Obituary: Robert Casciato Sr. / Fervent advocate and defender of Panther Hollow

May 4, 1924 - Jan. 17, 2014

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Robert Casciato Sr. grew up in Oakland's Panther Hollow when it was populated by families who had immigrated to Pittsburgh from the Abruzzi region of Italy.

In 2008, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the neighborhood's identity had changed so much he was thinking of moving, saying, "We're running out of pall bearers." But he remained in the home his grandfather had given him as a wedding gift more than 60 years ago and he died there Friday at age 89.

Mr. Casciota worked for the city's water department from 1958 until 1985. As 4th Ward chairman and head of the Boundary Street Block Watch Club, he never shied from taking on large institutions when their interests clashed with his defense of Panther Hollow. He persisted to get tests of emissions from the Bellefield Boiler Plant, which is owned by a consortium of Oakland institutions including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

In 2006, the plant was still in violation of county air pollution standards and shifted three years later to natural gas to comply with them.

"Bob was the squeaky wheel," said Leigh Gerstenberger, who married Mr. Casciato's eldest daughter, Mary, 37 years ago. "He was never bashful about speaking his mind. At one point, Pitt had artist renderings" for a proposed use of Panther Hollow and he said, 'No, this is a neighborhood.' It was like Panther Hollow was an endangered species, like the snail darter.

"He could disagree without being disagreeable. He would start a conversation by saying 'In all due respect, I disagree.' He was adamant about why, but it never got personal."

When Mr. Casciota's first wife, Mary Maffeo Casciota, died in 1958 of breast cancer, he took on extra jobs to pay the bills.

"He worked construction," said Mr. Gerstenberger. "He worked at Isaly's. He worked for the city most of his career. He delivered flowers part time in Oakland. He ushered at Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium.

Mr. Casciota's formal education ended with a GED but "he was a real student of history," Mr. Gerstenberger said. "One thing he said that I loved was from Ella Wheeler Wilcox: 'To sin by silence when one should protest makes cowards of men.'"

Mr. Casciato's daughter Gina Vennare said her father somehow got the nickname Mortimer as a youngster and that all the old Italians in the neighborhood called him Mort. Through his activism he earned the moniker Mayor Mort, she said. "He got a lot of trees and grass planted when Pitt wanted to buy land," as a concession for a parking lot, she said. "My father wanted the community to benefit."

Mr. Casciota agitated for measures against pollution from the boiler plant for years before devices to monitor particulates were installed in 1993, and the Allegheny County Health Department monitored the residential community to compare the data. At the time, Mr. Casciota said the decision was overdue but "a step in the right direction."

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Audrey Casciato; siblings Dan Casciato of Brookline and Mary Bellisario of Sarasota, Fla.; children Mary Gerstenberger of Hudson, Ohio, Edward of Oakland, Roberta Luba of Canonsburg, Ms. Vennare of Green Tree and Frank of Munhall; and eight grandchildren.

Services were held on Sunday.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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