Mayor was a super fan, too

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Corey O'Connor was a slip of a lad when he first twirled terry cloth, waving it with such enthusiasm that his father stood him on their seat at Three Rivers Stadium because he kept hitting the fans next to him.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Corey O'Connor, the late mayor's son, starts the crowd to waving Terrible Towels before last night's game.
Click photo for larger image.

But The Terrible Towel he jabbed into the air last night never flew with as much poignancy or meaning, following as it did a silent moment of respect for Bob O'Connor, Pittsburgher, Irish Catholic, steel worker, Steelers season ticket holder since the year of the first Super Bowl, public servant, mayor, husband, father, friend.

"We did it for dad," said Mr. O'Connor, 21, the youngest of three children but the public voice of a family overwhelmed with and deeply appreciative of the outpouring of community support shown for the late mayor and his family.

If you don't own a towel or two, it's impossible to explain the symbolism behind the gesture. The gold towel is one of those quirky Pittsburgh traditions done to an extreme, because everything around the Steelers is extreme. The cloth is the flag of The Nation, the fabric of the Steelers. It has celebrated championships, seen its bitter days as a crying towel and kept fans connected across the miles on threads of memories. It's tough, strong and absorbent. And now it has a new incarnation as something that can absorb grief and help a public family in their time of private loss.

Before the casket lid closed for the last time at the funeral home, Corey O'Connor made sure his father carried his terry cloth with him to his final resting place.

"He's going up to heaven with a Terrible Towel," the son said, amused at the thought of a deed-counting St. Peter escorting another Steelers fan in the cheering section no doubt located between the cherubim and seraphim.

There was more: Funeral-goers at St. Paul Cathedral have heard many a dirge but never the Steelers polka. As part of the solemn rite of funeral Mass, Corey O'Connor led an amazed congregation in the singing of what was the dynasty's first soundtrack.

"He was Irish. He didn't know the words to 'The Pennsylvania Polka,' but he could sing the Steelers one. He was Pittsburgh through and through," the son said of his father.

Then came the ceremonies at Heinz Field, an honored son waving the emblem introduced to him by his father, giving the departed a fitting public send-off and carrying on a tradition, thereby making his father's memory a certainty.

The reception he received was electric, a jolt of life-affirming energy in a trying time.

In the pre-game party lots, many a shot of Jameson's Irish whiskey chased by an Iron City passed the lips in Mayor Bob O'Connor's memory. This was the night, with the closest full moon of the year, the NFL kicked off what is a national passion and Pittsburgh's oxygen.

It was also a night for the O'Connor family to voice its appreciation and acknowledge what it means to have such support in a time of loss.

"We want to thank everyone for that," Corey O'Connor said. "It'll help get us through."


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1959.


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