Pittsburgh people who help make the country red, white and blue

American stories

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Today's celebration of America's independence holds special meaning for those who work with some of the nation's iconic symbols or traditions 365 days of the year. For others, the July Fourth holiday brings new hope and aspirations. Here's what they have to say:

FOR CLIFF RUDERER, 71, co-owner with his wife, Carole, of The Flag Factory in Castle Shannon, flags are not only about expressing pride in the United States. They're a way to give all people the chance to tell their stories.

"Nobody comes in here and is neutral," Mr. Ruderer says. "Everybody's quite passionate about the flag, whether it's the U.S. or another heritage."

Zelienople celebrates the Fourth of July

Zelienople celebrates the Fourth of July. (Video by Bob Donaldson; 7/4/2012)

As a manager at the materials company Ferro Corp., Mr. Ruderer used to buy Brazilian, Mexican, and German flags at The Flag Factory to welcome international colleagues to Pittsburgh. He liked the store enough to buy it in 2003 after retiring.

Now, Mr. Ruderer sees "a whole cross-section of people" arriving in search of his flags, all of which are U.S.-made.

He sells Irish, Italian and Croatian flags to visitors looking to honor the heritage of a loved one who has died or just remind themselves of their history. Small desktop flags that feature a U.S. flag next to an international one are popular choices.

More recently, he has sold flags to parents of servicepeople who want to give their kids flags to fly in Iraq or Afghanistan. "They want to do something to honor their service," Mr. Ruderer says. "You can tell there's a lot of concern and emotion involved."

One of his most meaningful pieces is a black flag with the image, "9/11 Never Forget," with the middle of the "9" shaped like a keystone. Mr. Ruderer donates $9.11 from every flag sold toward the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville.

-- Benjamin Mueller

AWESO MWALIA had to wait more than 25 years before he legally had a country to call his own.

A refugee from Somalia, Mr. Mwalia left his home when he was 5 during the civil war. After living in a refugee camp in Kenya for 12 years, he arrived in the United States in 2004. In April, at age 30, Mr. Mwalia became an American citizen. He calls Somalia his "biological country," but it did not want him.

"I lived in a country at first that did not even consider me as a citizen," he says.

Mr. Mwalia held a number of identifications before citizenship: He first filled out an I-94 visa form upon arrival, then applied for a green card, and then, finally, became a citizen. But before that, the only identity card he had ever owned was his refugee ration card in the Kenyan camp.

Having American citizenship means much to Mr. Mwalia, who lost more than 25 close family members during the Somali conflict, including his 1-year-old sister. He has plans for his family's future in Pittsburgh. He works part-time at Sam's Club and is a longtime leader in the local Bantu community. But Mr. Mwalia also wants to pursue more education -- perhaps a law degree -- and to create a nonprofit that serves the entire "Somali Bantu family" living in the U.S. And he wants his four children, born here, to appreciate their family's history.

Mr. Mwalia, who lives on the North Side, had been coaching other Bantu refugees, including his wife, to pass the citizenship test for years before he took his own. And he had thought about American civics long before -- in the refugee camp, one of his teachers told him that he should pronounce "American" emphasizing the last syllable: "Ameri-CAN."

"It means you can do everything you think you can."

-- Sanjena Sathian

Audrey Przybylski makes and sells pies for her American Pies of Pennsylvania stand at the New Castle Farmers Market.

What's more American than pie -- especially apple pie?

AUDREY PRZYBLYSKI feels so passionate about the link that she's again setting up her American Pie of Pennsylvania booth at the New Castle Farmers Market at the Riverwalk, which kicks off July 14 and operates on Saturdays through October. It runs from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the corner of East Street and East Washington Street.

Ms. Przybylski, who lives in New Castle and is a co-founder of the Farmers Market, has been baking pies -- apple, peach, strawberry-rhubarb, cherry, mixed berry and others -- since her late 20s.

One of her signature dishes, of course, is American apple pie, featuring a top and bottom crust and a mix of apples, such as Granny Smith and Gala.

"That's why I picked the name -- American apple pie. I use local produce ... I wanted to keep it in that mind-set of eating local so I figured that American Pies of Pennsylvania is perfect.

"And we have great farms around New Castle. If more people developed products with the produce, it would even be better."

She appreciates the opportunities America provides for her to do what she loves.

"It's like, in America, you have a lot of opportunity so you can start a great business and be successful," she says. "If you develop a good product in which people see value and you use quality ingredients, people will come for it."

-- Jessica Suss

The first time JEFF JIMERSON sang "The Star Spangled Banner" in public he had some unwanted accompaniment: himself.

It was at an audition to sing at a Pirates game in Three Rivers Stadium in the late 1980s. The delay was the worst thing ever," he says. "When you sang 'See,' you heard 'Oh, say.' ... "

He soon mastered that echo -- "You just learn to ignore it" -- to become the local voice of the national anthem.

More than anywhere else, it is when hats are removed at Penguins games that you will hear Mr. Jimerson, 57, doing the honors. He has been the regular singer of the national anthems -- American and Canadian -- for the Pens for more than two decades. He even sang "The Star Spangled Banner" in the Jean-Claude Van Damme film "Sudden Death" filmed at Mellon Arena in the mid 1990s.

On other days, Mr. Jimerson sings and plays guitar for Airborne, a local band, and works for a booking agency. "I am fortunate to make a living from music," he says.

Curiously, it was the British who put him on the path to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," whose lyrics Francis Scott Key penned during a battle in the War of 1812. Mr. Jimerson saw the Beatles on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and was hooked on music.

While most people struggle to sing the song's notoriously extended range -- voices usually burst along with the bombs and rockets -- the Franklin Park resident has no such problem. "It is not hard for me, because I have a high voice," he says. "The hard thing is stepping out in the intense environment of a game. You don't want to screw up and wind up on YouTube."

-- Andrew Druckenbrod

For MARGIE PAGE, the joy of serving ice cream to eager customers is almost as delightful as enjoying the treat itself.

"It is nice to make people happy by serving them ice cream," Ms. Page says. "It puts the biggest smile on their face."

Ms. Page, 20, of West Mifflin, is a manager at her father's ice cream stand, Page Dairy Mart, on the South Side.

The position didn't fall into her dish overnight, however.

"I have been cleaning and doing other things at the shop since I was 12 years old," she says.

This sense of hard work resonates with Ms. Page's perspective on what it means to be American. "It means getting an education, contributing to society and excelling at whatever it is that you choose to do in life."

Working to fulfill the prerequisites at the Community College of Allegheny County for becoming a nurse in addition to her job at the ice cream stand, Ms. Page is a good example of her own definition.

The stand, opened in 1951, has been guided by five generations of Page family members. Its lasting presence at the corner of East Carson Street and Becks Run Road is due largely in part to a group of loyal clientele.

Treats such as the "Nancy B" cookie sundae and peanut butter ice cream made with real peanut butter keep customers coming back, Ms. Page says.

Page Dairy Mart "has a great environment," she says. "Everybody is fun to work with."

-- Rob Wennemer

They are part of America's holy trinity, along with baseball and apple pie. Yes, hot dogs are ingrained in the American culture, and those who sell them can only be considered patriots, right?

TIM TOBITSCH, 31, of Stanton Heights, is one of those freedom fighters, promoting independence with every dog at his Downtown business, Franktuary in the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Oliver Avenue.

"Baseball is the American pastime, and hot dogs are synonymous with that," he said. "It's just so deep in our culture;[hot dogs] are intertwined with everything we know."

Mr. Tobitsch, with a couple of friends, opened the small restaurant in 2004. Two percent of profits go to worthy causes: 1 percent to global charities and relief efforts, and 1 percent to community nonprofits.

The shop features dogs with toppings from various locales -- New York, Chicago and even Athens. That in and of itself is a testament to our country, he said.

"I started this myself, which is kind of the American dream," he said. "My focus on the American dream is to be able to take a food that people are well acquainted with and do it better -- not just in taste, but from a health-oriented aspect."

Franktuary offers grass-fed beef dogs in addition to standard and vegetarian franks, a reflection of America's growing attention to not just how food tastes, but also where it comes from.

And though the celebrated vendor will be closed today, there will surely be no shortage of hot dogs around the Pittsburgh area.

-- Elliot Alpern

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First Published July 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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