Annual St. Patrick's Parade Day blowout raises money for scholarships
March 9, 2017 12:00 AM
Nee Family photo
Matt Nee and his wife Lauren with son Dexter at their 2016 St. Patrick's Parade Day Party at Buford's, Uptown.
By Dan Gigler / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In both actual practice and in lore, the notion of the traditional Irish wake has been characterized as much as a celebration of those who’ve passed as it is an affirmation of the living, often punctuated by song and drink.
So when Matt Nee first held a St. Patrick’s Parade Day party, tapping a keg with a group of friends on the front porch of his small Mount Washington apartment 16 years ago after graduating from Penn State, he had no idea that the event would grow into an annual bash of hundreds, filling an entire multi-floor Downtown restaurant.
It’s a party to be sure, but ultimately a wake to honor the lives of a lifelong friend, a family member and a boy he had never met. Though the party’s genesis was like a plotline from an episode of “Workaholics,” it has since transformed into a passion project for Mr. Nee.
By 2003, he’d bought a condo in the Lower Hill District, and the party had steadily swelled to well over 100 people and it overlooked the parade’s start. “They were bangers,” he said. “We’d have 75 people there by 6 a.m.”
The annual blowout outgrew his home, and probably would’ve ended were it not for a series of events in 2004 that profoundly altered his life.
In February of that year, shortly after leaving his home en route to a birthday party for his father, his car struck a 12-year old boy walking to a Penguins game at the old Civic Arena. The boy died three days later.
“My heart was just torn in half. My entire life was upside down,” he said.
Mr. Nee was cleared of any culpability, but the accident shook him to his core. He reached out to the boy’s family via a letter, but was respectfully rebuffed, he said, by their attorney.
A young executive at U.S. Steel, Mr. Nee was transferred from Pittsburgh to Dearborn, Mich., not long after the accident. He was there when he learned of his friend’s death.
John E. “J.B.” Mason was shot and killed in a botched robbery attempt at his home in Upper Burrell, at 3:45 a.m. on July 12, 2004. He was 27 years old.
Mr. Nee and Mr. Mason were friends since they were in short pants.
“We went to school since kindergarten. We were best buddies. We were thick as thieves,” he said.
After Mr. Mason’s funeral, Mr. Nee and other friends chipped in to start a modest college scholarship in his honor. They’d gone to a savings and loan in their hometown, hired an attorney and established the charity as a 501.3c, but were also advised that such efforts often quickly lose steam after an initial bout of enthusiasm.
“I thought I will do this until the day I die. All the baggage I’d been carrying between the accident and J.B.’s murder, I thought, ‘I’m alive,’ and I didn’t know what to say or do, but I knew I’d do something,” he said.
He was living and working in Michigan in 2005, but friends at home in Pittsburgh clamored for the annual party.
He decided to put it together once again, but to charge admission for the first time and after covering costs the remainder would be donated to the scholarship fund. Through a connection, he was able to rent a vacant Downtown restaurant that is now the site of Pork & Beans.
“We didn’t know how many people were coming,” he said.
Just a few, as it turned out.
They went through 16 kegs of beer by noon and filled a five-gallon water cooler bottle with cash. He estimates some 250 revelers attended that year. In subsequent years, as many as 400 people filled their mugs and the charity’s coffers at each party, as its location has moved around to various spots Downtown.
The J.B. Mason/E.M. Nee Memorial scholarship now awards $2,500 annually to a senior of academic merit and financial need at Valley High School in New Kensington, where Mr. Nee, now 40 and of Lawrenceville, grew up and graduated. They have awarded 13 scholarships since 2005 totaling $15,000.
He met his future wife at one of the parties, when she came as the guest of a friend. Lauren Nee now helps her husband run the event and the charity, along with Michelle Sobolak, another childhood friend who is a Ph.D. and professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education. In January 2014, Mr. Nee’s cousin, Edward Michael Nee, was killed in a car accident in New Kensington at age 37 and his name was added to the scholarship dedication.
Ellyse Williams was the first recipient of the scholarship and is now a member of the New Kensington-Arnold School Board.
She attended Pitt, and would go on to study and teach in China before returning.
She now runs Invest in Her, a nonprofit that develops female entrepreneurship in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“The circumstances from which it developed were tragic and unfortunate, but I’m grateful for the award,” she said. “I came from a single parent home and paid for school myself. Every single little bit helped.”
The most recent winner, Jorden King is a freshman at Pitt, studying biology with aspirations to attend medical school.
“It is a significant amount of money that's helped with books and other kinds of unforeseen expenses,” he said.
Adding another unlikely wrinkle to the celebration of life, Mr. Nee’s son Dexter was born 10 years to the day after Mr. Mason’s death.
Saturday’s party begins at 9 a.m. at Buford’s Kitchen, across from the PPG Paints Arena, and is open to the public, with a $50 admission that includes an open bar for draft beer and a continental breakfast and lunch buffet. A $20 admission is also available, with a cash bar option.
For those not attending, donations can be made online at: http://www.jbmasonfund.org
Dan Gigler: email@example.com; Twitter @gigs412
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