Remarks Delivered at Reception for Interviewees
at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
March 20, 2008
I've reassured you all that you all have stories to tell.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, There is a history in all peoples' lives.
And you all have proven that.
In many ways you are the memories of the 20th century, of your communities, of your neighborhoods, and of your families.
Your lives and your stories and your careers are like a catalog, an inventory out of a Walt Whitman poem celebrating America.
You or your families, with a myriad of skills and talents, have been homemakers, caregivers, artists, volunteers, irreplaceable secretaries, educators, entrepreneurs, writers, businessmen and businesswomen, social workers, railroaders, beauticians, poets, inventors, laborers, coal miners, dairymen, and switchboard operators.
You tell fascinating and absorbing stories of riding roller-coasters into your mid-80s; of attending Pitt in the '30s for $75 a semester; of deploying barrage balloons in England; of selling sheet music and buttons at Gimbels Downtown; of living in the Lower Hill when it was vibrant and thriving, a true melting pot of Syrians, Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles and African-Americans; of collecting mash from the breweries on Troy Hill, the nutritious by-product of the brewing process; of surviving the Great Depression; of sacrifice and patriotism during the Second World War; of the life of the Carpatho-Rusyn community in Pennsylvania; of being Rosie the Riveter; of working in a family-owned movie theater; of being Veterans; of being survivors of Nazi persecution; of being fighters for Justice; of remembering the calls of street vendors offering to mend umbrellas and the patter of childhood jump-rope rhymes; of hearing the clip-clop of horse-drawn hucksters' wagons; of being-or buying from-the Fuller Brush man; of picking wild raspberries in the woods off Perrysville Avenue; of once being a follower of Pittsburgh's own Kathryn Kuhlman; of the life of the Croatian community in Pittsburgh; of spending a night in Timbuktu in search of adventure-and finding it; of playing an out-of-tune guitar-or so you said-but with loving sensitivity; of being there on the beach at Normandy; of performing jet propulsion and wind tunnel experiments; of immigrant adventures rivaling those of Chaplin, Keaton and Langdon; and of marrying the boy next door….
When did you last use a fountain pen, a real, honest-to-goodness fountain pen? When did you last go Downtown wearing white gloves because those were the expectations and what was considered proper and appropriate? When did you last shop at one of Pittsburgh's six Downtown (and North Side) Department Stores-Horne's, Kaufmann's, Gimbels, Rosenbaum's, Frank & Seder, Boggs & Buhl?
Many of you described a less suspicious, a more open time; certainly many of you described a time when you felt safer in your communities. Many of you emphasized the central role of family in your lives. For many of you, Faith was central, and, for some of you, luck. Whatever resides at your core, I learned that there is a toughness, a resilience, a powerful sense of humor and, for so many of you, a particularly wry sense of humor.
I think I admitted to some of you that I am not a particularly "social" person. So, all the more reason for me to thank you for generously and graciously opening up with the stories of your lives (and, on occasion, feeding me). I make no apologies for trying to make all of you look as good and sound as good as I could-without sacrificing the flavor, authenticity, and truth of your experiences.
I was impressed by how much unintended interconnectedness there was between many of your stories. As Fred Rogers once remarked, Pittsburgh is one of the biggest small towns in America: so that many of you had in common places of work, neighborhoods, universities, military experiences, church memberships, Scouting…. This is not to minimize or discount the losses, the sufferings, the sorrows that many of you have suffered over the years.
It was an absolute privilege to be admitted to your homes and your several worlds. Many of you fall into the category that Tom Brokaw immortalized as "the greatest generation." At this point in this Oral History project, I certainly have nothing to gain and nothing to lose by saying that I found our "conversations," as I styled them, inspirational.
Speaking personally: having grown up in the 1950s with a father born in 1910 and a mother born in 1915 and having shaken hands with John Kennedy at Franklin Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park, New York, on 15 August 1960, nothing that many of you said was alien to me. Having been a social service worker, a janitor, a student, a busboy, a dishwasher, a forklift operator, a grad school instructor, an elevator operator, a shipper/receiver at Woolworth's, as well as currently a Librarian, all your work experiences made perfect sense to me.
The cover design that graces your interviews is the work of Sun Young Kang, a graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which, incidentally, is my hometown. Learning of my connection with that city, she presented me with a depiction of Philly that she had done and, as soon as I saw it-with its El Greco-like distortions-I knew she should do our cover. The final product, based, in part, on images from the Pennsylvania Department's Pittsburgh Photographic Library is a wonderful panorama, a panoply of The Point, The Golden Triangle, The Three Rivers-swirled about with images of mills, the 16th Street Bridge, the Cathedral of Learning, the Carnegie Library as it once looked, hillside homes, and the city's inevitable steps.
Thank you again, sincerely, for sharing your lives and your experiences.
Senior Librarian, Pennsylvania Department
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.