a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Donora smog show released on Web

The Weather Channel is streaming online its new docudrama about the infamous Donora smog that killed more than 20 people in 1948.

Among those featured in the show is my mom, June, shown above, whose family lived directly downwind of steel and zinc mill pollution that likely caused disaster.

The premier airs at 9 p.m. Sunday. Check local listings to see when the show goes to repeats next week.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bill Clinton on Obama in Little Washington

Former President Bill Clinton today made his second stop at Washington and Jefferson College in this election cycle to campaign for the Democratic candidate for the White House. His first visit to the campus in March involved a pitch for his wife, Hillary, who would later bow out of the race. This time around in Washington, Pa, he delivered a rousing preacher-man-style pitch for Barack Obama, and said the following in a 23-minute speech:

“Senator Obama is going to win this election and win it handily … unless people stop thinking about what is happening.”

“I have been there and this is going to be tough,” he said about the challenges facing the next president over the struggling economy, broken health-care system and America’s diminishing image in the world.

“I was for somebody else,” he said, adding that his wife is better suited for the White House.

“This is disgraceful folks,” he said about one in eight cancer patients being unable in the United States to afford medicine.

“You are being ripped off,” he said regarding how much Americans pay for health care when compared to the rest of the world.

“We need to free ourselves from the chains of foreign oil.” That needs no clarification.

“(Obama’s) going to have to take his hand off the Bible, race back down Pennsylvania Avenue, close the Oval Office door and get this country out of the ditch.”

(Photo: Stan Diamond Observer-Reporter)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Devra Davis talks smog in Donora

DONORA, Pa. - Caskets occasionally washed to the street when heavy rain fell on a barren cemetery above a filthy zinc mill in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Decades of pollution from the Donora, Pa., mill's smokestacks had killed the vegetation at Gilmore Cemetery, including grass that would have protected its ground from erosion.

"It certainly was a testimony of what happened there when you couldn't get grass to grow on the ground over the graves," environmental scientist Devra Davis said, discussing the Donora smog of 1948 that killed 20 people and also was linked to the mill.

Davis, an author and native of Donora, made the remarks Monday while speaking in her hometown as the community commemorates the 60th anniversary of the nation's deadliest air pollution disaster.

"The funeral homes ran out of caskets," she told the crowd of local high school students and academics who attended the symposium at the borough building.

"The florists ran out of flowers for funerals," said Davis, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and a public health adviser to each U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.

While the exact nature of the smog never has been revealed by U.S. Steel or through the federal investigation, Davis said she has uncovered evidence that suggests at least one death was attributed to fluoride poisoning. An autopsy report that was recently uncovered indicates the victims had toxic levels of fluoride in their tissues.

The autopsy showed findings as if "someone had been hit by war gas," she said.

Steel mills generated large quantities of the chemical when the industry was booming, and some were facing millions of dollars in court claims involving alleged fluoride damages at the time of the smog.

Donora's smokestacks were not high enough to send their emissions over the steep valley hills, Davis said. The situation turned deadly over that Halloween weekend of 1948 when a large stagnant air mass trapped the mill gases over Donora and Webster, its downwind neighbor.

Most of the deaths occurred within a half-mile distance of the zinc mill. Another 600 residents were hospitalized before rain helped to wash away the fumes that Halloween afternoon.

Davis said it's important to get the bottom of the disaster that helped to spur the nation's clean air laws.

"'Donoras' are happening today in small areas of India and China," she said. "Why is Donora so important? We must warn those living in similar conditions today."


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thanking poor Donora for blue skies

DONORA, Pa. –While studying her lines for a play about Donora in 1948 when steel was booming, Destiney Gilmer was surprised to learn that times were not always tough in the struggling Pennsylvania borough.

“It’s hard to believe it was prosperous,” said Gilmer, a cast member in Ringgold High School’s new one-act play about the deadly Donora smog that killed at least 20 people about this time 60 years ago.

The high school brought the somber show to Donora Tuesday and Wednesday as residents there commemorate the disaster that became the catalyst for America’s clean air laws.

High school drama coach Leslie Rutherford wrote “We Know Blue: a 21st Century Thank You” at the request of the Donora Historical Society.

“There is pride that clean air started here,” Rutherford said after her play was well received in the Donora Municipal Building.

But the students “couldn’t wrap their minds around” the fact that 8,000 people were sickened by the smog when there are just 5,000 folks living in the borough today, she said. “They were amazed.”

The students took turns telling an abbreviated story about the smog and its legacy. They sang musical numbers from the era, including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” They also pretended to tune into a corny live NBC radio broadcast of Fibber McGee and Molly”“ that entertained America about the time the smog settled over Donora.

There were 21 cast members, reflective of the unofficial number of people who died that Halloween weekend. Toward the end of the half-hour play, the students each lit a candle while announcing the victims’ names.

“It’s kind of hard to believe that that happened here,” student Leah Kramer said.

“And then it all fell apart,” her classmate, Brittany Recker, added.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hip art in smog town

DONORA – The new Donora Smog Central used to be Central Pharmacy when the borough’s downtown saw better times.

So it didn’t take much work to alter the sign above the storefront entrance before the place reopened this week. It’s now become the headquarters for events surrounding the commemoration of the infamous Donora smog of late October 1948.

Students and staff in the art department at California University of Pennsylvania did an outstanding job of creating a hip art gallery in the old store at McKean Avenue and Fifth Street.

The artwork on the walls and floor relates in rather cool ways to the environmental movement that is rooted in this southwestern Pennsylvania town.

There is a giant robin’s nest made from grapevines resting near the shop window. the artist, Newt Berdine, named it "A Bird's Eye View," and it's yours for $350.

A large mural depicting the skeleton of a fish among molecules hangs on a back wall.

But some people in this old decaying steel town don’t seem to “get it,” said DeAnn Pavelko, who is on the smog events committee.

They probably never will.

(Note: This blog is loaded with Donora history, information that can be found through the search engine, top, left. Knock yourself out.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Donora smog - the truth was concealed

By Scott Beveridge and Amanda Gillooly

DONORA, Pa. - The day after a deadly smog cleared over Donora, the local newspaper lobbied for a full investigation into the poisonous air that had just killed 20 people.

"This pledge must be kept until it is redeemed by a true bill of health which Donora must now earn out of its tragedy," The Herald-American's front-page editorial stated Nov. 1, 1948.

Yet 60 years later, the exact cause of the death fog that spewed from the smokestacks at Donora's steel and zinc mills remains a mystery.

"We still don't know exactly what went wrong," said Devra Davis, a Donora native who directs the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. "We never will."

The story, itself, has been downplayed and even ignored over the years by local residents who have long claimed that only the sick and old died before U.S. Steel's American Steel & Wire Co. slowed production to help clear out the fumes on Oct. 31, 1948.

But dusty stacks of court records buried for decades in the federal archives in Philadelphia show that the mysterious fog damaged the health and property of residents more severely than anyone knew at the time.

A random sampling of hundreds of pages of lawsuits spawned from the disaster shows the mill taking responsibility and paying settlements for the deaths and damages, and even the fatalities of livestock and fowl.

"It was not just a bunch of old, sick people dying," Davis said. "How did you become old by age 48 by living in Donora?"

A heavy fog settled over much of the Northeast in late October 1948, but Donora was the only area with heavy industry where unusual deaths were reported. The zinc mill, which reportedly functioned for some top-secret purpose, was the likely contributor to the toxic fumes, Davis said.

Uncontrollable coughing jags forced Halloween parade revelers to flee downtown Donora Friday, Oct. 29, 1948. Some felt dizzy; some felt shaky.

The next day, 11 people were dead.

Some suffered fatal heart attacks, while thousands of others became ill. That night, the roads were choked with traffic and a thick smog, making an evacuation impossible.

By Sunday morning, the death toll had risen to 19, and 600 people were hospitalized, prompting a mill attorney to order the cooling of the zinc smelters. A mild afternoon rain began to wash away the toxic fumes.

Scientists are now embracing a theory developed by former BBC journalist Christopher Bryson that may explain the arthritis symptoms and respiratory ailments that seemed to plague nearly everyone in Donora during its steelmaking days.

Bryson suggests high concentrations of fluoride from the mill's smokestacks caused the deadly smog, the nation's worst air pollution disaster. The chemical also could explain the disappearance of vegetation on the hillsides across the Monongahela River in Webster.

There were fatal levels of fluoride in tissue samples tested on one of the smog victims whose body was exhumed for a pathelogical diagnosis several months after the disaster, said Chris Neurath, research director of the Fluoride Action Network of Canton, N.Y. Those findings "just make the case stronger" for placing blame on the chemical for the problems in Donora, he said.

Steel mills added fluorspar to steel production at a time when fluoride was one of the unhealthiest air pollutants in the industry, Bryson wrote in his 2004 book, "The Fluoride Deception."

At the time of the smog, steel mills were facing lawsuits demanding millions of dollars in damages for exposure to fluoride. Bryson claims the U.S. Army and Atomic Energy Commission downplayed the fluoride poisonings because they were producing the chemical as a byproduct for atomic research.

In smaller doses, the chemical strengthens teeth, but prolonged exposure to fluoride pollution in the air can cause breathing difficulties, sore bones and blotchy, discolored teeth.

Anti-pollution crusader Philip Sadtler traveled to Donora shortly after the smog and took note of residents who had many of those same symptoms, Bryson's book indicates.

Sadtler, of Philadelphia, worked on behalf of Florida farmers who were blaming fluoride poisoning for their loss of crops and feared the Donora incident would be linked to sulfur dioxide as a cover-up. That type of pollution, although less toxic, was also being created in large quantities at houses in the Donora area where coal was burned for heat, Bryson's book indicates.

By December 1948, Chemical and Engineering News magazine published Sadtler's findings: There was high fluoride content in Donora's vegetation.

But the industry quickly disputed Sadtler's research through attacks by Robert Kehoe at Kettering Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio, and others involved in the steel trade, Bryson noted. Meanwhile, Kehoe was a leading chemical expert who was hired by U.S. Steel to investigate the smog.

The company possessed a string of reports on Donora air, information it kept close at hand, the court records indicate.

The attorney representing as many as 130 Donora-area smog victims petitioned U.S. Judge James Alger Fee Sept. 29, 1950, to force the New Jersey-based American Steel & Wire to produce those reports for the upcoming spring trial.

Marvin D. Power, the attorney who represented the victims, especially wanted the results of a key air sample taken in Donora at 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, 1948. The sample had been drawn when the company ordered the cooling of the zinc smelters.

A man identified only as Dr. Gibbs of Carnegie-Illinois Steel - a U.S. Steel subsidiary - was dispatched there under orders of Dr. Beebe, another of the company's air pollution experts.

Beebe later turned over a report on the findings to the U.S Public Health Service for its investigation of the smog.

But that report was never made public.

The health service's report noted Beebe's cooperation, "but there is not a word of Dr. Beebe's report in the government report," Power argued at the hearing.

Power also sought reports on air testing in Donora that was conducted several hours after the smelters were cooled. Those tests were completed by the Industrial Hygiene Foundation, an association that conducted research for the industry in Pittsburgh, the court indicates.

He further asked the court to produce air samples in Donora dating to 1935 that had been taken by Pittsburgh Testing Laboratories, an independent corporation. That company took other air samples in Donora during a mill flare-up in August 1948, the court record shows. The petition also asked Fee to order American Steel & Wire to produce reports that were forthcoming on air samplings taken months after the smog by Kettering.

The judge declined to rule from the bench but told American Steel & Wire attorney Charles E. Kenworthey that he might demand to read the air reports in his chambers to determine if they would be needed in court. Before adjourning, Fee said he also would consider ordering the reports to be produced at trial, if necessary.

The corporation reacted six months later by settling 130 lawsuits for $235,000, even though the victims had sought $4.6 million in damages, combined. These were victims who were facing extreme pressures from their neighbors to drop the lawsuits to keep the mill open.

The Public Health Service's preliminary investigation of 1949 placed most of the blame on stagnant air, and its files have since disappeared, Bryson noted. A final report was never issued by the federal government.

"The truth about what happened at Donora ... was concealed by the polluters," Bryson said.

(Caption: The infamous Donora zinc works, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of Donora Historical Society)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Donora smog even claimed horses, cows

By Amanda Gillooly and Scott Beveridge

John R. West hadn't missed a day of work for two years before he walked through his front door one Friday from his job at a local coal mine and said he just didn't feel well.

He told his wife he had chest and head pain, and worse, he couldn't breathe.

West, 56, wanted to lie down, but he couldn't catch his breath when he was horizontal. He tried sitting down instead, but air eluded him in that position, too.

So West did the only thing that provided him some comfort: He knelt down on the floor and had his family drop pillows around him. Dr. Norman Golomb came twice to his Sunnyside home near Donora - at a cost of $17 - and administered four shots.

Although Golomb wrote West a prescription, he wouldn't need it. West was dead by Sunday, Oct. 31, 1948, still in the kneeling position.

His demise was among 20 attributed to a thick smog that blanketed the valley that Halloween weekend in 1948 that has forever been linked to U.S. Steel's zinc mill in Donora.

West's story is among more than 100 that were told in the pages of smog lawsuits settled with U.S. Steel in 1951, only to be buried for decades in the federal archives.

The Observer-Reporter reviewed a random sampling of those files and discovered at least eight other deaths attributed to the smog that went uncounted 60 years ago.

John West was on that official roster, and his wife, Carrie, wasn't the only mourning widow to file suit against the mill operated by American Steel & Wire Co. of New Jersey, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel.

She demanded compensation for her late husband's future earnings (which totaled about $217 a month), reimbursement for his funeral costs ($345) and thousands of dollars in other damages.

The suit was settled for $4,500.

Despite their tales of woe, many of these lawsuits were dismissed because they were filed after the statute of limitations had passed.

Such was the case for Lena and James R. Jones. The couple lived on Book Street in the borough when Lena began suffering symptoms of asthma. She miscarried her 3-month-old fetus on Oct. 29, 1948 - the day the dense fog turned poisonous.

The family demanded $35,000. It got nothing.

But the scores of people who died or became sickened that weekend or shortly thereafter weren't the only victims of what has come to be known as the "Donora Disaster."

Droves of homeowners filed suit, claiming the air in their hometown prompted illness and property depreciation.

William R. Brown and his wife, Ruth, sought $35,000 from the steel company. William Brown told his attorney that his wife had become so ill that he was forced to relocate his family from the Vogel Apartments in Webster to nearby Monessen under a doctor's order.

The family settled the suit for $1,500.

The terrain suffered every bit as much damage. John and Anna Hreno of Webster knew. They filed suit against American Steel & Wire, claiming the air had sickened Anna, and turned their once-fertile land into an acidic wasteland that no longer produced trees, shrubs and vegetables.

Their complaint also noted that over a span of two years more than 150 of their chickens and ducks perished. Henry Graff, who lived in Gallatin, sought $35,000 for the deaths of eight colts and three cows and destruction to his crops.

The Hrenos sought $30,000, but they received nothing. They, too, had waited too long to file the suit.

Enough time has passed that the people of Donora deserve to know what was in the air that hovered over the mill, especially that Halloween weekend, said Dr. Charles Stacey, a retired Ringgold School District superintendent.

"I think there are still people in town who are descendants of people who died. I think they should have an explanation," said Stacey, 76, who was a senior at Donora High School during the smog.

He said school officials paraded boys into the health office to test their teeth and bones and submit a urine sample. No one ever told him the results of the tests or who ordered them.

For years, Stacey said, people in Donora believed that those who settled with the company did it for the money.

But after the attorney got his share, he said, they "just had enough money to buy a television."

"They didn't make out like bandits, not when you think of someone being deathly sick or dying."

While there are still unanswered questions, the "Donora Disaster" was a driving force behind the nation's first clean air laws.

That much, at least, is certain.

(CAPTIONS: L. Smith painted this scene, a the top, of the Donora steel mill for the cover of the womens club scrapbook 1948-49. Workers toil inside the infamous zinc smelters, circa 1920)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

This chef needs a skin doctor

BENTLEYVILLE, Pa. – Meet Lanny, the odd chef at King of Hill Steakhouse.

He developed a skin problem and severe psychosis at the haunted restaurant atop a hill beside Interstate 70 before it quit serving food two years ago.

His coworkers lost their minds, too, so the story goes at a scare house owner Debbie Hardy is running there through Halloween.

Lanny does a great job mingling with people in line before they are allowed to enter the building and welcomed to a dinner table set with plates holding severed fingers. A freaky old lady circles the room in a wheelchair while a half-dead guest crawls out from under the table.

There’s a creepy wedding upstairs and a freak show at the bar staged with creatures that almost seem to have jumped out of a similar scene in the movie Star Wars. A walk through the chilly basement ends the 15-minute tour that costs $13 at the door.

They saved the best for last. The cellar has been turned into a torture chamber where one guy is being electrocuted and a woman screams to be freed from her cage. Better yet, a portion of the proceeds benefit the local Fallowfield Township Volunteer Fire Department.

The costumes are great, including the one worn by a wacky lady who strolls aimlessly with a cane and moans about being kept from attending Sunday services in the building that was once known as Newkirk Church. The show runs from 7 p.m. to midnight Oct. 23-31.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tripping the light fantastic

Pittsburgh pulls off a spectacular Festival of Lights celebration this week for its 250th birthday. The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland, Pa., shown above, is the star of the show. The building at Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard is bathed in lights in a geometric design by Friedrich Forster and Sabine Weissinger.

St. Paul Roman Catholic Cathedral at Fifth Avenue and Craig Street in Oakland is lit in such a way to draw attention to its stained glass window.

An artsy movie was showing Thursday on the outer wall of the nearby Scaife Galleries on Forbes Avenue. I didn't get it, but that's OK. It's cool. The light show runs through Nov. 20. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sarah, just add some Spice

Dear Sarah Palin,

When I saw the overweight Yinzer sporting a boa for God-only-knows what reason during one of your rallies around here last weekend I shuddered before the words could even come out of her piehole. The sound byte on the news sounded something like this:

“OH MY GOD! I LOVE Sarah Palin! She’s speaking for all us women and she’s FINALLY breaking that glass window for us ONCE and for ALL!”

Now, Sarah, I know I don’t know you. And you certainly don’t know me. But I think you should know just this one thing – I’ve never needed anyone to speak for me. And that glass ceiling? Well, I’ll take that on myself, thank you. Amanda Gillooly doesn’t need a rookie Republican governor to wield any big-ass sledgehammer for her.

And besides, you majored in broadcast news anyway. So I doubt you have the qualifications to help break any such sort of thing in the newspaper biz.

You’ve been milking the female vote for months (not literally, thank God. Or at least not YET) and I’ve sat by, quietly stewing over the utterly asinine things your supporters are spewing. Oh how you’re a champion of the anti-abortion cause because you’re supporting your daughter through her teen pregnancy! Oh how you show what a woman can ACCOMPLISH in this world! You, too, can be a failed sports TV news anchor who has ruled in that tundra for what, about two years?

And I guess your education reform should be examined for the cutting-edge quality. Bristol’s baby-daddy, I heard, just dropped out of high school. Would you suggest that for all would-be dads, or just the one’s whose in-laws may live in the White House on the tax payers’ dime?

Or then again, that might be more indicative on your abstinence-only education stance. I thought, apparently erroneously, that it might be proactive to teach kids about options like condoms and birth control. I bet that choice would have been easier for Bristol than keeping the baby while thrust into the national spotlight, giving up the baby in the national spotlight or having an (brace yourself for it…it’s a right-wing no-no) abortion.

But, girlfriend (if I may call you that) I think I have some suggestions on how to most effectively court that Boob vote, if you will. In fact, I think you and Johnny have been barking up the wrong proverbial tree when it comes to implementing music into your campaign.

You’ve tried Van Halen’s “Right Now,” and that worked like a charm. If by “charm” of course, you mean getting a nasty response from the band asking you to cease and desist.

Then you guys started using Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” Now, considering the dismal approval numbers for you to “mavericks” I think that it’s pretty damn appropriate. But my man Jackson Browne didn’t seem to agree.

And Heart’s “Barracuda?” Huh? All I could think of is the WDVE song, “Tins of Tuna.” NG (NO GOOD, if you’re not hip to the slang, Sarah).

So here are some suggestions. I think they’d really help you hone in that demographic you’ve been seeking. Perhaps the Cheetah Girls classic,” Girl Power” would help rally the, er, troops. Or better yet, how about some good old Spice Girls?

They did say some really existential stuff (And I personally consider Baby Spice up there with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rainer Maria Rilke in my top three most inspirational people).

I can see it now: You’re introduced to a rabid crowd of supporters, the lights come up and the Spice Girls begin crooning “Channel Five”:

“Welcome to a brand new station…
Tune in now for a new generation…
Guaranteed to be the new sensation….
Who said? The spice girls…
Take if from us, it’s GIRL POWER!”

Hey, it’s just a thought.

Warmest Regards,

Amanda “I just yakked on myself” Gillooly

(Photo courtesy of Observer-Reporter photographer Celeste Van Kirk)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Take a lesson from Pittsburgh

This article about Pittsburgh, Pa., last week in Time magazine is interesting, given the struggling economy in the United States.

It's food for thought in cities that boomed on the backs of the many Pittsburgh laborers who relocated to them following the collapse of the steel industry.

(Caption: A Consol Energy tugboat pushes barges up the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, a city that knows all about hard times.)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A must-read restaurant

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Every now and then, a kid with a book bag strapped to his back walks into a Pittsburgh restaurant with a stunned expression and expecting to see a librarian.

It’s as easy mistake to make because this eatery is named The Library in the Pennsylvania city’s trendy South Side district. The universal logo for library – a stick figure reading a book – is even included on the sign above the front door, making the place seem unattractive to a stranger looking for a beer and grub.

“It’s funny,” the bartender said today after I ask him if people actually come here to read.

“No, they come in for that,” he said, pointing to the row of beer taps behind the bar. “There is a library down the road.”

Someone who downed one too many pints of Pilsner might be responsible for misquoting W.C. Fields on a blackboard parked on the sidewalk to draw folks inside the business. The scribe, though, did come up with something similar to Field's funny line, "A woman drove me to drink and I didn't even have the decency to thank her."

There is a wide selection of books at this restaurant with a hammered copper bar, exposed brick walls and a chocolate leather couch in a cozy reading room.

The menu is even sandwiched between the pages of books, and its selections have witty names inspired by book titles and authors. I’m handed, “Pepsi-Cola: 100 Years,” by Bob Stoddard.

While flipping through its pages, I notice a photo of actress Joan Crawford and her fourth husband, Pepsi President Alfred Steele, and begin to lose my appetite over thoughts of her beating her daughter with a metal coat hanger.

The bartender returns and recommends the Jules Verne, a hearty hoagie stuffed with shaved prime rib, crimini mushrooms, red and green peppers, Spanish onions and provolone cheese. This is definitely not a meal pulled from the pages of "Low-Carb Dieting for Dummies.”

Executive Chef Steven Harlow also has come up with a dinner named The Fisherman and His Wife that includes pretzel-encrusted salmon. And then there is the Billy Goats Gruff that is a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with chipotle sauce. I like the sound of the Slaughter House Four that turns out to be four mini hamburgers.

Unlike most libraries that have staffs with personalities as dull as phone books, the servers are hip and funny at this restaurant at 2304 E. Carson St. that opened in March 2007.

And that bartender is surprisingly accurate about the Jules Verne.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The voice of the valley

MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Be Be Bell has a stage name that sings.

She also has a comic style that kept audiences alive between acts at a once-popular Monongahela nightclub.

"I stripped once. ... They told me to put my clothes back on," said the 86-year-old New Eagle woman, telling the kind of one-liner that would have ended with a few drum beats and the clamber of a cymbal during live shows.

Known in real life as Be Be Bell Barantovich, she has been a fixture at countless banquets, Democratic rallies and veterans celebrations in the Mon Valley. At each event, she always sings "God Bless America" somewhere between the invocation and the first course.

She claims to have sung the lyrics to "God Bless America" more times than songstress Kate Smith, who turned it into a pop song in 1938 through her radio hour.

"If I would have kept track, I'd be in the Guinness Book of World Records," she said, while volunteering recently at the senior citizens center in Monongahela.

Barantovich was born into show business, learning how to carry a tune beside her brothers, Frank and Harvey, who were well-known entertainers in Uniontown.

The youngest of eight siblings, she became forever known as Be Be because that was how her Italian immigrant mother pronounced "baby" in English.

She left high school and turned to a career on the stage, singing with the George Silvers Orchestra, a big band from Pittsburgh. It was George Silvers who taught her the art of wooing a room as master of ceremonies.

Her career path took a different twist after World War II broke out and nearly every draft-age man went off to battle, leaving big bands without audiences. She toured along the East Coast entertaining troops with the USO in 1942 and sold "war bonds for bullets," she said.

At war's end, she sought work through the American Guild of Variety Artists, and her agent booked her at Danceland in Monongahela.

"I said, 'Where in the hell is Monongahela?'"

She was under contract for one week at the club about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, a popular nightspot among returning veterans. It served up burlesque in between performances by dance bands, comedians and crooners.

"I ended up there for three years. The place was like New Year's Eve every night. I met my husband there."

She and her husband, Ed, "The Baron," became inseparable. She left the stage when her ball gowns no longer fit her while pregnant with the first of her two daughters, and later opened a snack bar.

Eventually, the couple took over Danceland, operating it as Club Be Be Bell, and held on to the place until television killed the supper clubs. Then they purchased Elite Grill in Monongahela, and by that time, they had befriended just about everyone in town.

Any Democratic candidate with a brain knew it was important then to win over the Barantoviches in order to win an election. They knew all the movers and shakers, said Washington County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns.

"It's very important when you are running for office," said Burns, who refers to Be Be Bell as "the Mon Valley's songbird."

"She can still belt it out at every opportunity," Burns said. "She lights up. She will sing like, right now. She'll come right through the phone at you."

The highlight of her career came in September, when she was asked to sing for Joe Montana when the Ringgold football stadium was named in honor of the Monongahela native and NFL Hall of Famer.

"It felt so good. I knew the Montana family."

She said she will leave the stage the day she forgets the words to "God Bless America."

"I'm tickled to death they still ask me to sing."


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A calendar that is sexy in its own way

A 2009 calendar to raise money for an historic house in Pennsylvania isn’t going to grab attention for its sex appeal.

“It’s PG rated,” Tripp Kline, chairman of the board of the Bradford House in Washington, Pa., said today when the association's new calendar came out of production.

Kline offered that quote as a mild joke about a 2008 calendar that featured a dozen older women from nearby Monongahela who became a media sensation because they posed for it without wearing much clothing.

The Bradford House fundraiser is about local art and history, things that are helping to hold together this small city in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, Kline said.

David Bradford began to build this stone house in 1786 along the National Road in a style befitting his status as a lawyer and deputy general of Washington County. It has a grand mahogany stairway, along with a secret buried tunnel for escape in an era when the town stood at the end of Western civilization. Bradford, though, became more famous as a coward who skipped town when 13,000 federal troops came to the area after leaders, like him, joined in the Whiskey Rebellion. That uprising resulted from a tax on rye whiskey to pay down the debt from the American Revolutionary War. And for the most part, those whiskey rebels would become erased from American history books.

That aside, the Washington community is proud to have restored this house as a monument to prosperity during America’s westward movement.

This year, the Bradford House Association selected six local photographers to capture images for the calendar that is being sold to help offset expenses not covered by its annual state grant of $8,000 to keep the museum open to the public.

Robin Richards of South Strabane Township put forth a cool manipulated photo of an old stone pavilion in the city park that accompanies the month of March. I took one of the house from the third-floor of a building across the street that appears on its cover. Mark Marietta, a teacher at Trinity High School, photographed an ice and snow covered train station that appears above the month of January. Celeste Van Kirk donated a lovely shot of a downtown flower garden, while Scott Manko submitted one that looks upward at the ornate dome inside the county courthouse. Meanwhile, Jim McNutt contributed a view of a one-room schoolhouse.

The association published 7,500 copies of the calendar that are available for $10 apiece. Send me an e-mail to purchase one, or contact the Bradford House via its Web site. They also are being sold in the main lobby of the Observer-Reporter.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ahead of their class

Somewhere along the line, people stopped posing with style for photographs.

These women were members in 1888 of the N.N. Club at Hedding College, a Methodist school in Abington, Ill, that no longer exists.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Back from Rio

WASHINGTON, Pa. – The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum is one of those places where grown men go to play with big toys.

Last week, an older guy was in a garage at the Chartiers Township, Pa., museum and restoring an old government surplus front loader. It will be used to put down new trolley tracks.

Jim Herron of nearby Canonsburg enjoyed putting a new finish on wood trim native to South America that was used to adorn a 1911 Rio De Janeiro 1758, an open-air trolley the museum has acquired.

“It’ll be a big hit,” said Scott R. Becker, executive director of the museum.

Also known as a breezer, the car is similar to the one used as a backdrop in the 1944 movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland.

The singer and actress popularized "The Trolley Song” in the movie while riding in one of the cars that traditionally were used during the summer months to take people to amusement parks. That’s why it looks as if it belongs in a circus, Becker said.

“There’s nothing like an open car to take a ride on a hot summer day,” he said.

This one started out as a kit sold by the J.G. Brill Co. of Philadelphia, Pa., that included parts cast by the Cambria Iron Works of Johnstown, Pa. Then it was shipped and assembled in Rio and eventually mothballed before being purchased in 1965 by group of museums in the United States. The car returned via a coffee freighter to North America, was rebuilt and put in service on a trolley line at the Magee Museum of Transportation in Bloomsburg, Pa. Car 1758 was put out of service again after that museum was inundated by floodwater during storms spurred by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. From there, it sat in a Florida warehouse until being purchased in 1965 by the trolley museum in Chartiers.

It will be the oldest car in operation at the museum, Washington County’s most popular historic attraction. Nearly 22,000 visitors stopped by last year from all across the globe.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A missed photo op

It’s intriguing that The Observer morning newspaper had pro-baseball legend Jackie Robinson in it’s backyard in 1956 and this was the best shot the photographer could come up with.

Robinson, second from right, came to Washington, Pa., in October of that year for the grand opening of the LeMoyne Center, built to give poor black children a safe place to play. The newspaper published the photo on the front page, and it also shows T.S. Fitch, fourth from right, the founder of Washington Steel and mayor of the city at the time. Branch Rickey, who was manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is standing to Robinson's right.

We dug out this shot from the archives of the Observer-Reporter to accompany an upcoming story about this center’s downhill slide and new efforts to get it operating again.

Dr. Hollis F. Price, fourth from left, was president of LeMoyne College in Memphis Tenn., a school that took its name from Francis J. LeMoyne. Francis was a pioneering physician and abolitionist who opened his stone house in Washington in the 1800s to slaves seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. He donated $20,000, a considerable sum of money at the time, to the college so that it could educate Southern blacks.

This is a city rich with black history.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fort Pitt Blockhouse

Blockhouse , originally uploaded by Scott Beveridge.

The Fort Pitt Blockhouse not only has the distinction of being the oldest building in Pittsburgh but it’s the oldest West of the Allegheny Mountains.

The brick and stone redoubt dates to 1764, when it took shape under orders from British Col. Henry Bouquet, who was famous for his understanding of wilderness warfare. He used to trick Indians into defeat by pretending to retreat during battle only to return and strike after they let down their guard.

The tiny blockhouse was built to provide quick cover for people caught outside Fort Pitt when it came under attack. Once inside, marksmen could take aim at their attackers from firing holes that encircle the building that was built after the British captured the Point from the French in 1759.

It survived because it had been converted into a dwelling in the 1830s and later became neglected when the Golden Triangle turned into one of the poorest sections of the city.

During the 1930s, the house was saved from demolition by the Daughters of the American Revolution, restored and named to the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. The DAR came to its rescue again when Pennsylvania began to develop Point State Park, and it’s now part of the Fort Pitt Museum.

There is a small museum and gift shop inside, where buttons and coins uncovered during an archeology dig are on display. There is no admission.