2013: An Xtra good year!

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We swept with chimney sweeps and studied with docents. We danced at ballrooms and dieted at the mall. We applauded movie palaces and toured some lilliputian houses. • Life in the suburbs is never dull. • Here is a look back at 13 of our most talked about — at least according to phone, email and website feedback — Xtra cover stories from 2013.

And, yes, as we end 2013, we invoke the concept of the fascinating number 13, the baker’s dozen — the tradition of a baker adding an extra roll as good will and a precaution against cheating. November is traditionally the time to celebrate bounty of all sorts, so we feature today two Xtra cover stories from that month. • Wishing you a new year filled with good headlines. Welcome and cheers to 2014!




We started the year with “A Clean Sweep” when staff writer Janice Crompton reported Jan. 10 that Santa Claus wasn’t the only one up on the rooftop. Chimney sweeps — made famous by the movie “Mary Poppins” — don’t dance, sing or wear top hats, but their profession can save lives. According to a report on residential fire losses for 2008-2010 — compiled in September 2012 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission — heating and cooling equipment accounted for the second-largest share of total residential fires in the U.S., behind only cooking equipment, with an annual average of 51,800 fires and 210 deaths. Some local “chimney sweep” firms talked about their work to reduce the risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.



In “Pint-sized Passion” on Feb. 28, staff writer Janice Crompton told us that miniature collecting is making a comeback from its heyday in the 1970s as children from that generation look for ways to re-create their youthful pastime and pass it on to new generations. The reporter visited the lilliputian creations at a variety of shops in the region where collectors go to create their own perfect little worlds. “No matter what is going on in your world, with a miniature house, you can always make it perfect,” explained Debbie McManus, owner of Lynlott Miniatures Dollhouse Junction in Aspinwall.



Just in time for spring diets, staff writer Mary Thomas told us that “Mall Walkers Make Every Step Count.” For the March 7 story, she visited Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield, the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer, The Mall at Robinson, Monroeville Mall and Ross Park Mall, where she found health-conscious people of all ages walking. Some were casual strollers, stopping for coffee or conversation. Others, such as Linda Hauger of New Stanton, were serious. Ms. Hauger, 62, consistently racks up 10,000 steps a day at Westmoreland Mall — the goal recommended by the American Heart Association. Ms. Hauger said she has lost 40 pounds in recent years through walking and diet modification. Exercising — for free — in the wide, climate-controlled aisles of suburban shopping malls has gained popularity in recent decades with individuals and organized groups.



“It’s No Time To Text,” transportation writer Jon Schmitz told us on April 11 when he took a look at the dangers of texting while driving. He reminded readers that a law signed in March 2012 by Gov. Tom Corbett made texting while driving a primary offense — meaning police do not need another reason to pull over a driver. The law carries a $50 fine and nearly $90 in court costs. But 39 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving. The National Safety Council said texting while driving causes 1.6 million crashes per year. Our report noted that composing a typical text message is roughly akin to closing one’s eyes for five seconds during which time a car going 55 mph covers more than the length of a football field.



Most people agree that war heroes deserve a final send-off befitting their courage and service. But who will take the time to travel to funeral after funeral throughout the region to give them their due? After all, there are more than 323,000 veterans just in Western Pennsylvania. In the pre-Memorial Day “Veterans’ Final Farewell” published May 23, staff writer Janice Crompton told of the dedicated honor guards who do just that and what drives these faithful patriots to continue serving the nation years, even decades, after their own military service.



In “Volunteers Sharing Volumes of Knowledge” on June 27, staff writer Mary Thomas told how dedicated docents donate time and talent to enlighten a museum visitor’s experience. She reported that a docent for the Carnegie Museum of Art, for example, must take a 14-week academic level class in art history before applying for the volunteer position. Further training and tour observation follows. Then, if they make the grade, docents commit to a weekly training session and to leading at least one tour each week.



On July 11, readers discovered a “Miracle on the Diamond” when staff writer Karen Kane visited three local ballfields that allow youngsters and adults with special needs to have their day on the baseball field. She saw the action at what are called Miracle Fields in Cranberry, Upper St. Clair and Murrysville. The games are played on rubberized fields and often with assistance of volunteers called “buddies.” The only rule in this league — where everyone is a winner — is to have fun.



On Aug. 22, staff writer Linda Wilson Fuoco showed us “Gardening as a ‘Team Sport’ ” at some of the many community gardens that have sprouted on the suburban landscape. Such gardens allow even urban dwellers to develop a green thumb, and they help the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank get fresh produce. Plus, gardening makes for great family time. Community gardens must have a partnering nonprofit and land owned by a nonprofit, municipality or public entity, and the site must test safe from toxins. New gardeners talked about the joys of sharing the work — and the harvest — with their neighbors.



Say “Lights, camera, action” in the suburbs and you could be referring to more than the movies. In “Screen Gems” on Sept. 5, staff writer Len Barcousky shone the spotlight on several former movie theaters in the suburbs that have found new life in recent years, offering everything from classic movies to live entertainment. These venerable picture palaces from bygone days are lit up again thanks to community support: Parkway Theater in Stowe; the Strand Theater in Zelienople; Dormont’s Hollywood Theater and The Palace in Greensburg. Efforts also are underway to restore at least one more old theater, the Denis in Mt. Lebanon.



Suburbanites have been “Dancing the Night Away” for years at ballrooms such as Linden Grove in Castle Shannon, just one of the stops staff writer Linda Wilson Fuoco made for an Oct. 24 story about iconic dance venues here. The Grove has seen everything from waltz to disco in its 141-year history. At Stockdale Fire Hall in Washington County, Saturday night dances date back to the mid-1950s when a young singer named Ernest Evans packed them in. Mr. Evans checked his name to Chubby Checker and found fame with a song about a new dance called the “Twist.” Though such halls are part of the landscape, attendance at many is dwindling.



Just in time for Veterans Day, staff writer Len Barcousky explained how, with other groups, “Scouts Put a Shine on Veterans Memorials” here. In the Nov. 7 report, we learned about an Eagle Scout project by Chris Davidson of Unity from Troop 304 in Latrobe, who helped restore a helicopter that was part of a Vietnam War memorial in Greensburg’s Lynch Field. On Nov. 14, outdoors writer John Hayes told us in “Suburbs a Sanctuary for Deer” that, although they are beautiful and majestic, white-tailed deer also are gluttonous. With few population controls in southwestern Pennsylvania suburbs and Pittsburgh, their numbers in some communities have soared to unmanageable levels.



A puppy may not be the perfect present under the Christmas tree, staff writer Linda Wilson Fuoco told us Dec. 5 in “Barking Up the Wrong Tree?” She examined the facts behind a holiday public service announcement from the American Kennel Club that advised, “Puppies are not stocking stuffers … A dog is for life, not for Christmas.”

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