(Editor's note: Carl Hughes, who served as manager of Kennywood Park for many years, died Dec. 29 at age 91. His Post-Gazette news obituary appeared Jan. 1.)
For the millions of children of Pittsburgh who grew up in the last half of the 20th century, days and nights at Kennywood Park stand out as the fondest of memories.
Almost every school had a Kennywood Day, and all classmates would descend on the park, ride roller coasters and hope to steal a teenage kiss in the Tunnel of Love or Laff in the Dark.
Carl Hughes did not create this, but re-created it, daily. Many parks would follow his example, but few if any could sustain the ongoing excellence; they just weren't Carl.
I recently took my daughter to a national chain amusement park in Chicago, and the atmosphere was very cold. Monstrous rides and dumbly named theme areas with fake building fronts tie together the big ride contraptions.
The exact same overpriced, bad food is repetitively offered at the various themed lands, which have no congruity but are seemingly named as an afterthought. They call it "Western Land," because, well, it looks that way!
Carl had a park that was very warm. And Kennywood is truly a park, with a lake and trees, groomed and gardened. Rides were varied; ghost trains, out of vogue for many years, continued, as did the arcade and all the good attractions from the early 1900s to the 2000s.
Every year when younger, I visited Kennywood twice, once for my school picnic and again for the annual WTAE Day. My father worked at Channel 4 and knew Carl Hughes for many years; they were good friends.
I remember that as we walked through the park Carl (the President, the Big Boss) would stop and pick up any litter in his path. At first I chalked this up to a mild obsessive compulsive disorder, but then I noticed Carl was actually looking for litter, so I chalked it up to major obsessive compulsive disorder.
But it was no disorder; it was part of his genius. A clean park leaves a clean impression. His employees surely followed his example, as Kennywood was the cleanest park in the world. Adding to the cleanliness was the lion/vacuum, which sucked litter out of kids' hands.
A recording, which was the lion's voice, stated how hungry it was, and it thanked kids for feeding it litter. It was genius once again; kids would scour the park looking for trash to feed that lion.
Carl got it right: a clean rambling park, with trees and benches to sit on, varied food and even a sit-down restaurant for the parent who wanted a break.
At 10 p.m. on WTAE Day, as the lights warmly lit the park at closing time, I would work my way over to Carl's office, where my father and Carl would be enjoying a drink at the end of the day, probably Scotch.
Carl always looked casual, even when dressed in a tie. He would ask about my day and how I liked the park. It wasn't small talk; he really wanted to know. As a teenager in the 1970s my opinion was rarely solicited, so it took me awhile to realize he was "really" asking me questions.
He was not behind the times, he was enmeshed within the times. Men like this can create and re-create magic by drawing on the old and making it new -- creating expectation and comfort at the same time.
Over the years these memories can be triggered when you hear the thunder of a coaster and the happy, if somewhat terrified, screams of kids. Maybe you're standing in a cold park at the time, but you remember a warm Pittsburgh night, a corn dog, cotton candy, Noah's Ark and your first crush. It's not just a memory; it was Kennywood.
And to think some kids from other towns associate these memories with a pinball arcade or bowling alley. I pity them. I won't tell them I pity them, but I do.
Disney spent millions to create a fantasy; Carl did not. He simply made it home. Don't worry, the line at the Pearly Gate is already shorter -- Carl got there before us. I am glad.
Daniel Crantz, an insurance agent in North Aurora, Ill., who grew up in Whitehall, can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255. First Published January 11, 2013 5:00 AM