John Spavelko, a retired machinery repairman with a passion for playing the accordion, died Friday after battling several illnesses.
Mr. Spavelko, 83, began playing the accordion when he was 15. The next year, his father, also named John Spavelko, died in a mill accident and shortly afterward the younger Mr. Spavelko began playing his accordion for money.
"He used to say that he was the richest kid in 11th grade but couldn't spend the money," said his wife, Bernadette Spavelko. Instead, he used it to help support his mother, Mary Spavelko.
Mr. Spavelko would later go on to become a machinery repairman, working for 25 or 30 years at the Burroughs Corp. on Banksville Road.
But music was his primary passion, and it was music that would bring him and his wife together.
Ms. Spavelko was playing the bass and, for a brief time, worked for an all-female Western group sponsored by the Wilkins Jewelry Co. in Downtown. One day in 1955 or 1956, Mr. Spavelko came to work with the group.
"He saw me and he said, 'I want that,' " Ms. Spavelko said.
He played often at the Three Deuces club on the North Side and earned his own spot in the local music scene, his wife said. She said Mr. Spavelko played alongside local jazz artist Chuck Spatafore, vocalist Shirley Ball, Steelers band trombonist Howard Hartman, radio announcer Bill Lynch and numerous others.
"Johnny was so versatile with his ability and his knowledge of music that you could sing for him three notes, he would pick it up and put that song in that key that you just sang," Ms. Spavelko said.
Often, a singer would hand him a piece of music in one and say he preferred to sing it in another. Mr. Spavelko would transpose the piece on sight. "Cutting a show -- that's what they used to call it," Ms. Spavelko said.
"They played for a lot of the local shows," she said. "They didn't do any TV shows at that time, but anybody in the city of Pittsburgh knew Johnny Spavelko."
As time passed, Mr. Spavelko's health deteriorated. He survived a battle with lung cancer and then later had several aneurysms. About three weeks ago, he went in to the basement of his Castle Shannon home to grab a sprayer and collapsed. Doctors told the family he had a blood clot in his head and then a brain hemorrhage. After that, he contracted pneumonia. The family took him off life support Friday.
Mr. Spavelko is survived by five children -- John, Robert, Rick, Mike and Joanna Spavelko -- and eight grandchildren.
Visitation will be held at John F. Slater Funeral Home, 4201 Brownsville Road, Brentwood, from 2 to 8 p.m. today. The family will have a prayer at the funeral home at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday followed at 10 a.m. by a Mass at St. Anne Church, 400 Hoodridge Drive, Castle Shannon. Donations can be made to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, TN 38105.
Liz Navratil: email@example.com or 412-263-1438.