Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Obituary: Ken Wagner, Sr. / Founded South Side organization to serve special needs people

Sept. 12, 1932 - July 24, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Many Decembers ago, Ken Wagner Sr. brought home a special gift for Christmas.

The gift was a young boy from the nearby Toner Institute, who didn't have anywhere to go for the holiday, welcomed with open arms into the Wagner residence to celebrate with the family of six.

"From there," said his daughter, Peppy Pollock, "we could see he was willing to help anyone."

With his wife of 48 years, Lorraine Wagner, he founded the Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities, one that is today four times bigger than when it started in 1989.

Mr. Wagner died Saturday from complications of an illness at UPMC Shadyside. He was 77.

"He was a wonderful person," said Ms. Wagner. "He was always there for us ... and he was a very unselfish person."

Mr. Wagner was born and raised in Shadyside and graduated from Central Catholic High School before attending Duquesne University, where he received a master's degree in special education.

He then served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and, after teaching at Central Catholic for 13 years, became director of education at the Toner Institute until the facility closed in 1977.

While teaching at Central Catholic, Mr. Wagner started the Appalachia Project by taking a group of his students to Appalachia to help build homes.

Ms. Pollock, of Upper St. Clair, remembers a time when her father picked up a family whose car was broken down, a time when he would dress up as Santa Claus for school, and especially a time when her younger sister Cece was born with a developmental disability.

"I think the ball started rolling in our parents' minds as soon as our sister was born," she said. "They could see the way society was and the way people with special needs needed help."

And so Mr. and Ms. Wagner sold their house and all of their worldly possessions and dedicated more than two decades to building the Emmaus Community.

"Ken was very, very special," said Karen Jacobsen, executive director of the Emmaus Community. "He loved a life he had spent helping others. He was genuine and always made you feel important and cared about what was going on in your life, whether you just met him or were a lifelong friend."

Prior to opening the Emmaus Community, the two spent seven years being certified in L'Arche, an international organization dedicated to the creation of support networks for people with intellectual disabilities.

Modeling the Emmaus Community after L'Arche, the couple lived in a home with four special needs people for 10 years, before opening the first Emmaus house on the South Side in 1994.

Today, the organization is licensed as a developmental program by the state, has four houses for permanent residences and serves hundreds of people in respite care.

"They don't make them like Ken too often," said Ms. Jacobsen. "He breathed life into this organization."

Mr. Wagner also is survived by three other children, Grace Monk of Shantilly, Va., Ken Wagner Jr. of Pittsburgh, and Cece Wagner of Mt. Lebanon; a brother, George Wagner of Bethel Park, and eight grandchildren.

A memorial mass will be held at 10 a.m. today at St. John Capistran Church, Upper St. Clair. Donations may be made to the Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, 2821 Sarah St., Pittsburgh, PA 15203.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Homewood homicide victim identified

Monday, July 26, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office this morning released the identity of man who died after he was shot in Homewood Sunday evening.

James Short, 35, of Homewood, was found shot in the 7600 block of Bennett Street.

According to a release from police, officers responded to a call around 10:30 and found the victim with a gunshot wound to the back. He was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Police said Mr. Short was a passenger in a vehicle driven by a female, and that there were two children in the vehicle at the time of the shooting, but neither the woman nor the children were injured. Police believe that the shooting happened as the vehicle drove past the intersection of North Braddock Avenue and Formosa Way.

The coroner's office said an autopsy is being performed on the body of Mr. Short.

Driver killed in Derry crash

Monday, July 26, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A 21-year-old man was killed late Sunday when he lost control of his vehicle in Derry Township.

James Disciascio was driving his vehicle with two passengers inside as he failed to negotiate a right-hand turn on State Route 982, about a mile north of Latrobe.

"The operator was driving too fast," said Trooper Stephen Limani of the Pennsylvania State Police Greensburg barracks. "There's a curve, the road is winding and has a lot of curves to it, up and down."

Mr. Disciascio's vehicle hit a freeway embankment before rolling into oncoming traffic. While rolling, the car was struck by an oncoming vehicle, said Trooper Limani.

Mr. Disciascio was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected during the roll. He was flown to UPMC Presbyterian, where he was pronounced dead.

Trooper Limani said the driver and passengers in the oncoming vehicle were not seriously injured. He also said the passengers in Mr. Disciascio's vehicle, a 22-year-old woman and 17-year-old boy, were taken to a Latrobe hospital and did not have major injuries.

"Those two people had seatbelts on," he said. "There's usually a direct correlation."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Obituary: Hay Walker IV / Retired executive of Dollar Bank

Dec. 27, 1931 - July 21, 2010

Saturday, July 24, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Whether he was boating in Lake Arthur, gardening at his house in Sewickley Heights or vacationing in Florida, Hay Walker IV was always active.

Hartley Walker said he remembers his brother most from the Sunday afternoon dinners they would have on his pontoon boat on the lake.

"He was always on board," he said.

Mr. Walker, a former senior vice president of Dollar Bank, died Wednesday of natural causes at Good Samaritan Hospice in Wexford. He was 78.

Mr. Walker began his career in the financial industry in 1951, after graduating from Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. He attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and four years later, after graduation, entered the Army.

His job was to make teeth for Army officers, something his brother remembers fondly from a long-told story of Mr. Walker's from the days he was stationed at the Carlisle military barracks in Cumberland County.

"I don't know if it's still around," his brother said, "but one day he had a fish and took some of the teeth and put them in its face. Just a pike with human teeth in it."

After the Army, Mr. Walker spent a number of years as a stockbroker before joining Dollar Bank in 1963.

A decade later, Robert P. Oeler, current president and CEO of Dollar Bank, joined the company and worked under Mr. Walker.

"He was always firm but fair," Mr. Oeler said. "You never know with a new boss, but he became my mentor and shared all of his information with this youngster."

The two worked together for nearly 20 years, from 1973 to Mr. Walker's retirement in 1992.

"He started as my boss, became my mentor and ultimately ended up as my friend," Mr. Oeler said.

After his retirement, Mr. Walker remained an active member of the Duquesne Club and Edgeworth Club.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Walker is survived by his wife, Helen Clark Walker; two daughters, Katherine W. Bantleon of Sewickley Heights and Elizabeth W. Mecke of Wellesley, Mass.; a stepdaughter, Araminta Roberts Brown and stepson, Charles B. Roberts of Coraopolis Heights; four grandchildren and two stepgrandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were by Copeland Funeral Home.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

WWII memorial plan in final phases

Thursday, July 22, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Standing in the shadows of Heinz Field on the North Shore riverfront Wednesday morning, Mark Schneider opened his speech with a football analogy.

Speaking in front of a small crowd that included city officials, military veterans and family members, the president of the World War II Veterans of Allegheny County Memorial Fund spoke optimistically about the future.

"We're kind of in the red zone," he said. "We can see the goal line."

Through public and private donors, the organization has already raised $2.75 million of the estimated $4.5 million cost to construct the elliptical glass and granite memorial that will honor World War II veterans. It will be located on the riverfront, facing Downtown from just behind the "Great Lawn."

"We're in the final phases," Mr. Schneider said after the memorial's design was unveiled. "And we have a couple of fairly large grants that are pending."

Mr. Schneider said the executive board proceeded with Wednesday's announcement after the Richard King Mellon Foundation contributed a $300,000 grant, the largest private donation to date.

"It's huge," he said of the fundraising effort. "We wanted to get to a point where we got enough response from the private sector, whereas the public sector has been coming through for the past year with the caucuses investing in the project."

He said the four Pennsylvania caucuses contributed $500,000 each and private donors include UPMC and Highmark. A number of small donations were earned through the organization's calendar project, a sale of World War II commemorative calendars for $10 each.

The memorial, which was scheduled to be completed last March but was delayed due to financial concerns, is not only designed to honor the veterans but also to educate people, said board vice president John Vento, who served in the Army from 1943-46.

Plans call for a 52-panel memorial, made of glass and granite, that describes the war with images from the Pacific campaign flanking the panels on the west side and those from the European campaign covering the east side. Granite plaques will tell a narrative of the war, with the interior describing the region's history in the war and the exterior describing the world's history.

The organization is targeting Veterans Day next year for the completion of the project.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pirates, city partner for Homewood urban garden

McCutchen helping to compete for Pepsi grant for 15 MLB teams

Wednesday, July 21, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Andrew McCutchen knows a thing or two about plants.

When he was in middle school, the Pirates center fielder and his fellow classmates planted a garden dedicated to a former teacher who died.

"We grew a lot of plants and had to learn the names of them; so pretty much any plant you find, I should be able to name," he said.

Tuesday morning, at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, Mr. McCutchen joined Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and dozens of youngsters as the Pirates teamed up with the City of Pittsburgh and the Student Conservation Association to begin a competition that could bring an urban garden to Homewood.

The competition is sponsored by Pepsi, which is offering 15 Major League Baseball teams the opportunity to receive a $200,000 grant as part of the Pepsi Refresh Project, designed to help improve communities.

The proposed initiative will fund the education, tools and support to cultivate an urban garden, which would be used to grow fruits and vegetables that would be donated to various nonprofit organizations to feed the hungry, including the youths participating in various programs at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA.

"It would be wonderful if we're able to win," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "To see the energy of the young people in the room is very rewarding, and hopefully we'll get online and vote and beat the other cities we're competing against."

The urban garden idea is an extension of the Green Up Pittsburgh program that was introduced in 2007 to combat the increasing problem of overgrown vacant and abandoned lots in city neighborhoods.

"To have another $200,000 to be able to put into a community like Homewood would be significant," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

The Pepsi Refresh Project is an effort to foster innovation and will award more than $20 million this year to fund ideas the company thinks can impact the world.

"The life lessons that can be learned with a shovel and a seed really cannot be calculated," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Fans have until 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 17 to vote by visiting or texting "Pirates" to 76462.

"It's all about the vote," said Patricia Siger, senior vice president for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh. "This is like an 'American Idol' competition."

And while the Pirates face an uphill battle as a small market team, competing with, among others, a pair of teams each from New York City and Chicago, Ms. Siger likes their chances.

"I think this is the perfect storm from a city standpoint," she said. "Pittsburghers have pride, they work hard and especially for the city."

"This was great to be a part of and great to see everyone show up," Mr. McCutchen said. "Hopefully we're able to instill how important it is to vote, with trying to grow this garden."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fans flocking to Pittsburgh for Vintage Grand Prix

Friday, July 16, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is no longer a local thing.

That was the first thing that came to Steve Weber's mind as he stood in New York City, peered through a crowd of people and saw a familiar T-shirt.

The shirt was a walking advertisement for next weekend's 28th annual Vintage Grand Prix in Schenley Park and a reminder that the race and all that surrounds it is one of the city's major summer events.

"I smiled," said Mr. Weber, on-site media director for the Vintage Grand Prix, about spotting the familiar logo. "When I travel, you'd be surprised by how many I see. It's a good feeling."

Another good feeling is that Mr. Weber and Vintage Grand Prix officials expect another turnout of more than 250,000 people as the weeklong festival of cars and racing begins this weekend with black ties, tail pipes and a race in Beaver Falls.

The festivities kick off tonight with a black-tie gala at the Pittsburgh Golf Club in Schenley Park and continue on Saturday and Sunday with a muscle-car races at BeaveRun Motorsports.

The events surrounding the Grand Prix have expanded through the years, and this year includes a car show highlighting the featured Audis, Corvettes and Yenkos in Shadyside's Walnut Street business district from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday; a cruise displaying the cars at the Waterfront complex in Homestead from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday; and a Downtown parade at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday preceding display of the cars at several Golden Triangle locations.

Those events lead up to the July 24-25 competition in Schenley Park, which attracts racers from all across the world as the nation's largest vintage car race and the only one run on city streets.

"It is truly one of its kind," Mr. Weber said, noting its distinction as one of the only road courses in the world. "But nobody shows the personable side that we do, and the drivers and fans alike enjoy coming for that."

They come from neighboring cities, states, countries, and even the not-so-neighboring places.

"Everywhere," said Mr. Weber. "And I do mean everywhere: Iceland, France, England, Germany, South America, Australia. You name it, they come."

Race weekend will feature more than 150 drivers competing on a 2.33-mile circuit course complete with 23 turns, in cars 50 years or older, under two liters with a horsepower around 150.

Admission is free, and fans have the opportunity to walk away with a number of souvenirs such as shirts, hats, novelty items and bags.

"They aren't junk," Mr. Weber said, adding, "One of the drivers told me once that if it wasn't for the Grand Prix, he wouldn't have any luggage at all."

He said the event raises around $100,000 a year for the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Allegheny Valley schools and, to date, has donated more than $2 million to local charities.

Corporate sponsors, including Shop 'n Save, whose sponsorship Mr. Weber credits with keeping the race alive, help with costs.

"Certainly, people love a free event," he said. "We just hope people will be generous and donate to our charities."

More information on Grand Prix events is available at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Man accused in Southewest Greensburg slaying

Monday, July 12, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A 54-year-old Homer City man has been arraigned on charges of criminal homicide stemming from a Sunday afternoon slaying in Southwest Greensburg.

Richard McAnulty appeared in front of District Judge James Albert after surrendering to state police in Indiana County, Southwest Greensburg Police Chief Chris Kent said.

Mr. McAnulty is accused of shooting Harry Mears III, which happened at roughly 4:18 p.m. Sunday at Mr. Mears' home on Oakland Avenue.

Chief Kent said that Mr. Mears was an acquaintance of Mr. McAnulty's wife.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Summerburgh: Lost in a police standoff

Written by Anthony Fenech

This wasn't going to end well. Couldn't.

Last Monday afternoon, on the 7200 block of Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, a middle-aged man barricaded himself in his apartment.

Maybe with hostages, I was told by local news editor Ed Blazina, maybe with a gun or 20, and maybe with an AK-47.

Cool, I thought to myself. Now this is real life. Cops. Guns. Hostages. Definitely not Nintendo 64.

"We think it would be good to go out there," he said.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Rewind that tape. Me? What? Go where?

"Call Sadie for the address."

By this time, my heart had already dropped, slowly crept up to near normalcy, and on this hot and humid summer day, inside the air-conditioned Post-Gazette newsroom, a bead of sweat began to form on my forehead.

This wasn't going to end well. Couldn't.

And so Monday afternoon, near the intersection of Frankstown Avenue and Homewood St., a 22-year-old guy driving a company car for the first time saw the flashing lights of a police car blocking off a street, figured he was somewhere in the vicinity of where he needed to be, found a parking spot to the right, walked down the street towards that police car, realized he was still a good four blocks away, turned around, thought about it for a second, decided he probably wasn't getting any closer, turned back around and kept walking, prepared to take his first-ever bite out of crime.

"I might be coming in there for a drink in 20 minutes," said an officer, standing next to that police car as I walked by, to a bar worker across the street.

"Well I ain't going nowhere," answered the guy, cracking open the front door with an orange construction cone.

One needs a drink, the other isn't going anywhere and suddenly, a theme was born.

At the intersection, there are police cars, police vans, police officers wearing short-sleeve, navy blue shirts with badges on the front and police officers wearing baggy green pants and bullet-proof vests with "S.W.A.T." on the back.

Around, a crowd of Homewood residents gather, some sitting on a fence, others peering over balconies of a nearby high rise, most of them talking or laughing or cursing, bunched up in anticipation "like there's a [dang] parade coming," as one lady put it.

Mulling through the group and looking conspicuous in a dress shirt, slacks and shoes with a notepad in hand, I do as instructed: Ask people what they know.

"I know just as much as you do," said the first guy I talk to. "You a reporter?"

"Yeah," I answered meekly.

"Well then I dont know nothing."

Oh, ok then. Scrap that idea. Time to improvise. Lets try asking people what they've heard.

"I heard hes crazy," said a man, twirling an index finger next to his ear.

"I heard hes an old dude, fragile, can barely walk," said another bystander.

"All I heard," said yet another, "Was that an old guy is in a house with hostages. I aint even heard about weapons."

Progress, I think. Progress.

Soon, police create a perimeter of yellow tape around the intersection, forcing the residents to retreat and nearly closing off all sight of the standoff ahead.

Underneath a white tent, a man is forced to close up his shop of selling CDs, muttering, "I cant make no money here, let alone get a cold pop."

When someone offers him a beer, he shrugs.

"Naw, then theyll bust me for public intox," he said. "Its always something."

As a police officer mans a tape barricade across Frankstown, three women, probably in their 20s, stagger towards the officer, trying to get past with no success.

One becomes animated, waving hands, stomping feet, talking gibberish about knowing the man and being in the house, drawing criticism from residents who feel the antics have no merit.

"Downtown is that way!" a man shouts, pointing away from the scene. "Get a shower and get out of here!"

As officers try to clear the street of people, a public works truck pulls up with a number of wooden barricades, which are then propped on each side of the street.

One of the three women the animated, stomping feet one then kicks down a barricade and walks towards the back of the high-rise, hooting and hollering with her right arm waving above.

A couple of officers follow her, then a few people, then a lot of people. Soon, I find myself following the distracted crowd.

She yells, people yell back, officers try to calm the situation to no avail, and then a herd of people scatter.

Taser, I hear, which is enough for me to follow the herd.

"How you get this as your job?" a kid asked me as I walk away. "It must be exciting as hell."

Exciting, yes. How I got here, I dont know.

As the crowd lines the street once again, another line of police tape is drawn across Frankstown, pushing everyone about 10 yards further than they were, closer to the breaking point of their lives being momentarily put on hold.

The other two women try to breach the perimeter and get arrested. The crowd cheers.

Meanwhile, I start to realize my reporting has been a sad excuse for glorified sightseeing.

A teenager directs me towards a woman who apparently knows whats going on.

Interviewing her, I find out that the stander-offer is harmless, 65 years old, didnt do anything, doesnt have a gun and that, "This should have been over at 3:30.

"And make sure you write that."

The interrogation goes swimmingly until I ask for her name, which draws a dark stare, followed by "You dont need to know my name."

Oh, ok then. Next!

Next comes on the other side of the street, with two middle-aged women, one a neighbor, the other a birthday girl.

As tear gas pops in the distance, an S.W.A.T.-clad officer pulls out of a van one of those big, cannon-looking things most commonly used to bust down doors.

I talk to the neighbor and find out that the stander-offers name is Robert, that he pulled a gun on his landlord, that he's pulled guns on other people besides his landlord and that, "There's something going on in his head," the information quite contrary from that of the previous lady.

Then I ask for her name.

She obliges. Victory, I think. Vic-tor-y.

"And this is the birthday girl," she said, pointing to her friend seated on a fold-up chair, puffing a Newport Light.

What does she know? Nothing. What does she care? Not at all.

"Im just trying to chill with my friend and celebrate my birthday," she said, as a group of volunteers strolled through the street, passing out cups of water to police officers and the guy driving the public works truck.

"And get a drink," she quipped, looking towards the volunteers. "Five dollars!"

After about 20 rounds of tear gas, the situation seems to near its end as police officers talk to the man over a loudspeaker in front of his place.

"Stop, turn around and lay flat on the ground!" they instruct him.

Apparently he does, because moments later, an ambulance pulls up, followed by the welcome sight of a man being escorted into the back of a police van, without a shirt but with jeans on.

Again, the crowd cheers.

Lilianne Miles, the only person out of probably a dozen to give me her name, looks at me, almost in disbelief.

"I love Homewood," she said. "But its getting harder and harder to stay."

On cue and after more than three hours of sitting in the sweltering heat on her 49th birthday, Annette Wade then looks at her friend, Ms. Miles.

"We all deserve to get drunk now," she said, before laughing.

At the text message command of police reporter Sadie Gurman, I scurry for two blocks around the area before huddling with a group of reporters around Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper.

"It was a peaceful surrender," Chief Harper said, "And this is the way we wish more incidents of this nature would end. He wasnt injured and no officers were injured."

And neither was a rookie reporter, walking away with much more than one bead of sweat on his forehead, thinking this whole cops thing wasnt so tough and feeling a whole lot more experienced than he did a few hours before.

This ended well. It did.

Was it a heat wave?

Friday, July 9, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For years, meteorologists have tried to pinpoint exactly how a heat wave is defined.

Is it by temperature? By length? By length and temperature?

"It comes up every year and it's come up several times in the past couple years," said National Weather Service Pittsburgh Meteorologist Rich Koch. "But there's not an official definition, and that's because weather is so different for everybody and it has to be applied relatively to where you're at."

But Mr. Koch did say on Thursday that the 90-degree days the city has experienced for the past four days can indeed be classified as a heat wave.

"It's about how it impacts the population," he said. "For me, any significant weather we need to react to can be referred to and probably is a heat wave. The impact is the most important thing."

Not the definition, but the impact, and the disparities in both were on display Thursday afternoon near Market Square.

Carl Fisher, a Gold's Gym security guard from West Mifflin, said the weather doesn't affect him terribly.

"You just have to drink a lot of water to try and stay cool," he said. "And when it's really hot, maybe bring an extra shirt or two."

Jeff Neely, 21, has played the saxophone Downtown all summer, and said the heat has hurt his bottom line of tips.

"It stinks, man," he said. "Literally. A few days, my shirt was completely soaked, I'm all sweaty and gross and people look at me without the same kind of respect, like I'm a bum."

But to him, the recent weather is no heat wave.

"No," he said. "It's just hot and humid, that's all."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Heat, smog a double whammy

Thursday, July 8, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dr. Alan Ducatman once heard an interesting solution to air pollution: Put a huge fan above the famously polluted Mexico City and blow the dirt into the stratosphere.

"It was an amusing study," said Dr. Ducatman, chair of the Department of Community Medicine at West Virginia University.

Amusing, because of the difficulty and uncertainty of the radical operation.

Not so amusing, because today, on yet another 90-degree-plus day, many Pittsburghers would love a steady breeze from above.

That intense heat, combined with the region's 13th Air Quality Action Day of the season, issued today, can cause breathing problems for particular groups, including children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory diseases.

Air Quality Action Days are designated when ground-level ozone and fine particles are expected to exceed national health-based standards.

But the heat, said Dr. Ducatman, creates more air pollution because energy systems are most stressed on very hot days.

Those days also tend to be void of wind, and the sunlight's rays feed off the pollutants, with its temperature ideal for creating ozone.

"The independent stress of diseases associated with air pollution gets worse on those days," he said. "It does make it more dangerous."

The Allegheny County Health Department is cautioning the public to watch out and "be aware during these hot days," department spokesman Dave Zazac said. "The two ingredients of heat and pollution can really affect the at-risk groups."

The health department is encouraging people to reduce pollution a number of ways, such as walking, biking or using public transit versus driving, and fueling up or mowing the lawn after 7 p.m.

"Basically what we're telling people is to stay cool and save as much energy as you can," Mr. Zazac said. "It does have an impact and really helps things out."

The past four Air Quality Action Days have been what Mr. Zazac referred to as "double whammies," indicating that both ozone and fine particle advisories were in effect.

As of late, Dr. Ducatman has seen an improvement in air quality nationwide. He even said Pittsburgh's air is "remarkably better than, well, pick a date. And it's just getting better."

But he offered caution to residents.

"Even at improved levels of air quality," he said, "the risks aren't gone."

No bomb in Downtown restaurant

Thursday, July 8, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Downtown McDonald's restaurant has reopened after a bomb threat was reported earlier this afternoon.

"Someone called in a threat telling everyone to get out of the building," said Zone 2 police Sgt. William Gorman. "Nothing was found."

Sgt. Gorman said a bomb-sniffing dog did a walk through with the manager of the restaurant at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Stanwix Street and found nothing.

Carl Fisher, a security guard at nearby Gold's Gym, said that about 4:30 p.m., while he was waiting in line to place an order, a manager ordered the restaurant to be evacuated, saying that someone called three times and said there was a bomb in the building.

"The manager kicked everyone out, saying that we all had to leave," said Mr. Fisher, 43, of West Mifflin.

About five minutes later, he said, city and Port Authority police arrived.

Patrons and workers waited outside until the building was reopened at 4:58 p.m.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Veterans finding hope in VA program

Saturday, July 3, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Inside a ground-level room at the Pittsburgh Veteran Affairs Recovery Center, five strangers -- three men and two women -- sit around a conference table.

They share a pot of coffee, stories and at least one thing in common.

All are military veterans, battling a number of post-war problems with hope, thanks in large part to a unique Veterans Affairs program at the 2-year-old VA Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation & Treatment Program in O'Hara.

"I owe my life to this place," said one.

"I'm a whole new person after coming here," said another.

The program is a residential retreat for veterans who lack a permanent residence and have an income of less than $900 a month. It is unlike any in the country because of its independent-living setup.

So when you hit rock bottom, how do you pick yourself up off the pavement?

"With a lot of help," said one, Joyce "Maci" Maciak, 52, a former Army helicopter mechanic.

Sam Skokut, a 48-year-old former Navy engineer, has been at the residence for just six weeks, living with three other men in a yellow, two-story townhouse.

"This is the first step to climb the ladder," he said while giving a tour of his first home in nearly two years.

He is nearing completion of the first phase of the approximately four-month program to stabilize the veterans' lives by bridging a return to the work force and long-term housing.

Mr. Skokut served in the Persian Gulf in 1989-93 and then worked for more than a decade driving trucks.

But he developed a gambling habit and invested in a couple of bad business ventures. And then his place caught fire.

"I wasn't making wise decisions," he said. "If it wasn't one type of problem, it was another."

And until recently, those problems kept him on the move nightly, from friend to friend and house to house.

"I got away from God," he admitted. "When things fell apart, so did my strong faith."

On this day, he shows off a plasma television, hung on the wall of the living room, where he watches mostly preaching shows and feels that his old self is returning.

"It's been a little while," he said. "But I'm happy."

His is one of 74 beds in a group of 20 apartments, townhouses and patio houses, the first of its kind built in a residential community environment instead of a more traditional dormitory-type facility.

"It's basically apartment living," said program coordinator Gary Glacken. "This is as close to a community standard as they would move into when they leave, so we're trying to make it as close to common as possible."

On a typical day, the residences are 90 percent full, and 75 percent of the nearly 600 veterans the program treats a year are successful in terms of achieving employment and permanent housing goals.

"The feedback has been excellent," Mr. Glacken said. "We've found that this setup fosters more independence out of the veterans."

Of the 25 percent who don't initially finish the program, which is voluntary and free to the veterans, Mr. Glacken said about half of them return.

Fifty-four-year-old George Fletcher is one of those people.

Mr. Fletcher was in the Navy for four years in the late 1970s. Stationed in Puerto Rico, he said, he drank and smoked marijuana excessively.

"And that led to one thing, which led to another," he said. "It was insanity. I just didn't care about anything. Nothing mattered."

He eventually became addicted to crack cocaine and went to jail on a felony drug conviction in 1996 after getting arrested for selling crack.

After two years in jail, he went straight to the old residency dorm at the VA medical center on Highland Drive in Lincoln-Lemington and lived there until 2003, before leaving, drinking and smoking again.

Five years later, he resurfaced at the recovery center, this time at the new H. John Heinz III VA Progressive Care Center in O'Hara.

"I went through the old place and now this one," he said, poking a thumbs-up out of a brace he wears on his right wrist because of carpal tunnel syndrome. "This is nice."

Today, Mr. Fletcher lives in an apartment in Mount Washington, part of a transitional housing phase that bridges time in the O'Hara residency with permanent housing, and he runs a cold-weather shelter Downtown for homeless people.

"And I have a smile on my face every day," he said.

Mary Frances Pilarski meets many of these veterans on the streets, at shelters and at soup kitchens.

She manages the 125-plus community-based beds for transitional housing, which veterans can live in for up to three years before seeking permanent housing.

"This is like a continuum of care," she said. "We're taking a holistic approach here, working with everything to make sure our vets are taken care of."

Ms. Pilarski said the two biggest components of the program are reaching out to the community and managing the veterans on a case-by-case basis.

"Over the years, the community has become more aware of our homeless vets," she said. "We see people being more proactive and new vets coming aboard, and with that, we have even more of a responsibility to them."

"It's a blessing and a privilege," Ms. Pilarski said of working with the veterans. "When you see, in their face, the change, it's all about working for that happy ending."

Diana McCloskey is close to one of those happy endings.

Last July, after resisting her friend's repeated urgings to give the program a shot, Ms. McCloskey, 50, who fought a losing battle with domestic abuse, "Got really drunk and had my friend drive me there."

Today, she's glad she had those drinks, and it's evident by the smile on her face.

"This is the best program in the world," she said. "Helping to put the past away is awesome."

Ms. McCloskey was an Air Force officer in the early 1980s. The abuse began after her military duty and started her downward spiral, one she says included lost jobs, divorce, a stay in a Schenley Park cave and "major issues coming to the surface."

The embarrassment and fear of being a victim was trying, the mother of two daughters said, and in the aftermath, "Some major issues I had came to the surface."

"I think I was abused specifically because I was a female veteran and he felt insecure about it," Ms. McCloskey said of her ex-husband.

"It was constant abuse while trying to raise two kids," she continued. "And if there's anything I can stress, it's that there are other abused female veterans out there."

She lived at the domiciliary last August and graduated from the rehabilitation and treatment program in January, rooming with two women in similar situations before moving into the transitional housing phase.

Her relationships with her two daughters were once strained, but she talks to them regularly these days and has been accepted to Duquesne University for paralegal studies. If everything works out financially, she will pursue a degree there.

"It was a great day when I came here," Ms. McCloskey said. "And I haven't felt this good in a long time."

She smiled.

"But I don't think I've had my best day yet."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tanning salon owner burned over new tax

Thursday, July 1, 2010
By Anthony Fenech, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The summer heat is turning up on tanning salons.

Today, a national 10 percent tax begins on ultraviolet indoor tanning services to help pay for implementation of the Healthcare Reform Act.

The tax begins two days after the Pennsylvania Senate approved a bill intended to improve safety at tanning salons and requiring parental consent for minors. The bill now heads to the House.

"My opinion is quite obvious," said Jeff Magnotti, owner of Oakland Oasis Tanning Salon in Oakland, about the nationwide tax. "It's terrible.

"Terrible because it's a health bill issue and there are so many other issues we should be worried about. Indoor tanning is actually safer than outdoor tanning, but it has developed a bad reputation, and that's why I think this is absolutely terrible."

However, both measures represent a triumph for dermatologists who have lobbied for years to impose regulations on services they believe increase peoples' risk of developing skin cancer.

"I do believe this tax will be a deterrent," said Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and media spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology. "But there still needs to be legislation in every state to prevent minors from using these destructive devices."

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax on tanning salons will bring in about $2.5 billion over the next decade. Spray tans, a popular service by tanning salons that does not involve UV light, will not be included in the tax.

In Pennsylvania, the Indoor Tanning Regulation Act would require that each customer receive a written warning statement that must be signed before initial exposure, that operators maintain records of customer visits for three years, and that minors between 14 and 18 be accompanied by a parent or guardian to sign a warning statement.

Those younger than 14 would be required to have written permission from a physician to use UV tanning services.

In addition, operators would need to complete a training program and owners and managers would need to pass a certification exam before operating a facility or training employees.

"Medical studies continue to show that early and excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation, from the sun or artificial sources, greatly increases the likelihood of skin cancer in later years," said state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh. "This legislation enacts common sense guidelines."

Mr. Magnotti, who has owned Oakland Oasis for more than 11 years, has a different view.

"When you tan indoors, you control it," he said. "You know exactly how long you're going for, every time. Outside, you have to know the pollution index, where the clouds are at, and when you're on vacation, thinking 'Wow, I got a lot of sun.' Well, that's not usually good."

Jillian Lyons, manager of Hollywood Tans in Shadyside, said that six long-standing customers already have canceled in light of the new tax and that the salon urged customers to "beat the tan tax" by purchasing packages before today.

"I personally do agree with [the tax]," Ms. Lyons said, "because it's a person's choice and unneccessary. But I don't think it's going to hurt [business] that much because people that tan are already interested in it."

Christie Incorvati, 24, a frequent customer at Oakland Oasis, called the tax "fair because they also tax cigarettes, which cause cancer." She said the tax would not stop her from tanning at salons.

Operators at both salons said they have no immediate plans to raise prices. They also said the timing of the tax -- in the summer and months away from the peak fall and winter business -- may help.

Still, Mr. Magnotti believes small businesses will feel the effect.

"Between the bad reputation for tanning and the tax, it will be tough on owners like myself," he said. "It's not going to kill my business, but it will definitely put some kind of strain on it."