Obituary: Wallace F. Workmaster / Mt. Lebanon preservationist
March 29, 1934 - April 3, 2016
April 9, 2016 12:56 PM
By Gretchen McKay / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wallace Workmaster’s life-long love of history started early, when he was growing up in the South Hills.
Watching freight trains chug along railroad tracks in his native Mt. Lebanon, he’d pepper his father, Harry, a local real estate developer, with questions. Where were they traveling? What were they carrying? What would they do after the engine pulled into the station?
“There was nothing about trains he didn’t find interesting,” said his daughter, Beth Ann Workmaster, of Madison, Wisc. ”He loved everything about them.”
As an adult who’d studied history at Penn State University, Mr. Workmaster grew to be something of an expert on the subject. Not only could he tell anyone who asked who owned what piece of track and where the cargo was headed, but he also knew how it all connected out, said his daughter. ”It was his passion.”
The same could be said about his hometown. Blessed with a extraordinary memory and core belief that you have to understand the past to plan for the future, Mr. Workmaster became a tireless cheerleader and workhorse for preservation in Mt. Lebanon after retiring there in 1995, after a 35-year career as a historian/preservationist in New York state.
In addition to reviving the long-dormant Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon and serving as its president, he co-founded and chaired the Mt. Lebanon Historic Preservation Board. He also was key in developing the Mt. Lebanon Cultural Resource Survey to create a complete record of historically and architecturally significant structures, landscapes and neighborhoods and promote the preservation of neighborhoods..
“He wanted people in the community to understand and appreciate history, so they could be more informed in making decision for the future,” said Ms. Workmaster.
Mr. Workmaster died Sunday after a series of illnesses at Family Hospice and Palliative Care in Mt. Lebanon. He was 82.
One of two sons, Mr. Workmaster graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1951, after which he’d head to Penn State University to study history. After earning his master’s in 1957, he taught history at the university until 1960, when he got a job with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
As curator and historian for the seven-year-old Fort Ontario State Historic Site, a star-shaped historic fort on a bluff overlooking Lake Ontario, he developed the site into a popular museum and travel destination. To give visitors a taste of the past,he began a costumed hostess program in which women from the community wore period clothing and interpreted the historically furnished rooms of the officer’s quarters. He also created one of the fort’s first re-enactment troops, complete with uniforms, drills, bugles and rifle and cannon fire, said his daughter.
He’d eventually serve as Regional Historic Preservation Supervisor for 17 of the state’s 34 historic sites, and he was president of the Oswego County Historical Society. He also founded the Upstate History Alliance (now part of the Museum Association of New York) and — feeding his lifelong love of real life and model trains — designed, built and ran a model holiday railroad for the public.
“His Christmas cards always has a train on them,” said Karen Cahall, education coordinator for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks, who first got to know him when she was a newlywed living in Oswego.
A serious man who took history very seriously, Mr. Workmaster was a stickler for accuracy. As such, a two-sentence email asking a simple question could evoke a three-page response.
“When Wally called you, you were like, ’Gosh, this is going to be a very long conversation, because he was a very precise and determined man,’” said Mt. Lebanon spokesperson Susan Morgans. But he knew the ropes when it came to grants and other sources of funding for the newly formed preservation board, along with his history, so people listened.
“He was a very lovable curmudgeon,” said Ms. Morgans.
Being such a stickler for accuracy “could drive you nuts,” agreed Ms. Cahall, who worked with him on issues relating to historical and architectural preservation. But his manner was so kind-hearted and well-intentioned, she said, that even when someone disagreed with him, he or she could appreciate where he was coming from.
“He made you think about things more deeply so you didn’t make a knee-jerk or gut reaction,” she said. “He was always looking for the best outcomes.”
Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon president Jim Wojcik recalled his photographic memory. ”You could ask him anything about Mt. Lebanon history and he knew it, even before Mt. Lebanon became Mt. Lebanon.”
An avid reader and wonderful storyteller, Mr. Workmaster gave many talks about the Whiskey Rebellion and other local events, led school groups on architecture tours and led the charge to restore the stone entrance to Cedarhurst Manor, built in the 1930s, in 2006. He also helped with the capital campaign to restore and adapt the McMillan House on Washington Road and make it the historical society's permanent home and history center.
No matter the age of the person getting a history lesson, Mr. Workmaster always preached preservation in a way that mattered and that they could understand, said Louise Sturgess, director of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. In telling a group of second graders how today’s fabric shop was a soda fountain back in the day, for instance, he’d also explain what it meant to be a soda jerk.
“His eyes would light up, and he’d speak carefully and slowly but with so much enthusiasm the kids would understand the continued existence of this building was very real,” said Ms. Sturgess, who called him one of Mt. Lebanon’s ”most knowledgeable” preservation advocates.
“In his work with the historical society and preservation board, he helped people understand that preservation was the key to the future,” she said, “and that you have to identify first what you have before you can go about saving it.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Workmaster is survived by sons Wallace Workmaster, Jr., of Queens, N.Y., and Douglas Workmaster of Sausalito, Calif.; his wife, Joan Workmaster, of Rochester, N.Y.; and one granddaughter and one great-grandson.
The family is planning a memorial service sometime in May in Mt. Lebanon.
Contributions in memory of his commitment to local history, historic preservation and history education can be made to The Historical Society of Mount Lebanon’s capital campaign for the restoration of the McMillan House,
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
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