You know you're living in strange times when the ripples from Joe Paterno's reputational free-fall can be felt by a bridge spanning the Allegheny River.
Almost a year ago, when Allegheny County considered selling naming rights to its 520 bridges, Michael Connors of Chalfant looked past that somewhat cheesy proposal to propose naming a county bridge after one particular human.
"Name an honest-to-God Pittsburgher who has won a couple of National Book Awards, a National Humanities Medal, three dozen honorary degrees, two Pulitzer Prizes, has addressed a joint session of Congress, been a guest of the White House, has been awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and doesn't have so much as an alley named for him in his hometown of Pittsburgh,'' Mr. Connors wrote last August.
The answer, of course, is David McCullough, America's biographer and the golden-voiced narrator of PBS documentaries. Mr. McCullough grew up in Point Breeze and has always taken pride in his Pittsburgh roots. Naming a bridge for him seemed fitting, as he wrote the definitive history of the Brooklyn Bridge. John A. Roebling, whose wire rope works was in Saxonburg, Butler County, began work on the Brooklyn Bridge after completing another one where the Smithfield Street Bridge now stands.
Smithfield's a PennDOT bridge, alas, but the 16th Street Bridge is in the county's domain. This 1922 structure, with massive stone piers and statuary, would look fine bearing Mr. McCullough's name. As former county manager Bob Webb put it, this bridge connecting the Strip District with the North Side "can be fairly read as a direct descendant of the Brooklyn Bridge, designed to be a major statement.''
County Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko picked up that idea and ran with it, gathering support from across the county to honor Mr. McCullough. Council's public works committee voted 4-0 to forward the proposal to a full council vote Aug. 21, but not before some wavering.
Councilman Nick Futulus, D-Oakmont, said he's sure Mr. McCullough is a wonderful person, but he's never read any of his books. He wondered if there aren't other Pittsburgh figures, such as Fred Rogers or Art Rooney, equally deserving of a bridge in their name.
Ms. Danko, a Regent Square Democrat, herself noted a recent "prime example'' of prematurely permanent honor given to a man before his story was fully written. She didn't have to say "Paterno.'' Every Pennsylvanian with a pulse knows the oversized bronze sculpture of the former head football coach of Penn State was carted away Sunday from its place outside Beaver Stadium, and that on Tuesday Mr. Paterno stopped being the winningest coach in college football history because his teams forfeited their 111 wins between 1998 and 2011.
Mind-numbingly swift was the demise of a heretofore beloved leader who, at the very least, failed as a leader when allegations against his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, surfaced in 1998. Mr. Sandusky turned out to be a serial child molester. Children were victimized because neither Mr. Paterno nor any other Penn State leader acted decisively to protect them.
So the words on the stone wall behind JoePa's statue were suddenly, chillingly ironic: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.''
The statue is in storage. Perhaps 18 months or 18 years from now, when there is a fuller understanding of these tragic events, many will feel differently about Mr. Paterno. For now, there's a sudden wariness about honoring any living human, even one as respected as Mr. McCullough.
If the full 15-member council approves Ms. Danko's motion, it goes to the county manager, who appoints a committee that must have at least one public hearing. Then the county manager makes a recommendation that comes back to council for a vote. Nobody will be able to say the county has rushed to judgment; bridges have been built faster.
Mr. McCullough turns 80 next July. Mr. Connors, the man who first proposed a McCullough Bridge, is a bit distressed at these recent concerns given all the public thoroughfares and entities hereabouts that bear names of people still breathing:
"Sophie Masloff Way, Thomas Starzl Way, Mario Lemieux everything, Chuck Noll Way, Arnold Palmer Airport ... Are we going to find out somewhere down the road that David McCullough might step on puppies or something? It's all weird timing.''
'Tis, but at least there's no chance we'll ever have to take down the 16th Street Bridge and put it in storage.brianoneill
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.