Their hearts are in Pittsburgh

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Choosing a valentine is tough when the spectrum runs from heavy schmaltz through slapstick humor to straight-ahead sincerity.

It gets even tougher when you try to find one that suits more than 300,000 people.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked for Pittsburgh Valentines, seeking "unique reasons to love'' the city, and he got 160 answers. Eleven were chosen for the city Web site, with the winners treated to a little pasta luncheon high in the City-County Building yesterday.

That same morning, I'd read the front-page story about a Rutgers University anthropologist who believes that love is not an emotion, but a genetic drive. If love had not evolved, we couldn't have the bond that unites man, woman and child. In short, romance promotes human survival. Without it, humankind never would have thrived.

The need to connect to a particular place might be nearly as strong. Reason alone cannot explain the bond that people have with this quirky, cantankerous, shrinking city of ours, but Pittsburgh won't survive if it ever loses this kind of love.

Let's start with Tony Griffith, a recent arrival in Brookline from Mt. Lebanon, whose valentine is all about being 24, a time when embracing the folklore means not taking yourself too seriously:

Who doesn't love spilling a little IC Light on their Big Ben jersey while eating a Primanti's sammich cheering on the Stillers because they were texting their buddy to meet them in Sa'Side at Jack's to celebrate beating dem Brownies. That is true love.

'Tis. When you're younger, though, the pastimes are less messy if no less noisy, as a couple of 7-year-old winners showed.

Cameron Greenaway of Baldwin already knows his way around town:

KIDS CAN ... see a live polar bear swim right over your head ... pretend the dinosaurs are alive ... ride The Jackrabbit three times in a row at the coolest park ever ... KIDS CAN grow up in a city that is one big playground for fun!

Cameron was more specific with place names but, if you're a Pittsburgher, you know exactly where he has been. Shalin BhanDari of Bridgeville had a similar list, but he added the rivers, the teams, the incline, the skyline, and Macy's Christmas decorations and bakery shop.

A more mature love comes a little later. Sara Sjoberg, 36, moved here a couple of years ago from an inner-ring suburb of Detroit, trading the troubled auto industry for a good job with Alcoa. The line that got me in her valentine was:

I love the fact that I'm a happier, nicer person as a result of living here.

Early on she had the experience of many a visitor, my brother among them: walking around Downtown, clearly looking for something, and having a stranger walk up to ask if he could help. Such casual kindnesses were as foreign to Ms. Sjoberg as the local custom of passers-by saying hello.

"At first,'' she said, "I was little freaked out by it."

But after a couple of years living Downtown, "Now I'm the one who gets the map out to help."

Toni Staab, 51, of McKees Rocks, grew up on the North Side. She told the story of a love token that her great-great-grandfather Julius gave his wife. It was a heart made by polishing a tiny lump of coal until smooth, and then etching a flower in the piece.

It clearly wasn't the work of a professional jeweler, but Ms. Staab wore it proudly as a teenager. She is descended from a man who "put clothes on our backs and food on our table,'' and the heart symbolized his toil and his love. Her valentine ended:

I love that a lump of coal, taken from my mother city's heart, was in a shape of a heart. I love Pittsburgh because of my roots -- family, tradition, hard work and love all tied to her. My answer is over 50 words ... and I don't care.

John Dugan, 94, of Brookline, had a winning valentine, too. He and his wife of nine years, Shirley, got a lift from Public Safety Director Mike Huss because ACCESS rides for seniors were hard to find on a snow day. Mr. Dugan entered wearing a bright, multicolored, hand-painted vest.

That was a gift from his wife's brother and is traditionally worn in her native Philippines to festive occasions. This surely was one.

Mr. Dugan came to Pittsburgh as "a wide-eyed teenager from Masontown,'' graduated high school, became a mailman, was drafted into the Army, served in North Africa and India as a master sergeant -- and "you don't see many five-foot-five master sergeants.'' Then Mr. Dugan came back to the post office, retiring a few decades ago. He wrote:

Living in Pittsburgh, my dream, my life, my love ... Little Johnny overcame the odds of being a coal miner's son.

Happy Valentine's Day, Pittsburgh.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947. First Published February 14, 2008 5:00 AM


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