Who Are Those Guys?

Some time ago, I asked whether Pittsburgh possessed a collection of living human curiosities -- pockets of weirdness -- to rival Baltimore (sorry; “Bawlmer”). The response here was underwhelming, but the Post Gazette sort of picked up my gauntlet the other day. It published a list of Pittsburgh “characters.” Do they rival Baltimore for sheer quirkiness and distinctiveness, not to say outright weirdness? Probably not. But they’re our characters nonetheless.

I’ll get to the details in a moment. But first, a preliminary thought: The PG’s presentation of the list carries a strong whiff of “all Pittsburghers obviously know these people, and loves them,” which carries an implicit “if you don’t know who these people are, then you’re not a Pittsburgher.” Here’s the line from the story: “Truly iconic Pittsburghers are known by everyone, from the city to the suburbs.”

The PG is trying to sell newspapers and page views, and most of its audience skews old – even older than me – which means that the PG may be punching exactly at its weight. But as a Pittsburgh immigrant, I read an echo of Border Guard Bob’s cousin. Border Guard Bob, many will recall, made a brief and inglorious (inglourious?) appearance in Pittsburgh years ago, locking up Allegheny County’s high school grads and college students to ensure that they wouldn’t take their talent to other places. BGB was supposed to be the plug in the alleged brain drain. His cousin faces outward; as geographers and demographers know, in-ward looking cities like Pittsburgh post sentries to block incursions from strangers. They communicate the message: Keep out; if you aren’t already one of us, you aren’t welcome here. Can you identify all of the people on the PG’s list? If not, you may not belong. Certainly that’s not the PG’s game plan. But there’s this “with us or agin’ us” echo.

I'm posting this from the San Francisco Bay Area, my home turf, where cultural "insider" and "outsider" are marked in their own but very distinct ways. In the Bay Area, the way to say "insider" is to know what's new and hip - not what's been around forever. San Franciscans can get as self-righteous as Pittsburghers, but San Francisco's current "characters" are, on the whole, children. Ask someone here to identify Herb Caen, or better - Miles Archer. If you know the answers, then you're past your prime. Clueless. Not part of the contemporary community.

Pittsburgh is the reverse: If you're too far ahead of the curve, then you're out of step with authentic Pittsburgh. Every city struggles with this problem in its own way.

Pittsburgh newcomers should steel themselves against the list below, but they can take heart: Pittsburgh – city and suburbs – is far less of a single cultural piece than traditionalists may think. I don't want to turn Pittsburgh into San Francisco, but a little out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new would lend the city some needed perspective.

Here are the details - the people included in the PG story. My reaction to the list is akin to Butch and Sundance’s reaction to the anonymous posse trailing them through the Rocky Mountain West: Who are those guys? My amateur knowledge of Pittsburgh's history and culture clearly has its limits. Who do you know?
  • Vic Cianca: No idea. He passed away the other day and apparently was a traffic officer who entertained in the middle of the intersection.
  • Sophie Masloff: Former Council President, Mayor, and now elderstateswoman of the Democratic Party machine.
  • Ricki Wertz: Who?
  • Lynn Cullen: TV talk show host maybe? Never seen her.
  • Bob Prince: No idea.
  • Chilly Bob Cardille: Ditto.
  • Joe Hardy: 84 Lumber founder, spouse to younger women.
  • Joe DeNardo: Weather guy? Not sure here; I rarely watch local TV news, but I think that I’ve heard his name.
  • Dan Rooney: Ambassador to Ireland. Patriarch of one of the most beloved sports franchises in America.
  • Michelle Madoff: I’ve never heard this name before.
  • Cyril Wecht: I certainly know about this guy, and he is certainly a character. The title “Allegheny County Coroner” doesn’t begin to do him justice.
  • Paul Shannon: Who?
  • Bruno Sammartino: I’m in the dark.
  • John Fetterman: Making noise as the Mayor of Braddock.
  • Phat Man Dee: Heard of him her, yes. (Corrected per Bram's comment; obviously, I haven't heard much.)
  • John McIntire: Heard of him, too, but have never heard? read? him.
  • Andy Warhol: Changed art. Maybe ended it.
  • Tom Sokolowski: Warhol Museum director and a real character. Absolutely know him.
  • Chuck Tanner: Need to be a baseball geek from a certain era to get this one, but I was reading the sports pages carefully and watching the sport on TV back in the 70s. Former Pirates manager.
  • Mario Lemieux: Not a character, but a hero to hockey fans.
  • Judge Jeffrey Manning: Nope.
  • DJ Scott Paulsen. I assume that he’s on the radio. Stations still use DJs? I thought that they relied on comedy teams and “hosts.” The music comes from satellites.
  • David Newell: Watched him and the Neighborhood gang in first-run.
  • Sally Wiggin: Also a local TV person. In 12 years here, I have probably seen 12 minutes of her.
  • Drummer Spider Rondinelli: A musician, I’m guessing, but I don’t know more.
  • Paul O’Neill: Tried to bring sense to the Treasury. A titan at Alcoa and part of Pittsburgh’s Old Guard.
  • Beano Cook: An unfortunate nickname (I assume that this is his nickname?). He has something to do with sports.
  • Richard Mellon Scaife: Owns the Trib. Scion of the right wing, or its bĂȘte-noire, depending on your perspective. Major divorce battle still pending, AFAIK.
  • Donnie Iris: Say it with me - “Dawnie.” Love is like a rock. Got this one.
  • Bingo O’Malley: No idea.
  • August Wilson: Love his work and loved it before I moved here and learned about his life in Pittsburgh.
  • Billy Hillgrove: Sure, I listen to the guy on Sundays while watching the Steelers on TV. He’s an imposing and amusing presence in person. If he dialed back his schedule a bit, he might be a bit sharper. “Check that.”
  • Steve Pellegrino: No clue.
  • Teenie Harris: Yep. The history of Pittsburgh on film.
  • Mike Lange: He shoots, he scores. The voice of the Penguins.
  • Patrice King Brown: TV person. I don’t know why I know this.
  • Ken Rice: Another TV person. He’s also my neighbor. Why are so many TV people on the list?
  • Franco Harris: I’ve actually met Franco. I believe that I was watching the live TV broadcast of the Steelers/Raiders game in which he made “The Immaculate Reception.” At the time, I would have been cheering for the Raiders.
  • The sports fan trio of Maurice “Mossie” Murphy , “Tiger” Paul Auslander, and Lawrence “Deuce” Skurcenski: I am at a total loss. What sport? More than one? Are these guys fans? Players? Something else?

Fred Rogers. An obvious choice, though surprisingly, not everyone liked his work. There is a line of thinking that goes, if everyone is special, then no one is special. I don’t quite buy it.

Myron Cope: Well, of course. More than anyone else on the list in my view Cope epitomized “classic,” inside-the-Parkways Pittsburgh. Knowing the source, meaning, and proper application of “Yoi” (Double Yoi, and the save-for-tremendous-occasions Triple Yoi) really marks a certain generation of Pittsburgh residents, if not Pittsburghers themselves. Do you (or did you) “get” Myron? If so, traditionalists would say that you get to keep your card as a member of the Diaspora. I went to a screening of a Pittsburgh film at the Carnegie Science Center IMAX theater years ago, and after many minutes of beautiful sweeping views of the region the film ended with an uncredited but unmistakable voice that said, in the simplest Pittsburgh-ese, “Bye, Now.”

My list, a start:

I’ll add these folks, a completely incomplete and idiosyncratic list of Pittsburgh characters. Some are here because I think that they're fabulous people; some are here because their personal and/or professional distinction is just too compelling; some are here because they are – or were -- or are in the process of becoming -- “characters.” What they have in common is (and in some cases was) a willingness to challenge the status quo, to see the world on their own terms and not just ours. Do you recognize them? Then you might be a Pittsburgher. Or not.

Randy Pausch. The Last Lecture touched a lot of people, but the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU is his gift to Pittsburgh.

Herb Simon and Allen Newell: Ever wonder who that computer science building at CMU is named for? These guys. Legends.

Bob Brandom and John Norton. And all those folks in Philosophy and Philosophy of Science at Pitt. Absolutely the cream of the crop, and characters to boot.

John Murray. A lifetime of distinction and leadership, and a pretty fair teacher and scholar as well. If you ever have a chance to hear him deliver an address, go.

Eve Picker. Eve helped to reshape the Downtown residential real estate market over the last, say, decade, and her social entrepreneurship is pushing the city to rethink itself. Tireless advocate for cycling. (Why aren't there more women on this list?)

Carl Kurlander. My Tale of Two Cities filmmaker and tireless civic booster. Being from Pittsburgh isn’t enough. You have to come back.

Ralph Bangs and Larry Davis at Pitt’s School of Social Work. Shedding light on Pittsburgh’s under-studied and under-addressed problems at the intersection of race and poverty. (Notice a lot of Pitt people on the list? That’s no accident. People in the region have little idea what a phenomenal university Pitt has become over the last 15-20 years. )

Agnus Berenato. I get inspired just seeing her collect her luggage at the Pittsburgh airport. Playing hoops for her must be amazing.

Bill Strickland, at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild.

Dennis Roddy. When he is on his game, he is the best writer at the Post-Gazette, and whether he’s on his game or not, he is a newspaperman’s newspaperman (and I use that gendered term on purpose; back in the day, they were newspapermen even if they were women). The Post-Gazette employs a bunch of talented characters (not as many as it used to, of course), but Roddy is tops.

Chad Hermann. This is inside baseball, I know (or inside ice hockey), but Chad is a wicked sharp writer (and a more acute critic than anyone writing above the Morning File hed, right, left, or center) who has essentially forced himself upon the Pittsburgh media scene – with enormous success, judging from what I understand to be his readership. I don’t always agree with him, and we even once settled our differences in the pages of the Post-Gazette. But if TV is a hot medium, then Chad is hotter.

PittGirl, now known as Virginia (Ginny) Montanez, at That’s Church. The tragedy in Haiti brought out her best.


19 Responses to "Who Are Those Guys?"

Unknown said... 1/31/2010 4:59 AM

Surpised Rick Sebak is not listed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_Sebak

C. Briem said... 1/31/2010 8:55 AM

Yinzerdom will cut you a break on some of those... but not knowing Bruno? Certainly the single best known person in sports among Pittsburgh residents to this day.

Jonathan Potts said... 1/31/2010 10:24 AM

Let's keep in mind that journalists are hardly the best people to gauge a city's culture nor to decide which "characters" are known to everyone. Journalists pay a lot more attention to local politics than the average person of any age. They pay a lot more attention to the media, of course. I suspect a lot more life-long Pittsburghers than you imagine are scratching their heads at that list.

joe said... 1/31/2010 2:05 PM

I can almost forgive not knowing Bruno, but The Gunner??...

Arriba! (who knew Prince was fluent in Spanish?) Babushka power!

Anonymous said... 1/31/2010 4:28 PM

Joe Denardo is the Myron Cope of Pittsburgh meteorologists. He's still a Weatherman Emeritus at WTAE.

I think since you've only been here 12 years that the bulk of these people are before your time. I remember a ton of them fondly from my childhood.

-Amie Gillingham

ChrisP said... 1/31/2010 6:48 PM

Wow, take out McIntire, Man Dee and that list is just about a perfect snapshot of characters from the 60s to the death of the evening paper (1991?). Who let the gen y kid put 3 names in?

Yale Class of 1983 said... 2/01/2010 12:06 AM

Via the Internets (and the Google machine), I learn that Bruno was a professional wrestler, and Bob Prince, aka The Gunner, was the radio voice of the Pirates for many years. He passed away in the mid-1980s, more than a decade shy of my arrival in Pittsburgh. He may have been famous in these parts, but the only baseball announcer I ever heard in my youth, other than those who called Giants and A's games, was Vin Scully. He was on TV.

1 said... 2/01/2010 10:00 AM

Under "Music/Culture," add Greg Gillis and Wiz Khalifa to your list:



Anyone under 30 (and therefore only those whom you should trust) will know these two.

Girl Talk is definitely less mainstream and unconventional, but has a very, very strong underground following. Plus, he was a biomedical engineer before he started engineering beats. There is probably also interesting IP/copywrite law (and its violations) that may be of interest to you.

Mike Madison said... 2/01/2010 10:04 AM

Good suggestions, T. I've posted before at Pittsblog about Wiz, and I'm familiar with Girl Talk. I've even played some GT in my classes here at Pitt. But does GG count as a Pittsburgher - or a Clevelander?

Bram Reichbaum said... 2/01/2010 2:10 PM

Phat Man Dee is female.

Steve Pelligrino is definitely a character. I interviewed him and reviewed one of his shows back in my In Pittsburgh days -- he's a professional drywall installer -slash- existential playwright -slash- accordion maestro. Also a big community guy in S. Oakland and Oakland Square, from what I understand. I'd put him in the young file, or at least the hip. YouTube him.

Tom Weber said... 2/02/2010 9:24 AM

Let's stop quibbling about who should be on or off whose list. The main point of the post was that Pittsburgh is fixated on the past ('turn left where the Isaly's used to be') and on keeping perceived outsiders away from the corridors of power. Cities that are vibrant and growing feed off the energy of newcomers; Pittsburgh makes many newcomers wonder why they moved here.

1 said... 2/02/2010 10:52 AM

MM: Considering he was born in the Burgh, went to CharValleyHS, I'd put him under the Burgh category despite attending CWR for undergrad. I had a (few) beer(s) with him after one of his concerts and he definitely would identify himself more Pittsburgh; but then again, he probably sees his identity somewhat like his music: a mosaic mash-up of memories.

TomWeber: On what statistics/survey are you basing your statement that newcomers regret their decision? And even if there is, I'd say it has more to do with weather than people (MM, would you serve as the case study here?)

Also, I can tell you that the Generation Y(in) and Z(ers) of Pittsburgh have about as much loyalty to Isaly's as they do to keeping outsiders "outsiders," which is to say very little. I think you may be referring to all of those who cast votes and voice for Luke Ravenincumbent. Come 10-30 years from now, hopefully you're singing a different tune.

Andy S said... 2/02/2010 11:02 AM

Who is Chilly Bob Cardille? LOL. Must be Chilly Billy. Mike, I think you would have liked Chilly Billy's schtick. He was on the NBC affiliate and had a program that aired old B horror movies Saturday nights at 11:30. Saturday Night Live, sadly, killed a Pittsburgh classic.
Google "chilly billy," I'm pretty sure there are a few fan sites.

Having lived in both San Francisco and Pittsburgh, I agree with you analysis completely. It also jives with my personal view of Pittsburgh as an inward-looking island that dwells on the triumphs of the past and is blind to the promise of the future.

Mike Madison said... 2/02/2010 12:02 PM

T - On the weather, no, I don't really mind. I lived in cold weather climates before moving to Pittsburgh, so the winter doesn't bother me, and like just about everyone else (I hope) enjoy the transitions of Fall and Spring. Summer isn't bad at all. But then I'm not a very weather-sensitive person. People used to ask me whether I miss California. I miss the food, and I miss the diversity. I miss the clean air that you can breathe along most of the coast (though it's not as clean as it used to be). I don't miss the crowding, the cost of living, the insanely hectic pace of life, or or catastrophically broken government.

illyrias said... 2/02/2010 3:26 PM

As an outsider, I love learning various aspects of yinzerdom, and everyone I've met is very happy to share those details from gumbands to traffic shortcuts to the best fish sandwich. Yeah, Pittsburgh has a peculiar bunch of people, and I would take that any day over some cookie-cutter city/suburb.

And Bill Shannon is one of my favorite quirky burghers: city paper article about bill shannon

I think the list would have been rather different if Chris Potter of the City Paper had come up with it.

Mike Madison said... 2/02/2010 4:55 PM

Indeed. I'd love to see counterpart lists of characters or icons or whatever might suit. Chris, the ball is in your court.

Anonymous said... 2/05/2010 8:52 PM

whoever wrote this blog is a true pittsburgh jagoff- either he's been living under a rock or smokes 2 much dope. maybe he's from cleveland. what a jagoff. as for some of the negative comments go have a shot and a beer after your shift is over at j and l

Mike Madison said... 2/06/2010 8:04 PM

I almost rejected that last Anonymous comment because it seems offensive and ignorant. But I can't stop laughing.

Anonymous said... 2/12/2010 1:49 PM

Chuck Noll -- former Stillers Head Coach, won all the superbowls the first time around
Sam Hazo -- Poet Laureate
Richard Caliguiri -- Former Mayor of Da Burg
Vincent Eirene -- Perennial protestor of everything in Oakland

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at madisonian.net, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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