The Buzz of 2013: The year's 25 most talked about Pittsburgh stories

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We did a lot of talking in 2013. We talked about news of consequence and inconsequence. We talked about Syria, Obamacare, Edward Snowden's leaks, the government shutdown, a polarized, paralyzed Congress.

We also talked about Pittsburgh. Not just about murder and mayhem, but stories that somehow touched a chord within us and made us want to speak up -- "talkers" that, by any watercooler metric, would elicit laughter, incredulity, awe, disgust, relief. If we weren't reading or sharing or commenting about them online, we talked about them in elevators, in the dentist's chair, on the bus and at the dinner table.

Excluding regular Steelers coverage and the most egregious breaking news -- stabbings and shootings, car accidents and cyanide poisonings -- here is our list of 2013's top talkers.


1. The truth is complicated. An opinion piece by a labor activist tells about Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died Sept. 1 at the age of 83 nearly homeless and without health insurance, shortly after being let go from her job as a longtime adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University. This generates quite a buzz on the Post-Gazette's website and nationwide in academic circles, although the university, which calls the piece misleading and exploitative, says Vojtko had declined repeated offers of help.

2. We're awfully fond of you, woh, woh, be doh. When a 40-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide yellow rubber duck comes bobbing down the Ohio River to Point State Park for a three-week stay as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts in the fall, Pittsburgh goes wild. Thousands of people stream to the Point to see the giant bath toy -- or is it installation art? Whatever the case, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman not only picks the right city for the American debut of his Rubber Duck Project, but also proves that whimsy can be wonderful in urban settings.

3. Not with my kid, you don't. A Post-Gazette opinion piece by an elementary school parent explains why she is refusing to allow her 9-year-old son to take a high-stakes standardized test given in grades 3 to 8 -- the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. Widely read, with sharply divided comments, it illustrates once again that the issue of how we educate our children is always a flashpoint with readers.

4. David Conrad still hearts Pittsburgh. The actor's love letter to Pittsburgh, first published in the Post-Gazette more than two years ago, continues to be one of the most shared stories of the year, prompting Mr. Conrad to write an updated piece in November about all the response he's received. We adore it when famous Pittsburgh natives write about how down-to-earth and nice we are.

5. Go past the old Gullifty's on the right and turn left n'at. In a city whose residents give directions based on places that aren't there anymore, Gullifty's Restaurant in Squirrel Hill is now added to the lost-landmarks list. Its August closure after 31 years of serving lunch, dinner and decadent desserts -- including a killer chocolate strawberry pie -- is widely mourned.

6. Call police, oh, wait ... After being forced to resign in February as city police chief, Nate Harper pleads guilty to conspiracy and tax charges in October. Lots of people note that this is not a great day for the city.

7. Away, away with rum, by gum. After two years of work, Allegheny Distilling is just about to start selling its own Maggie's Farm Rum in the Strip District in October when everything is put on hold because of the government shutdown. The story attracts national attention and a denunciation of the shutdown's impact on the floor of the U.S. House by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who uses Maggie's Farm Rum as an example.

8. Too soon. Steelers great L.C. Greenwood, a member of the team's Steel Curtain defense in the 1970s, dies at 67 in September, the third of that fabled crew to die before his time.

9. Seeing red. McDonald's squeezes Heinz ketchup out in October, citing the "recent management changes at Heinz" (it now shares an owner with Burger King). Heinz aficionados, from near and far, are tomato-red with fury.

10. What violence? The titanium plates put in Sidney Crosby's broken jaw in March worry a lot of Penguins fans. Not so much about the violence of ice hockey (he was hit by a puck) but whether he'll heal in time to make the playoffs, which he does, just barely.

11. Celebrities first. Mr. Crosby's fame definitely has an upside: He is ushered to the front of the line at a state Department of Motor Vehicles bureau in McCandless in August, much to the amazement and annoyance of others who've taken half the day off to get their driver's licenses renewed. Sorry, folks, it's DMV policy: Celebrities go first to avoid disruptions "in case the place goes crazy with fans," a spokeswoman said.

12. Where's Luke? When Mayor Ravenstahl goes missing, that piques readers' curiosity, big time, burning up the comments section and prompting viral fisticuffs.

13. Raise the Jolly Roger. At last, after 20 long years, the Pirates go to the playoffs, and we're so thrilled we don't mind THAT much when our Bucs fail to win the pennant. Next year it'll be us, not St. Louis.

14. Something stinks. "Sauerkraut. Roadkill. Dirty diapers. Garbage. Fermenting vegetables. Rotting meat."  Surely the most aromatic newspaper lead of the year, if nothing else: more than 12,000 folks storm Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in late August to sniff a flower that stinks: Amorphophallus titanum, known affectionately as the corpse flower, blooms for 24 to 48 hours once every 10 years or so and opens up on Aug. 20-22 in the conservatory's Palm Court.

15. Radio silence. Conservative hosts Jim Quinn and Rose Tennent are out at WPGB Radio in November. The left is delighted, the right despairs.

16. What a mess. Kenny Chesney's June concert at Heinz Field draws gazillions of fans who leave their trash behind. Tons of it, in fact. Lots of trash talk in the Post-Gazette comments section about those people.

17. Again, what a mess. In July, a strong morning rush-hour storm causes flooding to the west and south of the city, washing out part of the Banksville Road ramp to the Fort Pitt Tunnel and (gasp!) turning an Outback Steakhouse into a lonely island, where no onions would bloom until the mess is cleaned up.

18. Pop goes the question. Andrew McCutchen, on bended knee, proposes to his longtime girlfriend, Maria Hanslovan, before millions of TV viewers on "Ellen" in December. Maria accepts (awwwwwww).

19. Get off my road. The ongoing conflict between motorists and bicyclists on Pittsburgh's streets isn't going away anytime soon.

20. Tattoo You. He called himself the "Rocky Balboa" of this year's mayoral race, saying his dreadlocks and tattoos helped distinguish him from a crowd of Democratic candidates in the May primary, but A.J. Richardson ends his run after being charged with driving under the influence in April.

21. Naked Pope. Of COURSE this story gets a lot of oglers and fiery mail on both sides about whether the police should have arrested a young woman at a Carnegie Mellon University spring art parade who dressed as the pope from the waist up, and nude from the waist down, with her pubic hair shaved into a cross. The charges are later dropped in exchange for community service.

22. Footsie on the football field. Did Steelers coach Mike Tomlin really mean to step onto the playing field with 6 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the third quarter as the Baltimore Ravens' Jacoby Jones returns a kickoff down the Steelers sideline? A contrite Mr. Tomlin says no, but the NFL fines him $100,000 and the team may lose a draft pick.

23. What are the chances? A car driven by a man in his 70s flips into a fountain in Highland Park, seemingly defying the laws of physics. The Saturn SUV enters the traffic circle around Highland Park at about 6 p.m. Sept. 27 and travels across a sidewalk, over a grassy area and through a patch of flowers and plants, crashes through a bench, hits the retaining wall of the basin surrounding the fountain and then flies several feet through the air, bypassing the surrounding pool of water completely and landing perfectly upside down atop the central raised bowl that houses the fountain's spout. Plus, the driver isn't seriously hurt because a doctor happens to be near by to give him medical attention. A perfect 10.

24. PNC Park Pranks: Porn star Andy San Dimas is arrested July 13 during the Pirates-Mets game for dancing suggestively in the aisle while wearing a unicorn mask and refusing to stop when asked to do so by ushers. But after she is taken to the ball park's security office, she is photographed with a police sergeant who is wearing the unicorn mask. The Twittersphere goes wild, and the officer is threatened with disciplinary action.

25. Pittsburghers aren't the only ones who care about Teresa Heinz Kerry.  The Western Pennsylvania philanthropist finally talks about her health -- which is decidedly improving after a seizure over the summer -- and the October story gets international attention. A second story is also of interest locally, in which she strongly defends her son Andre's actions involving the removal of two longtime respected employees from the Heinz Endowments.

Mackenzie Carpenter, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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