hips was greeted with "hoots of derision," the newspaper reported.

"If you are not proud of your body, you might as well close up shop," Hornbostel told Leaver.

"If she is so modest, why did she enter the contest in the first place?" Nesbert asked. The jury ultimately pronounced the statue tasteful. A group of Carnegie Tech art students invited to examine the sculpture agreed.

. . .

Leaver promised to "poll her friends" to decide whether to pursue her lawsuit, but nothing ever came of it.

Nothing came of Leaver's screen tests in Hollywood, either. She reportedly made one small appearance in a Dick Powell film called "Stage Struck," and tried out for a role in a Shirley Temple film, but was rejected.

In August 1936, a month after finally confessing to their secret marriage, the Mustacchios told the McKeesport Daily News that Henrietta was "awaiting the visit of the stork" and retiring from show business.

"Hen had a chance to go to an acting school and continue her career if she wanted to do that," John Mustacchio said, "but she figured that I had given up enough for her while she was Miss America, and that she ought to give up something for me."

He admitted that concealing the marriage had been "a mistake," but said the couple was scared.

"The Miss America business and the hope for a stage career are all over now," Celia Leaver said. "'Hen' is now Mrs. John Mustacchio, and that's all there is to it."

. . .

Leaver eventually had two daughters, divorced Mustacchio, and remarried. She settled in Columbus, Ohio, where she became a clothing buyer for Montaldo's, a chain of clothing stores. Leaver died of cancer on Sept. 18, 1993, age 77.

Besides the Gettysburg coin, Vittor went onto create the statue of Honus Wagner that stood outside Forbes Field and the Christopher Columbus monument in Schenley Park. He died in 1968.

But what became of the Henrietta Leaver statue? No one seems to know. If it's on display somewhere, its owner isn't advertising the fact.

So even if Henrietta Leaver wasn't successful getting the statue draped or destroyed, its current obscurity apparently means she's gotten the last laugh after all.

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October 16, 2008 | Link to this story

Meanwhile, at the Port Authority Negotiations

Category: Cartoons, Commentary/Editorial || By

(c) 2008 Jason Togyer/Tube City Online

One way or another, the financial uncertainty and labor impasse are about to come to a head. Very soon.

Nobody is going to be happy.

Options being considered include a strike, a lockout and maneuvering to limit the existing contract.

Court intervention is possible.

There will be turmoil.
(Joe Grata, Post-Gazette)

What doesn't anyone care about? Right, the poor schmucks who actually ride our crummy excuse for a transit system!

Gee, it's hard to know who to root for, huh?

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October 15, 2008 | Link to this story

Take Off, Eh?

Category: Radio Geekery || By

I suspect that a lot of people in the Almanac readership enjoy listening to radio on the Internet. I know I do; I'm especially fond of oldies stations.

A couple of my favorites are Cincinnati's WDJO; Hamilton, Ontario's CKOC; and Toronto's legendary CHUM.

Two years ago, I got to visit and spend some time at WDJO, which is located in a former elementary school in Cincinnati's Queensgate neighborhood, along with two of the city's TV stations. It's a neat little station with a lot of Cincinnati's legendary DJs pulling regular air shifts.

I've never been to CKOC, though I've been to Hamilton. It's a city where many Mon Valley residents would feel right at home; one of the major employers is a big Dofasco Steel complex (including three blast furnaces and a battery of coke ovens) on the edge of town that would bring tears to the eyes of anyone from McKeesport.

I even have a hat from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team, whose colors are black and gold. And just to make the picture complete, Hamilton was at one time the headquarters of Westinghouse Electric's Canadian subsidiary, and it's still home to a Siemens (ex-Westinghouse) operation.

All they're lacking is a Primanti Brothers and maybe a Giant Eagle, and it would feel just like home. (Er, Hamilton's also a very nice city in its own right. Well worth a visit. I digress.)

I haven't visited CHUM in Toronto, either, but it was a huge station in its day. Like KQV in Pittsburgh, CHUM was a Top 40 rock station in Toronto during the 1950s and '60s, but it stayed a Top 40 station much longer --- as late as 1986 --- and CHUM had a much bigger influence.

For one thing, CHUM's signal covered a bigger city, and for another, Canada's smaller population meant that a relative handful of large, urban radio stations controlled which records became national hits. Along with the playlists at CKLW in Windsor and CKGM in Montreal, CHUM's legendary "CHUM-charts" defined pop music in the Great White North.

The charts are still being issued by CHUM-FM, but the AM granddaddy is all-oldies these days, with a healthy dose of Canadian rock songs that weren't widely heard here. As long as you don't mind hearing BTO and the Guess Who every hour, and you don't mind hearing temperatures given in Celsius, it's a nice change of pace.

Well, for nearly 50 years, CHUM has been located in a building on Toronto's Yonge Street with a giant flashing neon sign out front. It's one of the most famous addresses in North America, and gold records literally line the hallways.

But CHUM is scheduled to move soon, and they're going to hold some sort of special open house for visitors before they vacate. (The details haven't been announced yet.)

Toronto's not that far away. I was thinking about asking for a vacation day, gassing up the sleek, gray Mercury, and taking off.

But it just dawned on me --- I haven't been to Canuckistan since 2001. Is a trip across the border a big hassle, and do I need to get a passport? According to the U.S. State Department's website and the Canadian government, it looks like a birth certificate and driver's license will do the trick.

So, should I bother to get a passport? Or should I risk getting trapped in Canada when the border guards on the U.S. side refuse to let me back in?

I know how to use the metric system, understand parliamentary government, and could even get used to putting a "u" in "color" and "labor."

But football with three downs just ain't right.

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October 14, 2008 | Link to this story

To The Moon, via West Mifflin

Category: News || By

Wade H. Massie photo

The race to put humans back on the moon is traveling through the Mon Valley.

Scarab, a platform for lunar rover technology being developed at Carnegie Mellon University, is being tested at Lafarge North America's Duquesne slag plant off of Buttermilk Hollow Road in West Mifflin.

Equipped with machinery capable of drilling into materials as hard as granite, then pulverizing the samples and analyzing their chemical content, Scarab is a "skid-steer" vehicle that operates much like a skid-loader, says David Wettergreen, research scientist in Carnegie Mellon's Field Robotics Center.

The rover is being developed with funding from NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program. Later this month, it departs for two weeks of testing on the sides of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that makes up the majority of Hawaii's "Big Island."

. . .

The mission of a Scarab-like robot would be to travel to the moon's poles in search of ice. That ice could be harvested for water that would support life on a permanent lunar base, which could then serve as a launching pad for missions to other planets.

Little firsthand information is known about the moon's poles. NASA's six manned lunar missions between 1969 and 1972 never strayed far from the moon's equator.

Practically speaking, such a trip by a robot like Scarab probably five to 10 years away from reality, Wettergreen says.

Rather than having a complicated steering mechanism, Scarab steers by stopping and starting one or more of its four wheels.

"It simplifies the design, because we only need four drive motors," Wettergreen says. It can also crawl along the ground like an inchworm.

. . .

But there's really nothing simple about the way Scarab crawls across the moon-like terrain of the slag pile. Actually, it's rather elegant. Instead of springs, Scarab's wheels are anchored by long, pivoting arms that allow it to tackle steep slopes (up to a 30 percent grade), uneven terrain, or raise itself nearly two feet above the ground.

(One thing Scarab doesn't do is scamper --- it's top speed is five centimeters per second. That's about 1/10 mph.)

The wheels are able to lean or pivot as necessary to help Scarab climb hills that would stymie vehicles with more conventional suspensions.

Scarab's suspension also helps stabilize the Canadian-built drill at the rover's center. That drill will enable Scarab to take core samples from up to three feet below the surface. The material removed by the drill is then pulverized and heated to more than 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit; the gases released are analyzed by a chromatograph to determine the chemical composition of the rock.

Researchers tried a variety of methods for supporting the robot during drilling operation --- including outriggers --- but returned to standard skid-loader tires for field tests, Wettergreen says.

. . .

However, regular pneumatic tires wouldn't work at the moon's poles, where temperatures will be a brisk 40 degrees Kelvin (about 387 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). Conventional tires would be shattered by the cold.

For that possible journey, Michelin has developed an airless tire called the "tweel." They're made of standard tread that's supported by spokes instead of inflated sidewalls. The spokes are made from the same fabric as spacesuits, Wettergreen says.

The Scarab team expects to be testing the "tweels" on the Lafarge slag pile before heading to Hawaii, he said.

. . .

Although Wettergreen used a joystick to manually steer Scarab during a press conference on Tuesday, the robot's on-board navigation system is designed to allow it to drive itself over the moon's surface, finding the best routes and choosing locations to stop and drill for samples. A laser scanner gives it a 3-D view of the terrain.

Scarab's power requirements are a surprisingly low 100 to 120 watts. On Earth, that's supplied by lithium-ion batteries, but Wettergreen says that if Scarab was deployed on a moon mission, it would probably get a Stirling engine powered by a radioactive isotope.

Stirling engines convert heat directly into motion; with the right isotope, Scarab could be powered for 10 years, barring wear-and-tear on components or some other mechanical failure.

. . .

The tests in West Mifflin are taking place on a man-made mountain created from slag --- rock that's the byproduct of melting iron ore in blast furnaces --- that was for decades dumped by the Mon Valley's steel mills.

Lafarge grinds the slag into aggregates that are used in poured concrete, railroad ballast, road paving material, and other products.

Wettergreen says the punishing surface is a good substitute for the types of conditions that lunar rovers would face, and praises Lafarge for allowing Carnegie Mellon researchers to test Scarab and other robots on its West Mifflin slag piles.

Lafarge workers have even helped create obstacles and trails for the robots to tackle, he says.

It's a low-tech environment in the Mon-Yough area that's helping to propel science for years to come.

. . .

Disclaimer: The writer is employed by Carnegie Mellon University, but no remuneration or influence was placed upon Tube City Online to publish this story, and opinions expressed at Tube City Online are not those of Carnegie Mellon University, its staff, or affiliates.

Photo by Wade H. Massie.

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October 13, 2008 | Link to this story

Slow News Day

Category: Commentary/Editorial, General Nonsense || By

I'd like to publicly thank Jen Vertullo of the Daily News for writing a very nice story about the Founder's Day Address at the McKeesport Heritage Center, but who's the bald weirdo in all of the pictures?

Seriously, Jen, you probably want to make sure your camera is OK. It's making people's foreheads look freakishly large and bare.

Says Alert Reader Mike, "The stock market is moving like Kennywood's Racer and you're on the front page of the Daily News. Wow!"

Yeah, but we'll have years to read about the collapse of the American economy. The speech was only going to be news for 24 hours or so.

They put me right above a headline about "deaths linked to tainted milk." That somehow seems appropriate.

By the way, if you didn't attend, you missed out on a free gift. All visitors received a pencil labeled "PROPERTY OF G.C. MURPHY CO. STORE USE."

They weren't stolen from the Home Office. Instead, they were duplicated from an original Murphy pencil with the help of JoAnn Kylander of Frank Sinatra Advertising in Glassport. And they were American-made pencils, from the Aakron Pencil Co. of Akron, N.Y.

I wouldn't hesitate at all to recommend Sinatra Advertising (which was named for the real Frank Sinatra of Elizabeth Township, not that other guy).

Mention my name and ask for one of the fuzzy-headed "thank you" pens. It's more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and it smells nicer, too.

Since we're all going to be selling pencils soon, order yours now and avoid the rush.

Meanwhile, I just found out that a cartoon I did a few years ago for a chain of Maine newspapers made the rounds of the state legislature, and that the governor of Maine was not amused.

Well, there's yet another place where I've worn out my welcome: Maine. This is the first time I've ever ticked off an entire state without ever visiting it. Usually I need to work somewhere for at least a couple of weeks before they're mad at me.

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October 12, 2008 | Link to this story

An Apology to Port Vue

Category: General Nonsense, History || By

It has come to my attention that some residents of Port Vue were offended by recent remarks published in the Almanac in relation to the founding of Liberty Borough.

The remarks were supposed to be funny and I thought they were obviously tongue-in-cheek, but apparently some people didn't find them funny, or took them seriously. (A few people were especially offended by the word "ptui," which was an obscure inside joke.)

I didn't mean any disrespect, and I certainly didn't mean to impugn or malign anyone from Port Vue or the borough itself. I sincerely apologize.

Some of my best friends (and family members) are from Port Vue, and I went to school for six years in Port Vue. (It's not true that I spent all six of those years in the second grade.)

To make amends, I have now scanned in the entire 1976 history of Port Vue that was written by the late Rudolph Antoncic Sr., former mayor and burgess.

You can download it as a PDF; it's about 8 MB.

I hope everyone in Port Vue will accept this as my attempt to make amends, and I especially hope that they won't tell my grandma what I did.

Anyway, remember that in these challenging economic and political times, it's important for us to band together and fight our common enemy. Namely, Lincoln Borough.

. . .

(Tomorrow in the Almanac: An apology to Lincoln Borough)

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October 09, 2008 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted

Category: Events, News || By

This, that and the other:

. . .

Kelly Park Renovations Coming: Ownership of Kelly Park on Walnut Street is being transferred to the city.

At last week's meeting, city council accepted ownership of the park from the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport.

The park, named for prominent local doctor J. Clarence Kelly, is bounded by Sixth Avenue, Shaw Avenue and Tube Works Alley. It's best known as the location of the last remaining railroad "watchtower" that guarded street crossings when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's tracks cut through the heart of Downtown.

The property was taken over by the Redevelopment Authority after the tracks were removed in 1970.

Currently home to a picnic pavilion and benches, the park is slated for renovation with the help of a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. City officials said transferring ownership of the land was necessary before the funding could be released.

. . .

Emergency Crews Honored: A police officer and four emergency medical technicians were honored for their service in two recent serious fires.

Mayor Jim Brewster last week presented proclamations to medics from McKeesport Ambulance Rescue Service who responded to the July 11 fire that gutted one of the buildings in the Hi View Gardens apartment complex on Coursin Street.

The MARS personnel were unable to attend a ceremony at September's council meeting, when city police and firefighters were similarly honored.

Also recognized was police Sgt. Michael Ridzick, who was off-duty when he responded to a fire at a restaurant in the East End on Aug. 2, helping to rescue one of the trapped occupants of an upstairs apartment.

. . .

New Tools: City firefighters have some new tools, thanks to some timely donations. Fire Chief Kevin Lust said last week a $5,000 state grant obtained by state Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, allowed the city to purchase new Hurst Model O Cutters for use in extracting victims of car crashes.

In addition, the Liberty Borough Volunteer Fire Department has given the city unneeded five-inch fire hoses, Lust said: "It was like new."

Meanwhile, four new police cruisers are on the streets. Three Ford Crown Victoria prowl cars and an unmarked Ford Explorer have joined the city's fleet, according to police Chief Joe Pero.

. . .

TL Sound Back on Air: Former WMCK, WIXZ and WIIC-TV personality Terry Lee Trunzo is going back on the air.

Trunzo, a legend in local radio circles, announced on his new blog that tapes of his syndicated oldies shows from the 1980s will begin airing on Scottdale-based WLSW-FM (103.9) this weekend.

The shows --- which never aired in the Pittsburgh area during their original run --- will be broadcast from 10 p.m. to 12 midnight Saturdays over WLSW, which can be heard through most of the Mon-Yough area. Other weekend programming includes oldies shows hosted by longtime local DJ the Rev. Charlie Appel, former pastor of Liberty Borough's Good Samaritan Episcopal Church.

Trunzo recently emerged from semi-retirement in Ohio to begin selling CDs of his WIXZ, WMCK and syndicated shows via eBay and his website.

. . .

Penn State Hosts Open House: Penn State's Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport will host an open house for prospective students on Saturday, Oct. 25, beginning at 10 a.m.

Both current high school students and adults returning to college are welcome. Campus representatives will be available to discuss degrees, the admissions process and financial aid.

Advance registration is suggested. Call Debbie McKeever at (412) 675-9010 or visit the Penn State website.

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October 08, 2008 | Link to this story

A Public Service Rant

Category: Rants a.k.a. Commentary, Sarcastic? Moi? || By

Attention, all residents of the Mon-Yough area!

You may have noticed certain flashing lights along Lysle Boulevard, Walnut Street, Lincoln Way, Eden Park Boulevard and other local roadways.

Sometimes they look like this:

And sometimes, they look like this:

They are not there just to use more energy on behalf of Duquesne Light, nor are they decorations that celebrate some obscure holiday.

In fact, sometimes, signs convey useful information.

No, really, it's true! For instance, when this sign is flashing or lit:

It is safe for you to cross the street.

When this sign is flashing or lit:

It is not safe to cross the street.

This sign does not mean:
  • "Hobble out into the intersection and motion for the cars to stop"

  • "Stride into the intersection and dare people to hit you"

  • "Drive out into the street on your slow-moving electric-mobility cart," or

  • "Drag your three squalling, runny-nosed kids, a Shop 'n Save buggy, and a stroller out into the middle of traffic."

It means that you should wait your turn.

Learning to wait our turn is one of the things that separates us from lower forms of life, like chimps, Cleveland Browns fans, and people who write political commercials for TV.

Remember, it is safe to cross the street when you see this little man:

Hey! Here's a fun fact: You may be surprised to learn that in most of the rest of the United States of America ... indeed, most of the world, even in countries whose primary export is dysentery ... the people know that they're not supposed to cross when the sign looks like this:

Many Mon-Yough area residents --- possibly your friends and neighbors --- also learned how to cross the street safely when we were 5 or 6 years old.

But our moms and dads didn't encourage us to run out into traffic like your moms and dads apparently did.

. . .

Please, set a good example for your kids, and learn when to cross the street.

And teach your kids when to cross the street, too, before they get smeared all over Kennywood Boulevard by a tri-axle coal truck.

Use the lumpy thing on top of your neck --- you know, the part with your piehole --- as something other than a holder for the counterfeit Steelers hat you bought at the flea market.

Until Hasbro invents soft, bouncy car bumpers and fenders made of "Nerf" material, being struck by a car will hurt you. People who are hit by cars run the risk of death, the side effects of which are often fatal.

. . .

This message paid for by a grant from the Tube City Online Foundation for the Extremely Obvious. In our next installment, we'll discuss the Mon Valley tradition of walking in the middle of a lane instead of on the sidewalk ... and why this, too, might be bad for your health!

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October 07, 2008 | Link to this story

A Fool and His Money

Category: Commentary/Editorial, General Nonsense, Pointless Digressions || By

My friends, as a famous man once said, economics is something that I've really never understood as well as I should. In fact, I haven't had any economics education since about 11th grade.

I'm pretty sure that the equilibrium price is set wherever the supply and demand curves intersect, but it might also have something to do with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and "54-40 or fight."

So, what I'm about to say should be taken with an entire shaker of salt.

. . .

A couple of people have asked me recently what they should do about their 401(k) retirement plans. They're watching stock prices tank and seeing their pension funds tank, too.

I don't know what to do with mine, so I'm doing nothing.

As I understand it, if your 401(k) plan purchases certain equities --- say, 10 shares of XYZ Corp. at $10 each --- your retirement plan then has $100 worth of XYZ Corp.

If XYZ stock goes up to $12 per share this quarter, your retirement fund's investment is now worth $120 --- a $20 gain. Hooray! But you don't actually get that $20 to spend until you retire.

Conversely, if XYZ stock flops down to $2 a share, you also didn't lose $80, unless you're retiring today. You still have 10 shares of XYZ Corp.; they're just worth less money.

. . .

Eventually, assuming the XYZ Corp. stays in business, the share price could go back up, and hopefully your 10 shares will have increased in value over the long term.

Or, if LMNOP Inc. takes over XYZ Corp. for $16 per share, your retirement fund makes a profit.

Or, if LMNOP Inc. swaps its shares for XYZ Corp's stock, then the fund's shares are converted into LMNOP stock, which can also rise and fall on the market. Hopefully, they go up. Either way, your original 10 shares are still there somewhere.

Er, unless XYZ Corp. or LMNOP Inc. files for bankruptcy. In that case, you're hosed. Your shares of stock are worth as much as that share of G.C. Murphy Co. stock at the top of the page: Nothing.

. . .

For instance, when Ames took over G.C. Murphy Co. in 1985, the McKeesport company's stock was $48 per share.

Murphy stock, under the ticker symbol "MPH," had been trading at between $12 and $16 per share during most of the 1980s. If you were a Murphy shareholder and you took the cash from Ames in 1985, you were in good shape.

But if you took Ames stock instead of cash, you could soon use the stock certificates to blow your nose. Ames filed for bankruptcy the first time in 1990; its shares were selling for pennies and were kicked off of the New York Stock Exchange.

Anyway, if you're watching your retirement fund go down, down, down, there's really no point in frantically rearranging your allocations now.

It's too late; you'll throwing good money after bad, and it's better to wait things out. Of course, it's also likely that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

. . .

To me, the more worrisome problem is the lack of credit. Let's say XYZ Corp. does most of its business during the summer and fall.

During those months, XYZ has enough profit to pay its employees and its vendors. During the winter, it starts ordering supplies for the summer and fall, and it uses short-term lines of credit to carry it through the lean times.

If the banks can't extend that credit to XYZ, it either has to dip into its savings, raise its prices, or lay off employees. If it can't do any of those things, it can't sustain its usual business.

. . .

Those kinds of problems can quickly turn into a death spiral that pushes XYZ Corp. into bankruptcy --- or at best, into a merger on unfavorable terms.

Now, imagine XYZ is a major multi-national corporation with thousands of suppliers that it can't pay. And imagine that each of those suppliers has hundreds of employees. You see where I'm going with this, and it ain't pretty.

Or imagine XYZ is your local city, borough or township. Last week, for instance, I noted that McKeesport city council is worried that it might not be able to get its usual tax-anticipation loan. Well, in case you missed the story that broke over the weekend, the entire state of California is worried about the same thing.

And where a city of McKeesport's size, for instance, might be looking for a tax anticipation loan in the neighborhood of $2.5 million, California needs $7 billion.

That's what really motivated the so-called "financial bailout" --- the need to keep some credit available while regulators and bankers try to untangle the mess (that they made, but that's a topic for another time).

. . .

What can you or I do about it? As the famous economist Morey Amsterdam might say, "bupkis."

Personally, I'm leaving my retirement plan alone, because --- as I mentioned before --- I don't know what the hell I'm doing, and I'm not going to panic into doing something stupid.

And I'm also not going to worry about it, because what can I do about it? Right. Bupkis.

Which is also probably what's left in my retirement plan, but I'd rather not look right now.

. . .

Speaking of Bupkis: If you'd like to see me demonstrate that I know bupkis, come out to the McKeesport Heritage Center at 2 p.m. Sunday.

I'll be delivering the Founder's Day Address, and my topic is (surprise!) the G.C. Murphy Co. Rumor has it that Sunshine Produce on Walnut Street will be supplying leftover tomatoes for throwing at the podium.

According to legend, British army officers wore red coats in battle so that if they were shot, the blood wouldn't show.

That's why on Sunday I'm wearing brown pants. (Rimshot. Apologies to Garrison Keillor.)

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October 06, 2008 | Link to this story

Danger: Politics Ahead

Category: Commentary/Editorial, Politics || By

It's time for one of my semi-annual political rants. Your patience is appreciated.

First, if you haven't seen it already, watch the above speech that Rich Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, made to the United Steelworkers of America back in July. It's only about eight minutes long.

(Hey, it's relevant. Trumka's a Mon Valley guy.)

Then, go read what D.J. Coffman has to say about life in his little pocket of Westmoreland County these days.

And now, begins the rant. Here's your last chance to leave: You can go look at puppies from the Fallen Timber Animal Shelter.

As for the rest of you ...


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October 03, 2008 | Link to this story

News and Notes

Category: News || By

No New Taxes, Mayor, Council Tell School Board: City officials are asking McKeesport Area School District not to raise taxes to fund the construction of two new elementary schools.

The city enthusiastically supports construction of a new school next to the current Cornell Intermediate School (the former McKeesport Technical High School), Brewster said Wednesday, and will help the district improve the site in any way possible.

That could include repairing Spring Avenue, which connects Cornell Street with Jenny Lind Street and Walnut Street. The street, which is routinely washed out by several natural springs, has long been an obstacle course for city motorists.

"But I will add to my comment that I am opposed to doing it with any tax increase," Brewster said. Although the city is under financial strain, he said, council has found ways to pay its bills without raising taxes.

"The taxpayers rely on us to find a way to make that happen," Brewster said.

He and City Controller Ray Malinchak also urged MASD to build the first new school within the city limits, saying that Cornell, built in 1916, is more urgently in need of replacement than either of the schools in White Oak.

However, Brewster was careful not to criticize the neighboring borough, one of five in the McKeesport Area School District. The mayor said he had no desire to reopen the controversy that resulted in March, when the Post-Gazette reported that White Oak officials had considered seceding from the district or petitioning to change the district's name.

"As McKeesport goes or White Oak goes, so do the rest of our communities go," Brewster said. "All five of us have to work together, and now is the time for us to circle the wagons. The communities that circle the wagons and work together are the strongest, and have the loudest voice in Harrisburg or Washington."

Community activist and educator Major Mason III noted that building a new school on the Cornell site will benefit the surrounding neighborhoods, and would probably lead to increased usage of nearby assets like the Carnegie Library of McKeesport and the McKeesport Little Theater.

The new school will also allow MASD to offer new programs in areas like conflict resolution and anger management, he said. "There's new research out there that suggests that if you teach kids when they're young, they won't be out there stabbing each other and fighting when they're 17," Mason said.

More than 560 people have signed a petition asking MASD to build its next new school on the Cornell site, he said.

Malinchak questioned whether MASD really needs to build two new schools, since population projections by the state Department of Education predict that MASD will decline from 3,900 students this academic year to 3,400 five years from now.

Borrowing $31 million, Malinchak said, will cost the district about $1.2 million per year.

"Tell me how they're going to make that up without raising taxes," he said. "In a couple of years, the people of this district are going to be looking back and wondering how that happened."

. . .

City Joins West-to-West: The city will join the Duquesne-based West-to-West Coalition.

At Wednesday's meeting, council by 5-0 vote approved membership in the league of Mon Valley area municipalities, which was designed to include --- as its name implies --- all of the communities between West Homestead and West Elizabeth. West-to-West provides member municipalities with assistance in completing environmental remediation of abandoned industrial sites, or so-called "brownfields."

Mayor Jim Brewster had previously said the city had no need for West-to-West, because the city has its own community development department.

However, West-to-West can also provide access to funding that would otherwise be difficult for the city to obtain.

Brewster said Wednesday night that the first project that West-to-West will work on in the city is the remediation of the former Amoco station on Eden Park Boulevard near Jimmy Long Field.

As reported last month by the Almanac, that station, most recently called Renzie Mini-Mart, is going to be reopened by the owners of Lampert's Market.

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October 02, 2008 | Link to this story

City Eyes Credit Crunch Warily

Category: News || By

A crash on Wall Street could reverberate on Walnut Street, city officials warned during last night's council meeting.

Like many municipalities, the city takes out what are called "tax anticipation loans" at the beginning of each calendar year. They're short-term loans that allow the city to pay its bills during the first quarter of each year until wage and property tax payments start arriving.

"If credit dries up, I can't see us getting a tax anticipation loan next year, which would really put us in a bind," Councilman Darryl Segina said.

Mayor James Brewster --- a former Mellon Bank executive --- said the collapse of several major New York investment banks and brokerages is the worst economic crisis of his lifetime.

"It goes beyond scary, and needless to say, we weren't in really good shape beforehand," Brewster said.

. . .

There is positive news to report, however. A 2003 audit discovered that McKeesport's employee pension plans were short of covering their expected liabilities by $4 million.

But according to Ray Malinchak, city controller, the plans are currently well above 80 percent funded, the standard for being fully funded under the Pension Protection Act of 2006.

Since moving the city's pension plans to Sky Bank, the predecessor of Huntingdon Bank, the funds have grown about 7.17 percent, City Administrator Dennis Pittman said.

"The numbers were actually up this year through August, but September was a horrendous month," Brewster said. "I want to reassure our employees that your pensions are whole, and in good standing."

. . .

In addition, other capital investment projects are moving forward, including the extension of Marshall Drive from Old Long Run Road to Route 48, and the addition of a "flyover" vehicle ramp from Lysle Boulevard into the RIDC industrial park on the other side of the CSX Railroad tracks.

"Obviously, everybody is scrambling for funding, but no one has turned us down yet," Brewster said.

In an unrelated matter, Segina, chairman of the International Village committee, reported that this year's three-day festival returned more than $40,000 to the city treasury. A final report on income and expenses was submitted to council and is available for public review at city hall, he said.

Strong attendance and a change in soft-drink vendors helped boost revenues, Segina said, noting that some volunteers working the gates this year were accosted by residents complaining about the $2 admission fee and demanding to know where the money was going.

"That's an affront to every city (employee) and volunteer who's out there trying to do their jobs," he said. "For $2, you get entertainment all day, and free parking. I think that's the cheapest ticket in town."

. . .

There was time for a little levity later, when Malinchak read the monthly report of city expenses and made the routine recommendation that council approve all of those expenses.

"Do we have enough to pay the bills this month?" Segina asked Malinchak.

"With your help, we do," Malinchak quipped.

. . .

In Other Business: The Twin Rivers Council of Governments is moving back into the city, and council last night committed to remaining a member of the organization through 2019.

The cooperative, which provides group purchasing and public-works services to 13 member municipalities, is currently located in the West Mifflin Municipal Building on Lebanon Church Road, but the borough has pulled out of Twin Rivers and joined the South Hills Area COG.

In an Aug. 25 letter to Brewster, COG President David Pasternak reported that the group intends to move into the former Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County building at the corner of Walnut and 28th streets in Christy Park. The water authority vacated the building, a former Super Dollar supermarket, as part of a cost-cutting effort last year.

In return, Twin Rivers asked the city to remain in the COG for at least 10 years. A motion to authorize the city's continued membership in COG was approved by 5-0 vote. Councilors Loretta Diggs and Paul Shelly Jr. were absent.

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October 01, 2008 | Link to this story

When Better Cars Were Sold

Category: Commentary/Editorial, Local Businesses, The Blacktop Jungle || By

John Naretto Buick closed yesterday after 30 years in business. Unlike other Mon-Yough area car dealerships that have disappeared in recent years, it wasn't sold to another dealer --- it just closed.

It also didn't declare bankruptcy. As first reported by Eric Slagle in Monday's Daily News (the story isn't available online), the dealership on Long Run Road was still making a profit, but General Motors wants all of its "standalone" Buick dealers to add Pontiacs and GMC trucks.

Naretto has always been proud to be one of the few exclusive Buick-only dealers; with Hamilton Buick-Pontiac-GMC located just up the road in Irwin, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to add the other lines.

According to Slagle's story, the Naretto family looked into the future and decided --- I'm paraphrasing --- "to hell with it." The used car stock was sold to Tom Clark Chevrolet down the street, and the new cars are being sent back to GM.

. . .

I don't want to get into a big discussion of the auto industry; there are plenty of websites that do a thorough job of reporting on the topic every day. (The Truth About Cars is one; Jalopnik is another.)

And it's not exactly a surprise that American car dealers are hurting. Import dealers are suffering, too, because credit is tight across the board --- sales of VWs and Toyotas are also down. But while the rest of the industry is catching cold, the American companies have pneumonia: Chrysler's sales, for instance, are cratering.

Contrary to popular belief, in my opinion, products are not the most serious problem for Ford and GM. (I'm leaving Chrysler out of this because it was owned by Mercedes-Benz's parent company for nine years, and they really drove Chrysler off a cliff.)

Yes, everyone knows someone who had a Chevy Cavalier that went through three transmissions and five water pumps. They never seem to remember the Mazdas that had fenders composed of rust and duct tape.

I'd argue that Ford and GM cars are better-built than most of the European makes and about equal with the Japanese. J.D. Power's dependability ratings tend to bear me out.

. . . photoOf course, American companies are in deeper trouble than the imports because they spent years hustling SUVs and trucks instead of fuel-efficient small cars, and now they're stuck with gas guzzlers nobody wants.

Why did they do this? Was it a conspiracy with "big oil"? Are they just stupid?

Neither. The Big Three is saddled with pension and health care costs that foreign competitors don't worry about, because those competitors are based in countries with government-sponsored, highly regulated pension plans and health insurance. (Yes, their residents pay much higher taxes, too.)

SUVs and trucks carry much bigger profit margins than small cars, which allowed GM, Ford and Chrysler to cope with their health care and pension expenses for a few years.

Also, fuel taxes are considerably higher in Europe and Japan than in the U.S.; their roads are more narrow and congested, too. The Japanese and European car companies don't make that many large cars because they didn't need them, and they can't sell them in their home markets, anyway.

. . .

All things considered, it's hard to fault the Narettos for deciding to get out while the getting's good. Things are liable to get worse before they get better. (NADA is predicting that 600 dealerships nationwide will close this year.)

I can understand why General Motors wants its dealers to sell a wider variety of brands --- it cuts the company's overhead. Servicing 500 big dealers is cheaper and easier than servicing 2,000 small dealers. (Chrysler and Ford are doing the same thing --- independent dealers are being told to add more volume or turn in their franchises. Witness the recent demise of Monongahela Ford.)

Still, it's a shame to see local, community dealers forced out of business. It's generally accepted in the car business that you're only as good as your dealer network. Plenty of people buy cars at least in part because they like their local dealer, not just on the merit of the product.

In other words, some percentage of John Naretto's customers were buying Buicks not because they liked Buicks, but because John Naretto sold them. With John Naretto gone, they may decide to go to another Buick dealer --- or they may decide to go down Route 48 to Bob Massie and look at Toyotas.

If the American car companies chase away too many of their remaining loyal customers by squeezing out their small dealers, it might be the final push they need to slip permanently into oblivion.

. . .

(P.S.: Incidentally, both Slagle and Kim Leonard of the Tribune-Review made the same minor boo-boo. They reported that Naretto was in White Oak for 30 years.

(As any longtime McKeesporter will know, until about 15 or 20 years ago, Naretto was on Lysle Boulevard, Downtown, where the Rite Aid is today. Naretto Buick is a direct descendant of Levine-Jones Buick and --- before that --- Sullivan Buick-Rambler.)


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