Obituary: John Smith / Longtime mayor of Mount Oliver

April 11, 1931 - May 8, 2013

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Growing up in Mount Oliver in the 1960s, John Smith vividly remembers that community's July 4 fireworks display -- with no idea that just over the hill, the city of Pittsburgh had a pretty decent show going on, too.

"Mount Oliver was my whole world," he said. "I didn't even know that Pittsburgh was there."

That's probably because his father, John W. Smith Sr., the municipality's longtime mayor, worked tirelessly to make Mount Oliver -- which spans about 0.3 square miles and is surrounded by Pittsburgh -- the center of the universe.

"There was so much to do in Mount Oliver," added his daughter, Donna Smith. "My dad helped organize so many parades, festivals, and our Fourth of July was the best."

On Wednesday, Mr. Smith -- who served as mayor from 1978 to 2006 -- died of leukemia at his longtime home on Onyx Street, surrounded by his wife and four children, all of whom still live in Mount Oliver. He was 82.

Gregarious and industrious, Mr. Smith sometimes held two jobs to support his young family before getting involved in politics, his son said. He worked as a truck driver for Hennis Freight Lines and Gimbels Warehouse on Wharton Street, and on weekends he sold cakes, rolls and other baked goods on consignment from Balcer's and Barsotti's bakeries.

"There was Chip the egg man, Ace the fruit guy, and my dad, with the bread route," the younger Mr. Smith said.

His first love, though, was Mount Oliver's volunteer fire department, which he joined after he and his wife, Mary, married and moved in 1957 to Mount Oliver from the South Side, where both had grown up.

He rose through the ranks to become that department's president -- a position he held for 35 years -- and was able to raise enough money to build a new firehouse "so that all the trucks, which were parked everywhere, even in the borough building, could all be in one place," Ms. Smith said.

That prompted yet another big grand opening celebration and a parade in Mount Oliver, recalled his daughter, who had to chase after her youngest brother, Thomas, a Cub Scout, who was supposed to march in the parade but was refusing to wear his cap.

She pursued him into the family's house through the back door and in the rush, put her hand through a window pane.

"It was such a big day for my dad, and my mom was in the kitchen up to her elbows in mayonnaise making potato salad for an army," Ms. Smith recalled. "But we were such good friends with our neighbors that Mr. Presken, across the back alley, took me to the hospital. I got seven stitches."

That story, for her, sums up the Mount Oliver she knew growing up -- a close-knit community of busy citizens, a place full of life and excitement, where neighbors looked out for each other and where her father insisted that his children become active in the community.

He was involved until the end, his son noted, having left the mayor's office -- which had largely become powerless -- in 2006 to join the borough council, a position he held until he died.

"He seemed to get along with everyone. He always had a joke, always knew how to make people feel important," the younger Mr. Smith said.

But there was no time for hobbies.

"His hobby was Mount Oliver."

Besides his wife, daughter, and sons John and Thomas, Mr. Smith is survived by a fourth child, Ronald, also of Mount Oliver, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Friends may call Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Hilltop Baptist Church, 1540 Roseberry St., where a memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m.

Funeral arrangements are by Readshaw Funeral Home in Carrick.

obituaries - neigh_south - electionsmunicipal

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1949; on Twitter @MackenziePG.


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