Obituary: Gerald E. Hart / Super salesman, NFL official was football fanatic

April 8, 1931 - April 14, 2014

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Gerry Hart always attended football games between Iowa and Penn State and was welcome in either locker room, not to mention the homes of both head coaches.

Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, after all, was his son-in-law, and Penn State's Joe Paterno was his former teammate and pal at Brooklyn Prep High School.

"He had come in the Iowa locker room before the game against Penn State. It was like one big happy family," recalled retired NFL referee Dale Hamer of Murrysville. "Paterno often made joking comments how his best friend in high school was the father-in-law of his rival."

Gerald E. Hart, who officiated NFL games for 10 years after playing football at Notre Dame and West Point, died on Monday of natural causes at age 83. A New York native, his sales jobs twice brought him to live in Pittsburgh, where he made his retirement home in Fox Chapel with Gene, his wife of 60 years.

Some of his six children attended school in Upper St. Clair, where Mr. Ferentz met schoolmates Kevin Hart and his sister, Mary.

"Kirk was a friend -- until he started dating my sister," joked Kevin, who lives in the Los Angeles area.

Their father often found himself in the midst of greatness and infamy. He was recruited by Vince Lombardi, then the offensive line coach at West Point, but Mr. Hart accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame instead. After one year, he transferred to Army, where he played offensive tackle. There, as a junior, he was caught up in the notorious 1951 West Point cribbing scandal in which 90 cadets including 37 football players were dismissed from the Academy, some wrongfully so.

Mr. Hart was one of them; he and others much later were invited back to the academy and given honorary graduate degrees to atone for their dismissals in 1951.

"It's the only time I ever saw my dad cry," Kevin Hart said. "He still has his cadet uniform. He was heartbroken when he left."

Mr. Hart was a tough offensive lineman who was drafted in the 20th round by the Detroit Lions in 1953 -- two picks after the Cleveland Browns chose Chuck Noll. Mr. Hart made it through training camp and later was on the roster of the San Francisco 49ers, but he never played in a regular season game.

Although he did not make it in pro football, he did so in a big way in the world of sales, where his gregarious personality perfectly suited his position as a salesman and sales manager.

That brought him to Pittsburgh and Upper St. Clair the first time, when he worked for Jones & Laughlin Steel and later Dietrich Industries.

"He had the greatest job in the world when he worked at J&L," Mr. Ferentz said. "He did a lot of entertaining, a lot of golfing. He went to an awful lot of Super Bowls, where he went to parties and took people golfing.

"He was very successful in sales and you could see why. He had a gift of gab and persuasion."

Mr. Hart not only climbed the corporate sales ladder, he took to officiating football games, starting in Pop Warner. He reached the top when he became an NFL official in 1968, serving as an umpire for 10 years until he retired after the 1977 season because of new work that required international travel.

Later, he came out of retirement to officiate in the United States Football League in the 1980s.

Once, during an NFL game in Philadelphia, his officiating crew drew some harsh reaction from the fans in old Veterans Stadium, so harsh that after the game, Mr. Hart charged into the stands to confront the fans.

"We have a photo of him jumping into the stands going for the guy's neck," Kevin Hart said, laughing.

The NFL suspended him for two games for that incident.

"That was back in the tough times," Mr. Hamer said. "Old school."

An avid golfer, Mr. Hart was a member of the prestigious country clubs of Oakland Hills and Oakmont, where his family said he shot his only hole-in-one.

He also is survived by three other daughters, Bunny, Patty and Margie; one other son, Joe; 21 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. May 10 at St. Scholastica Church, 309 Brilliant Ave., Aspinwall. The family suggests memorial contributions to Family Hospice, 50 Moffett St. Pittsburgh 15243.

Ed Bouchette: or on Twitter @EdBouchette.

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