Obituary: John Warhola / Brother who was told, 'Your role is to take care of Andy'

May 31, 1925 - Dec. 24, 2010


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Before he died from drinking bad water at one of the construction sites where he worked, Andrij Warhola called his son John into the room for a talk about the family's future.

At 17, with his kid brother and mom to care for and another away in the military -- World War II was raging -- John Warhola received a special order. His dad had stored away enough savings bonds to put the youngest boy through the first two years of college. The rest was up to John.

"My grandfather told my father, 'Your role is to take care of Andy and make sure he goes to school, because he's going to be successful someday,' " said Mr. Warhola's son, Donald.

In the years after, John Warhola sold parts for washers, dryers and stoves at a Sears store. When television arrived, he climbed roofs and installed the antennas. He cared for his mom and younger brother and sent Andy to Carnegie Tech and then on to New York City where he shortened the family name and became Andy Warhol.

Art legends must be born, but sometimes it takes an older brother to keep them from starving.

On one occasion, John Warhola took the Greyhound bus to visit his brother as he started out. He noticed cardboard plugging the holes in Andy's shoes. He left his own behind for his kid brother. Another time, after their mom, Julia, moved in with Andy in Manhattan, John visited to make sure they had turkey on Thanksgiving.

John Warhola, of Freedom, Beaver County, died at Allegheny General Hospital of pneumonia on Christmas Eve. He was 85.

Andy Warhol was often depicted as aloof, inscrutable -- a man running as fast as he could from his blue-collar, Pittsburgh roots. That was a myth, said Donald Warhola, and he knew because he was at home every Sunday when John and Andy talked.

The icon of pop art wanted weekly details about family and all things Pittsburgh.

"There's only one Andy Warhol. I know my father would not want that credit of being responsible or creating, but he played a pivotal role in helping Andy become what he wanted to become. He did that out of the love of his heart," said Donald Warhola.

Andy Warhol died in 1987 and his own dying instructions specified that his brother John would sit on the board of the foundation that oversees the Warhol legacy. Mr. Warhola was one of three board members who oversaw the Andy Warhol Foundation, and he became a key player in setting up the museum that bears the artist's name as well as another Andy Warhol museum in the family's ancestral home in Medzilaborce, Slovakia.

"We are losing our own father, our founder," said Michal Bycko, curator of the museum in Slovakia. "With the sudden departure of John Warhola, our museum is losing its soul."

Another board member, Rick Lowe, an artist in Houston, Texas, said John Warhola's family connection was essential in understanding Andy Warhol outside the context of the art world.

On visits by board members, Mr. Warhola would sometimes take them on a tour of the Oakland neighborhood in which the artist was raised.

"He was very interested in showing the board members the family home. He was interested in finding a way to preserve that," Mr. Lowe said.

In addition to his role with the art foundation, Mr. Warhola became the caregiver to his wife, Margaret, who was disabled by a stroke in 1995. Mrs. Warhola died in 2007.

While another brother, Paul Warhola, became an artist late in life with public exhibitions and widespread interest, Donald Warhola said his dad preferred to focus on the museums and his three children.

"His family was basically his hobby," he said.

In addition to his son Donald, of Cranberry, and brother Paul, of West Homestead, Mr. Warhola is survived by sons Mark, of Cranberry, and Jeffrey, of New Wilmington, Lawrence County.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Thomas P. Kunsak Funeral Home, North Side, with a funeral to be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church, North Side.

Burial will follow at St. John Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, New Castle.


Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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