Sadness for mayor's diagnosis tempered by faith, hope

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From the mighty to the man on the street, reaction yesterday to Mayor Bob O'Connor's cancer diagnosis was equal parts stunned sadness, prayerful support and an abiding faith in the ability of the populist politician to recover.

"Everybody knows Bob O'Connor is a fighter," Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said. "He's got the best medical team he could have and we're wishing him well.''

Mr. Onorato said he was certain the mayor would face this health challenge "with the same energy and determination that have come to define him." And he said he planned to continue meeting weekly with the mayor, as they have done since Mr. O'Connor took office in January, to discuss city and county business.

Prayers for the first-term mayor, a devout Catholic whose son is a priest, were offered throughout the region and beyond.

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., the former Pittsburgh bishop whose June 22 installation Mayor O'Connor attended, said in a statement he was "very distressed to learn of the physical condition of Mayor -- and my good friend -- Bob O'Connor and I want to assure him, his wife Judy. . . of my prayers and support. I feel very close to them and particularly to Bob, even though I am not able to be with them in Pittsburgh."

Bishop Paul Bradley, administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, likewise called for prayers, saying the report of the mayor's illness was a shock.

"With his physicians, however, we look to the future with hope," Bishop Bradley said in a prepared statement. "We call upon people of all faiths in the entire Greater Pittsburgh community to remember Mayor O'Connor in prayer so that his deep faith will sustain him and his family in this difficult time."

City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle of Homewood said she was stunned by the announcement from the mayor's office.

"My heart and prayers certainly go out to the mayor and his family," she said. "I hope the residents of the City of Pittsburgh says prayers on his behalf as well."

Ms. Carlisle said city residents should know "we're going to take each day as it comes. No matter what, we'll do the best as humanly possible for the citizens of Pittsburgh."

As for those citizens, they typically invoked the mayor's optimism, common touch, and high-octane spirit in offering their hopes for his recovery. While the mayor has only been in office since January, he's been such a whirlwind of hands-on activity that once-dormant neighborhoods now feel vital, they said.

"If his personality is any indication, he won't let this get him down," offered Rob Stephany, director of commercial real estate development for East Liberty Development Inc.

"My heart goes out to him and his family," said John Valentine, executive director of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. "This mayor has more spirit than anyone I know, and if anyone could beat it, Bob O'Connor can."

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt saw that spirit first hand. On June 28, while inspecting routes students may have to walk next school year, he covered ground at a considerably faster clip than Mr. O'Connor. That's because Mr. O'Connor repeatedly stopped to shake hands with pedestrians and motorists, and even ducked into an automotive shop to say hello while Mr. Roosevelt waited for him.

Mr. Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts lawmaker and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in that state, didn't mind Mr. O'Connor's tarrying.

"His enthusiasm for his work, his enthusiasm for Pittsburgh, are contagious and very important, and the fact that he loves the job, I think, is very important. I just hope very much that he gets to keep doing it," Mr. Roosevelt said.

Gov. Ed Rendell, in Pittsburgh for All-Star Game events, offered Mr. O'Connor this advice: "Take it easy. Don't worry about us. Don't worry about the city. The city looks great. The city is at one of the high points in its revitalization."

County Council President Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat from the mayor's neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, described the news as "unbelievable."

"Bob is a very energetic, go-getter type of person. You wonder how an illness could affect that," he said.

"The Lord works in strange ways," offered former Mayor Sophie Masloff. "All we can do is hope for the best."

Tom Murphy, the three-term mayor Mr. O'Connor succeeded, offered his prayers to the mayor and his family.

"I know he was very excited about being mayor. But he has some of the very best doctors in the country helping him, so you have to believe his prognosis is good."

Also expressing such hope was Jeanne Caliguiri, whose husband, Mayor Richard Caliguiri, died while in office in 1988. Mrs. Caliguiri, director of development for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, said Mayor O'Connor had attended every "Light the Night" walk to raise money for research of the cancers.

"He has always been there for us, every time, and I want them [his family] to know we are there for them," she said. "I know what they're going through, but it's such a personal matter, I don't want to go there" with words of wisdom or advice.

"All I can say is my prayers are with them. They're in one of the best places in the country, with one of finest oncologists treating him."


This story was written by Michael A. Fuoco based on his reporting and that of staff writers Mark Belko, Diana Nelson Jones, Steve Levin, Brian O'Neill, James O'Toole, Jerome L. Sherman, Joe Smydo and Corilyn Shropshire.


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