The Pittsburgh connection: We're everywhere, famously and infamously

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Have you ever read an article about some national newsmaker, discovered where they grew up and exclaimed: "You mean [HE/SHE] is from Pittsburgh too? Get out!"?

Have you ever gotten the feeling that in any event around the world of significance, there's inevitably a Western Pennsylvania connection?

Have you ever sat in a movie theater watching some film that had nothing ostensibly to do with Pittsburgh, but then some character sneaks in a reference to the city out of nowhere, and your first instinct is to scream or clap?

Then this is the column for you, all you provincial, myopic, all-roads-lead-to-I-376/279 readers.

In the Post-Gazette newsroom, editors seek local angles (if there's one deemed too trivial for publication, it will be the first) to any story happening from Borneo to Bonn. So one's perception of the quantity of these coincidental connections might be skewed.

But from this native Pittsburgher's seat, it seems something beats the law of averages about the region's role on the world stage. We merit an oversized dot on the map for our significance, and only partly because our steel city heyday put homegrown products into major bridge or skyscrapers everywhere.

We're not talking here about the southwestern Pennsylvanians whose local ties should be required knowledge by the time local pupils leave eighth grade: the Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Unitas, Montana, Marino, Namath, et al.); the Pulitzer Prize-winning writers (Wilson, McCullough, Dillard, etc.); the screen legends (Kelly, Stewart); the cultural icons (Rogers, Warhol); and so forth.

See if you think the following makes a case for the region, providing one interesting footnote to history after another that defies logical explanation -- or if it's just another example of local parochialism:

Scandals

This column occurred to us when, in a span of weeks, we found front-page-worthy connections to two of Washington's hottest controversies of the year.

First came the ouster of Francis J. Harvey, a Latrobe native, as secretary of the Army because of a furor surrounding the quality of medical care given to war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Then followed the resignation announcement of the No. 2 man in the Justice Department, Whitehall native Paul J. McNulty, in the middle of the investigation of whether U.S. attorneys had been unjustly fired.

It was a reminder of how Lewis Fox of Waynesburg was a Secret Service officer regularly on duty outside the Oval Office, admitting Monica Lewinsky inside, at the time she was meeting President Bill Clinton for sexual trysts.

And you may recall the local connections of those who achieved international notoriety for abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, especially Charles A. Graner Jr., of Uniontown, who was identified as the ringleader.

We're not saying every scandal has Pittsburgh's fingerprints on it; so far as we know, none of the Watergate burglars was local, but that's only because they were Hispanic and the region had even fewer Latinos then than it does now.

Political figures

Sometimes, people gaining fame in some other part of the country have no business being from the Pittsburgh area, but there they are anyway.

Exhibit A was profiled on this very page last week: Ron Paul, a Republican representing Texas in Congress who is running for president as one of the country's leading libertarians. Naturally, he's from Green Tree rather than Waco.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch is just like everyone else who grew up in Baldwin Borough except that he's living in Utah as a rich Republican, a Mormon and staunchly conservative former presidential candidate.

Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa who almost ran for president this year, didn't grow up harvesting corn. Not unless the family that adopted and raised him was hiding a big field and plow on its property in the heart of Squirrel Hill.

While there are plenty of ex-Pittsburghers with presidential aspirations, but plenty more who ended up big in Washington without them. It's no secret that the director of the CIA is Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a North Catholic graduate raised on the North Side.

A look further back in time finds Robert Bork, a controversial nominee of President Reagan's for the U.S. Supreme Court, was Pittsburgh-born. Don't hold it against him or any of the above that they don't live here any more. Let's assume they figured they had a much easier road to the top in life if they got away from all of the strong competition around here.

Disasters

Admittedly, we're referencing Pittsburgh in a liberal geographic sense for some of these, but the folks in Somerset County would certainly consider us the big city they most identify with. Did anyone else find it just a tad odd that the nation's attention focused just 10 months apart in 2001-02 on that quiet county for both the 9/11 crash of United Flight 93 in Shanksville and Quecreek mine rescue?

USAir Flight 427's 1994 crash in Hopewell preceded Flight 93 as a horrifying plane incident. The heaviest casualties of the first Gulf war in 1991 befell the Greensburg-based 14th Quartermaster Detachment, which lost 13 members in a scud missile attack on its barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. And of course, 2,200 people died in the Johnstown Flood in 1889, a stunning civilian disaster toll then or now.

But the local connection to disasters can be odder than just looking at who died and where. What were the chances, for instance, that one of the first heroes of 9/11 would be a former Munhall man. That was David Wayne Karnes, a Marine Corps reservist who had settled in Connecticut.

When he saw the havoc of the World Trade Center collapse on TV, he felt compelled to get to Ground Zero to help. In the darkness of night, he was the one, naturally, who located two trapped Port Authority of New York police officers whose rescue became the focus of an Oliver Stone film released last year.

Wives/girlfriends

It's not necessarily true that behind every non-Pittsburgh man who makes it big is a Pittsburgh gal; it only seems that way.

When radio shock jock Howard Stern went looking for a candidate to be his second wife, you just knew a former Fox Chapel Area High School homecoming queen would be high on his list. That would be Beth Ostrosky, to whom he has been engaged since an on-air proposal in February.


From the AP

Johnny Carson was never as controversial as Stern, but he was even bigger in his day, and therefore had more wives. The fourth, and the one he was married to when he died, is Alexis Carson, a North Hills native who still owns a Mount Washington condominium at Trimont.

On the presidential candidate front, the wife of Democrat John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards, has Pittsburgh connections through her extended family, and the second ex-wife of Republican Rudolph Giuliani, Donna Hanover, was a KDKA "Evening Magazine" anchor in the 1970s.

Reality TV

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen has written thoroughly on the region's unusual success in this field, as seemingly every local Joe (or Amber) Schmo who ends up eating bugs or otherwise humiliating themselves becomes a champion or key role-player of some type.

It started with Aspinwall native Rick Rockwell (ne Balkey) on the bizarre "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" show in 2000; gained momentum with Brighton's Amber Brkich and South Fayette's Jenna Morasca achieving early "Survivor" titles; and included Matt Kennedy Gould of Mt. Lebanon, the unwitting participant on Spike TV's "The Joe Schmo Show" in 2003. About the only thing we haven't had is a Donald Trump apprentice.

Fictional characters

We love it when Pittsburgh turns up in a movie that has nothing to do with Pittsburgh. Perhaps it's the provincial stroke of some Pittsburgh-bred writer, the way Joe Flaherty on the old "SCTV" comedy show inserted plenty of 'Burgh references in its sketches (i.e. "Monster Chiller Horror Theater") and credits.

We were watching the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn classic "Pat and Mike" just this weekend when an aerial shot of Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle -- with warehouses instead of a park at the Point -- symbolized Hepburn/Pat's visit to town for a tennis tournament.

In "The Quiet Man," John Wayne's character, Sean Thornton, returns to Ireland and explains to the locals that he had been working in Pittsburgh, eating "steel and pig-iron furnaces so hot a man forgets his fear of hell."

But our favorite out-of-nowhere Pittsburgh movie moment is near the end of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," after Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle character has blown away the men who were contaminating the life of young teen prostitute Iris Steensma, played by Jodie Foster.

Bickle received a letter from Iris' parents telling him, "Unfortunately, we cannot afford to come to New York again to thank you in person or we surely would. But if you should ever come to Pittsburgh you would find yourself a most welcome guest in our home."

Fictional or not, those are certainly the words of true Pittsburghers.


If you have your own favorite or odd Pittsburgh connections to propose for publication, please call 412-263-1255 or e-mail them to grotstein@post-gazette.com .


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