Obituary: Mayor Robert E. O'Connor / His enthusiasm for city was unbounded

DEC. 9, 1944 - SEPT. 1, 2006

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Robert E. O'Connor Jr. so naturally attracted people, and so readily dispensed firm handshakes, pecks on the cheek, warm words and pledges of help that it sometimes seemed a minor miracle that he could walk a city block with all of that human need and affection heaped upon him.

The early July day he was hospitalized with what turned out to be brain cancer was no exception.

On that day, he moved through the sweet-and-sour soup of goodwill and grueling problems that was the Bob O'Connor mayoral administration, ceremonially installing the first antenna in a Downtown wireless Internet system and putting the finishing touches on a strike-averting trash collection contract. All the while he carried a burden that no one suspected.

Mr. O'Connor's life was, in many ways, a perfect expression of this biggest of small towns. It featured neither pretension nor strict ideology. A handful of key relationships helped determine its course. It exercised more willpower and common sense than book learning along the way to an impressive array of achievements. It featured a steady, determined climb, and a wrenching fall.

Mr. O'Connor, 61, died last night.

A child of Greenfield, he was born Dec. 9, 1944, to Bob Sr. and Mary Anne Dever O'Connor. His father was a truck mechanic who carried Pacific theater shrapnel in his back and died of a heart ailment in 1978. His mother kept the kind of warm, welcoming home that was a magnet for his friends and those of his one younger brother, Tim.

They were a car-loving family, going off five nights a week to watch local races, especially those involving Bob Sr.'s brother, Buddy O'Connor. Years later as mayor, Mr. O'Connor was once approached by a fan of Buddy's, an old racing program in hand, asking for an autograph. With an unrestrained, boyish enthusiasm rarely seen in politicians, he gathered everyone there for a rundown of Buddy's career.

An unspectacular educational run took him from St. Philomena's grade school to, briefly, Central Catholic High School and then a 1962 graduation from Allderdice High School. He spent his savings from summer work at the Jones & Laughlin steel mill not on college, but a Corvette convertible.

The Corvette certainly impressed the younger brother of Judy Levine, a fellow Allderdice graduate whom he courted earnestly in those years after commencement.

The car didn't sway Judy's parents, who wanted their Jewish daughter to marry someone of the same faith. She and Bobby eloped to Wheeling, W.Va., in 1964, where they were married by a pastor they'd never before met, with only Tim O'Connor as a witness.

Her parents later warmed up to their son-in-law when they saw what a good father he was.

From 1972 on, they lived in the Squirrel Hill home in which she grew up. They raised three children, Heidy Garth, now of Swissvale and a marketing research manager; Terrence O'Connor, a law school graduate who went on to become a Catholic priest at St. Alphonsus Parish in Pine; and Corey O'Connor, varsity golf coach at Central Catholic High School.

Even decades later, no one could be near Bob and Judy O'Connor without feeling the warmth of their bond.

Soon after Mr. O'Connor became mayor, a maintenance worker shooting at pigeons was mistaken for a sniper, and the search paralyzed Downtown. It surprised no one who knew him that Mr. O'Connor put on a bulletproof vest and rushed across the feared line of fire to check on his wife, who was at work at the Highmark Caring Place in the hot zone.

After five years in the mills, Mr. O'Connor took a pay cut -- not his last -- to join Judy's uncles in a restaurant business. The company was later sold to Beaver County businessman Lou Pappan.

Mr. Pappan, the owner at various times of many Pappans, Roy Rogers and Wendy's restaurants, took a shine to the friendly-but-serious young Mr. O'Connor. Recognizing management material, Mr. Pappan put him through leadership training, and eventually made him an executive vice president in charge of 1,000 employees in 36 locations.

Mr. Pappan would stick by his protege long after he left the business, contributing to his political campaigns and, in 2005, hiring him as a loosely defined consultant while he ran for mayor.

Mrs. O'Connor worked as a preschool teacher and, later, a children's party organizer. Daughter Heidy married Richard Garth. The two gave the O'Connors three granddaughters. In the 1990s, Mrs. O'Connor and her daughter ran Bobby O's, an Oakland restaurant, and Mr. O'Connor bussed tables on football Saturdays.

The bridge between business and politics was community service.

In a time when few have time for neighborliness, making friends was a natural reflex for the O'Connors.

N. Catherine Bazan-Arias and her family arrived in Pittsburgh from Latin America in 1983. "The mayor was one of several parishioners at St. Philomena's who really opened their arms to us," she said. They were part of a tiny Latino minority in Pittsburgh then, but the O'Connor family took them under their wing, and showed "that this really had the potential to be home."

Thousands of such relationships laid the groundwork for a political career that transcended policy. "I guess in my mind, he's been a pillar that cannot be shaken," Ms. Bazan-Arias said.

Eventually, Mr. O'Connor came to the conclusion that his service to mankind should go beyond food and charity work. He resigned himself to another pay cut, and at age 45 ran for public office.

It's one of those only-in-Pittsburgh plot twists that Mr. O'Connor's boss at Jones & Laughlin Steel in the 1960s was Thomas Murphy, father and namesake of the city's 57th mayor.

The younger Tom Murphy, when he was a state representative in the 1980s, wrote legislation changing City Council elections from citywide competitions to by-district races. Mr. Murphy's reform made possible the rise of the man who would become his principal rival.

Mr. O'Connor was one of the first to take advantage of the change, winning a council seat in 1991. He beat three better-known Democrats, thanks in part to an enthusiastic, hyper-loyal troupe of volunteers and gigantic popularity in Greenfield and Hazelwood.

After the election, he did something that, along with his always-perfect silver hair and his cookie cruise fund-raisers, would become a trademark: He stood on a busy street corner with a sign that said, simply, "Thanks."

His political role model was Mayor Richard Caliguiri, whom he knew from coaching his sons, David and Gregg, in Little League baseball. Mr. Caliguiri died of a rare protein disorder, amyloidosis, three years before Mr. O'Connor ran for office. His widow, Jeanne Caliguiri, thought enough of her sons' coach to serve as his honorary campaign chairman.

It was one of the great coincidences of his life that the son of his mill boss and the son of his role model teamed up to beat him in the bare-knuckles 2001 mayoral election. Tom Murphy Jr. was the incumbent, and David Caliguiri his campaign manager.

Mr. O'Connor's early City Council years set the tone for his career. He was all about beat cops, clean streets, fixed playgrounds, and raw ambition.

In January 1994, with two years on council under his belt, he made a bid for that body's presidency. Just-elected Mayor Murphy, though, exerted his influence and placed Jim Ferlo, now a state senator, in the presidency. There was talk that a deal had been struck in which Mr. Ferlo would serve one year, then step down and let Mr. O'Connor serve the next.

It never happened.

"When I retaliate," Mr. O'Connor said a few years later, "it will be more than the presidency of council" at stake.

In 1997, he challenged Mr. Murphy in the Democratic mayoral primary. He campaigned not so much on a platform as on a series of criticisms of the incumbent. He opposed public financing of new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers, which Mr. Murphy supported. He said Mr. Murphy was shortsighted in selling the city water system, trading a steady source of revenue for short-term cash. He predicted financial implosion.

He was badly outspent and undermanned. His campaign vehicle was a beat-up white panel truck, supplemented by his aging Oldsmobile. Nonetheless, he pulled in 42 percent of the vote, which was 12 percentage points behind Mr. Murphy in a three-candidate field.

In 1998, Mr. O'Connor won the council presidency on the second ballot, in part through brilliant parliamentary moves by Mr. Ferlo. That would mark the beginning of an odd political pairing -- two Democrats, one conservative and the other liberal, one rooted in business and the other in activism, united by mutual respect and deep suspicion of Mr. Murphy.

Mr. O'Connor presided over council for four years, during which he and Mr. Ferlo helped defeat Mr. Murphy's plan to raze and rebuild Downtown's retail core, and rewrote the city's property tax system so land and buildings now are taxed at the same rate.

That led into a tough 2001 mayor's race that some of Mr. O'Connor's backers still maintain was stolen. In its closing weeks, Mr. Murphy agreed to the outlines of a generous contract with the city's firefighters, who promptly endorsed him. Mr. Murphy won by 699 votes -- fewer than the number of city firefighters at the time -- and Mr. O'Connor conceded only after weeks of scouring the tally for errors.

Mr. Murphy's dealings with the firefighters led to a federal probe, though not to prosecution. The firefighters' contract, fiscal woes, and bad relations with state legislators contributed to his decision not to run for a fourth term in 2005.

Mr. O'Connor considered a 2002 run for lieutenant governor, but instead left city government in 2003 for an appointed post, running Gov. Ed Rendell's southwestern Pennsylvania office. Some thought he would be content to stay on the political sidelines and build a state pension, but insiders knew better.

His 2005 platform was simple and appealing. He pledged to professionalize city management, fix its distressed finances, and cooperate more with the county and state governments. He would "inspect, not expect" to make sure city workers were doing their jobs, and give them the tools to do better.

"If things were booming or great in this town, I wouldn't have even run," Mr. O'Connor said in an interview during the 2005 primary campaign. "But this is a time that you need experienced, smart leadership. Put the word 'smart' in there, too, because it takes a smart man, when he has cancer, to call in the doctor."

He faced younger, more eloquent Democratic primary opponents in City Councilman William Peduto and county Prothonotary Michael Lamb. He cruised to victory with 49 percent of the vote, then easily beat Republican Joe Weinroth in the general election.

On Jan. 3, 2006, he was sworn in as mayor in front of the City-County Building, and spent the afternoon shaking hands and posing for pictures in the mayor's office.

He did not launch national searches for top staffers, as some people had hoped. He instead surrounded himself with a mix of longtime loyalists and city veterans, along with a handful of recruits from other sectors, like Chief of Staff B.J. Leber, who helped turn around public broadcaster WQED Multimedia.

In his first six months in office, he launched a drive to "redd up" the city in time for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July, and rewrote the budget and refinanced debt to give his administration some fiscal breathing room.

More subtly, and perhaps more importantly, he ended the psychological isolation that had plagued the mayor's office during Mr. Murphy's years. A steady stream of county, state and school district officials entered and left his office. He led department heads and reporters on Bob-a-thons through long-neglected neighborhoods, walking block after block, bringing attention to problems, and ordering fixes, on the spot.

In Knoxville, he had underlings remove heaps of old carpet and demolish an abandoned home, pronto. The home went down that day.

"He initiated cleanup of all of our alleys, which hasn't been done since 2002," said Mary Ann Flaherty-Bennett, president of the Upper Knoxville Block Watch, not long after. Many neighborhood groups privately rejoiced that basic services, rather than the grand development plans of Mr. Murphy's tenure, were City Hall's top priority.

On July 6, the 185th day of his administration and five days before the All-Star Game, he was admitted to UPMC Shadyside Hospital complaining of fatigue, nausea, and head and neck pain. He was diagnosed first with a duodenal ulcer, and later with the extremely rare T-cell type of the uncommon primary central nervous system lymphoma.

From the beginning of his illness, his administration emphasized that he was still in charge of city governance, making much of equipping him with a laptop computer and his call to a weekly staff meeting to ask for accounting details.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, waited anxiously, with civic leaders fretting about the effects of a lengthy illness on regional momentum, and fans signing a giant card hung in the lobby of the City-County Building. Gift baskets, cards and letters flooded the family home, the hospital, and the mayor's office.

Worries about the direction of the administration in his absence mounted 17 days into his hospitalization. That's when he phoned in to fire Ms. Leber, Solicitor Susan Malie, and Finance Director Paul Leger. They were replaced by loyalist Dennis Regan, longtime city lawyer George Specter, and financial veteran Scott Kunka, resolving a long-festering rift.

Though the firings generated criticism, it was drowned out by a tidal wave of affection as the mayor's condition worsened. Giant cards, flower bouquets, prayer vigils and the quick sale of 10,000 bracelets by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society showed strong support for the mayor personally, and for his family.

Yarone Zober took the reins as deputy mayor on Aug. 6, when the mayor was declared disabled.

Mr. O'Connor was treated with an experimental protocol of two chemotherapy drugs, then with radiation when those didn't work. In late August seizures and an infection further complicated treatment. Family gathered, and staff tried to keep a brave face.

"Here's a man that worked really hard for a long time to get to be mayor," said city Public Works Director Guy Costa, "and then this happened, and it doesn't seem fair."

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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