Obituary: William Gregory Ott / Only love of family exceeded love of learning

Nov. 19, 1937 - Oct. 3, 2013

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After all these years, Bill Ott's kids still can recite the John Greenleaf Whittier poem, "Barbara Frietchie."

"My brother went to school in Baltimore and [Mr. Ott] would repeat this one poem every time we would take I-70 through western Maryland," said Mr. Ott's son, Joe.

" 'Up from the meadows rich with corn, clear in the cool September morn. The clustered spires of Frederick stand, Green-walled by the hills of Maryland. ...' " began Nancy Ott, his daughter, soon joined by her sister, Mary Ott.

To know William "Bill" Gregory Ott was to love him, his family said, and they knew him well.

A man of eclectic literary tastes, the Hampton resident worked as a writer for the Pittsburgh Catholic and later in public relations at Duquesne University and the United Way. After retirement, he helped establish a writers workshop at Carnegie Mellon University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

"Dad loved writing, he loved literature, he loved history, he loved learning, and he felt the most important thing in the world was that his children got a good education, to be ready for the world, as well as be good citizens," Nancy Ott said.

"I ended up being a writer, and he encouraged me in my writing, really, in whatever I did. He was a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut and Tony Hillerman, and he passed that on to me."

Even when Nancy Ott picked up a Vonnegut novel in third grade, much to the concern of her mother, Janet Clair Ott, her father merely said, "Oh, let her go. It's all over her head."

"He made it possible for us to explore on our own," said Nancy Ott, one of six siblings.

Mr. Ott, 75, died Thursday of heart and respiratory failure. He was the type of person who lived to help others: "There wasn't a panhandler who didn't get a quarter out of him, a friend he didn't help," Nancy Ott said. "He collected strays. He was just kind to people who were downtrodden."

"My dad was a practitioner of a brand of Catholicism that fell out of favor and has recently been revived by Pope Francis: The strain of Catholicism that focuses not upon following the rules to the letter, but upon following the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Namely, 'Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.' " Mary Ott said.

"That was Dad's guiding principle in his life, and that is something he passes along to his children and grandchildren."

Mr. Ott was a humorous man who enjoyed monthly get-togethers with high school friends at a South Side restaurant. He also was deeply interested in Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and was an active member of the Pittsburgh Civil War Roundtable.

The family made memorable treks to historic sites each spring.

"We grew up going to battlefields," Nancy Ott said. "Other kids would go to Bermuda; we would go and climb on canons at Gettysburg."

"And on the way there, we would hear [another] poem," added Joe Ott, laughing.

Mr. Ott was a native of Mount Oliver and a graduate of St. Joseph High School. In 1955, he joined the Marines, and his friend, Jack Roell, enlisted in the Navy.

"Four years later, we both wound up at Duquesne University, sitting in the same classroom and taking courses in English literature," Mr. Roell said.

The tradition at the time was for incoming freshmen to distinguish themselves by wearing beanies. As members of Duquesne University Veterans Association, they were told by the president that four years of military service made them exempt.

"He told us 'You don't have to do that.' I mean, we were 21, 22 years old," Mr. Roell said.

Instead, they enjoyed impromptu DUVA meetings at a nearby bar on Forbes Avenue, Frank and Wally's: "That was our fraternity house."

He and Janet were married for 49 years, had six children and 10 grandchildren.

"You can't talk about my dad without mentioning his love of family. That was really his center of his life," Mary Ott said.

Mr. Ott is survived by wife, Janet Clair; daughters Nancy M. Ott of Pittsburgh and Mary A. Ott of Indianapolis; sons William J. of Cincinnati, Gregory R. of Philadelphia, Michael J. of Cincinnati and Joseph G. of Chicago. Also surviving is a brother, John H. of Philadelphia, and 10 grandchildren.

A Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 today in St. Catherine of Sweden Catholic Church in Hampton, with interment to follow in Mount Carmel Cemetery. Memorial contributions are suggest to Reading is FUNdamental Pittsburgh, 10 Children's Way, Suite 300, Pittsburgh 15212 or www.rifpittsburgh.org/donate.


Correction, posted Oct. 7, 2013: Part of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem that had been omitted has been restored.

obituaries

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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