One St. Patrick's Day in the late 1990s, Ray Werner decided to play a joke on his older brother, Larry Werner.
Larry, a public relations guru in Pittsburgh, was scheduled to lunch with a reporter at a French restaurant on the South Side. Ray convinced the wait staff to quarter a raw potato and pass it off as a French delicacy, figuring his brother would complain and give Ray the opportunity to bust out of the kitchen disguised in a chef's uniform and a mocking French accent.
The waiter dutifully poked toothpicks into the tuber and brought it out to the table. He returned puzzled. Larry wasn't complaining, he reported. He was just nibbling on the offering. It was the gracious thing to do.
It had always been hard to prank Mr. Werner, Ray said, since pranks usually rely on catching someone off guard and eliciting a less-than-gracious response in the heat of the moment. Mr. Werner appeared to lack the capacity for both. He was calm, collected and always kind, qualities that catapulted him to the top of the public relations world in Pittsburgh during a 50-year career which slowed, but didn't stop, when Mr. Werner was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago.
On Monday, he died at his home in Franklin Park, surrounded by family, like he wanted. Mr. Werner was 80.
His mantra was to tell the truth, said Jerry Voros, a friend and former colleague who tapped Mr. Werner to head up the Pittsburgh office of Ketchum Public Relations in 1984.
"Anything that was happening that was significant in the city, Larry usually got the phone call," said Bob Butter, a principal at Veritas Communications Advisors, who worked with Mr. Werner during two stints at Ketchum and was his client during the interim.
A generation of public relations professionals came up under Mr. Werner, who left Ketchum in 2001 but continued advising companies and people until the end.
"He was like a second dad to the whole group of us," Mr. Butter said. "He taught us a lot about integrity and substance and reputation. There was no such thing as spin with Larry."
In boardrooms, he was known to deliver news, even bad news, directly and without sugarcoating. But there was an optimism to his method, as if by virtue of having Mr. Werner at the table, the situation was on its way to recovery.
"There are certain people when they walk in the room, all of a sudden that room is a lot better," Ray Werner said. "When Larry walked in (and) your company is going through this terrible ordeal, somehow you had this feeling that you're going to work this out."
When Exxon Valdez, an oil supertanker, ran aground in 1989, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude into the Prince William Sound, Mr. Werner was chosen to be part of a team to design the company's crisis response program.
"That's when he first got into the mantra of saying, 'tell the truth. Get it out. Don't stall,'" Mr. Voros recalled.
The pill was easy to swallow from someone like Mr. Werner, who put people at ease with great story-telling and humor.
His relationships came without hierarchy. For a man who hobnobbed with executives from some of the country's biggest corporations, Mr. Werner showed equal attention to janitors and parking attendants. He had a standing appointment with his barber, Ron DeMutis, for a no-frills haircut twice a month and when Mr. Werner would go on vacation, he would call Mr. DeMutis just to check in, to let him know his friend was OK.
A native of Freedom, Pa., Mr. Werner grew up as the middle child with five siblings born to Charles and Pauline Werner. From his father, a railroad yard master who dropped out of high school at 14 but who would recite poetry around the kitchen table, Mr. Werner inherited his love for the power and precision of words.
It was well known that Pops, as Mr. Werner was known to his grandchildren, paid for vocabulary. He'd have his grandkids log new words, confirming proper spelling and use in a sentence, and when they reached a certain number, he would pay up.
He loved Irish writers and held a special fondness for the poems of William Butler Yeats.
Mr. Werner served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, then graduated from Duquesne University and went on to earn a master's degree in English from Carnegie Mellon. He started his career as a reporter with United Press International, then transitioned into a public relations role at U.S. Steel Corp. and, later, at Equibank. His role at Ketchum helped shape the local office's reputation as a company powerhouse and influenced the culture of the entire organization.
Even during his battle with cancer, Mr. Werner continued to hatch business ideas, his latest being a fund for needy chemotherapy patients. The concept arose after hours spent in hospital treatment rooms, sitting across from people who couldn't afford to get a sandwich during their lengthy treatments or didn't have money for a ride home.
A week before his death, The Pittsburgh Foundation agreed to set up the Larry Werner Memorial Fund. Contributions can be made c/o The Pittsburgh Foundation, Five PPG Place, Suite 250, Pittsburgh, PA 15222 or online at https://community.pittsburghfoundation.org/werner.
Mr. Werner lived longer than most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He underwent several serious surgeries and fought hard against the disease, wishing to spend as much time with his family as possible.
On Saturday, Mr. Werner and his wife of 14 years, Mary Werner, invited a priest to his hospital room and renewed their vows.
"He was the bravest man I've ever known," Mrs. Werner said.
Mr. Werner also is survived by sons, Lawrence Jr. of Pittsburgh, Victor of New Mexico, and Bern of Wexford; a daughter, Pamela Griffith of Ohio; sisters, Rita Kasunic of Cranberry and Kathleen Werner-Millward of Indiana, Pa; brothers, Raymond Werner of Point Breeze and Bernie Werner of Coraopolis; and 11 grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Schellhaas Funeral Home in Sewickley. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at St. John Newmann Church in Franklin Park. Interment will be private.
Anya Litvak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455.