Presidential hopeful Vilsack visits old neighborhood here

Vilsack has made a life and political career of beating long odds

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photosIowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, center, visits the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where he grew up as he kicked off his campaign yesterday for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination. Mr. Vilsack once lived in the home at the left, at 1300 Murray Ave. He visited there with his boyhood friend, Doug Campbell, left, and his son Jess, right.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack reaches to shake hands with a Squirrel Hill resident during his visit yesterday. With the governor as he walked along Murray Avenue were, from left, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, county Chief Executive Dan Onorato and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale.

Ambition mixed with nostalgia as the first entrant in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes yesterday led old friends, politicians and reporters on a choreographed stroll through his boyhood neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

"These streets hold a lot of memories," Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said yesterday as he gazed up Forbes Avenue.

Many of those memories are fond ones. Standing outside Mr. Vilsack's old home at Murray and Wilkins, Judith Perman, a former baby-sitter, recalled the Iowa governor's affection for pot pies and orange Popsicles.

As he led his wife, Christie and their grown sons, Jess and Doug through the house, Mr. Vilsack recounted the time, as a little boy, when he "ran away from home," seeking refuge with a purloined cake under a picnic table in the garage behind their small backyard.

Later, in a speech to Squirrel Hill Democrats, he alluded to more searing memories.

Fifty-six years ago, Bud and Dolly Vilsack chose him from an array of orphaned infants in the Rosalia Foundling Home on Bedford Avenue.

In Mr. Vilsack's description, "It was like picking a butterball turkey in a Hy-Vee [supermarket]."

Mr. Vilsack will leave the governor's office in Des Moines to campaign at the end of the year after two terms as the first Democrat elected governor in his adopted state in three decades. His path to the governor's mansion took him from what he's described as a loving but troubled home in Squirrel Hill through college and law school in upstate New York, to a small town law practice in rural Iowa, a stint in the state Senate and a startling upset in his first statewide race.

Mr. Vilsack doesn't know the identity of his birth mother and has never made an effort to find her, in part because he felt secure in his place in the Vilsack home in Squirrel Hill.

"My parents made sure that there was never, ever a distinction between myself and my sister, who was a child born to them," Mr. Vilsack said in an interview published several years ago.

He was raised as part of a relatively well-off extended family. His great-grandfather founded the Iron City Brewery. Other relatives still own and operate Kennywood Park.

"My first taste of celebrity was going to Kennywood with Vilsack and having those unlimited tickets," said Pittsburgh lawyer Doug Campbell, a boyhood friend and Shady Side Academy classmate who remains a close friend.

Friends describe him as serious. The word "wonkish" recurs in descriptions from Iowa associates.

As an adolescent, Mr. Vilsack's serious side was reinforced by stresses at home. His father was in the commercial real estate business, concentrating on the East Liberty area. The corner of Penn and Highland avenues once had been the center of one of the most commercially vital neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. But by the 1960s, it was sliding downhill. Misguided urban redevelopment efforts accelerated the fall. Millions were spent to build Penn Circle, which ended up being a concrete noose around the business district.

"That sort of wiped out my father's business," Mr. Vilsack said in an interview at the governor's mansion two years ago, halfway through his second term. "My family sort of had a riches-to-rags story."

It became harder to sustain the upper middle-class lifestyle that he was used to.

The teenager was blindsided by evidence of the financial strain one afternoon at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the genteel Oakland club his family had belonged to for years.

"I remember, one day, I went into the PAA grill down by the bowling alleys to order a cheeseburger and a cherry Coke. And as I was going to sign for it, I remember the guy saying, 'You can't charge here anymore.'

"And I was surprised, since I had been doing that for years. So I went home and I said, 'Dad, what's the deal?'

"And he told me -- it was very painful for him -- he sold his lifetime membership in the PAA so he could pay my tuition to Shady Side [Academy.] He wasn't a very successful businessman, but he was a great father."

By the time Mr. Vilsack entered Shady Side, his mother was drinking heavily. Her son was sometimes the target of her alcohol-fueled anger. Occasionally, she beat him.

A person who evolves into a plausible candidate for the White House, almost by definition, has a drive, a quest for achievement far beyond the average. One theme that recurs in the biographies of presidential candidates is the presence of a strong, nurturing mother, goading them to strive and prevail.

Mr. Vilsack would derive similar lessons and drive from his mother, but the path to those strengths was sometimes painful.

"I spent a lot of time alone," he said. "I couldn't invite people over to the house very often because I never knew, from day to day during that period when she was drinking heavily, how she was going to be."

"His mother suddenly wasn't around," Mr. Campbell recalled. "Sometimes, you'd hear her up on the third floor. His father would cook. Meatloaf was his one trick. ... That was a tough period for him."

Eventually, his mother sought help, leaving the family while she weaned herself from her addiction.

A mother's comeback
Mr. Vilsack openly discussed this troubled period in his mother's and his family's lives during his campaigns..

"There were some tough times, but she, on Dec. 25, 1963, made the decision to turn her life around. And she made a decision to separate from my father and to stay separated until she felt strong enough to live with him, even though he would drink and she wouldn't," he said.

"She felt strong enough to learn how to drive after a lifetime of relying on others to drive for her. She became strong enough to get herself a job and be financially independent, which made a big difference, since my father ended up dying a few years after they got back together, and she needed that job. She taught me never to give up. ... So she is a hero, absolutely."

And, Mr. Vilsack added, "I think that story is important because it helps people, and you would be surprised to know how many people need that message. ... Back in the '50s and '60s, this wasn't anything you talked about. It was something that stayed in the house and, as a result of that, so many people who could have gotten help didn't get help."

Mr. Vilsack referred to those lessons and the importance of community they underscored in his announcement speech Thursday in his adopted hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa and again yesterday before about 200 Democrats.

"During my early years, my mother battled alcohol and prescription drug addiction. My parents separated. I watched as my father balanced being a single parent while trying to keep his business alive. We struggled and adapted to a declining standard of living," he said. "I know what it is to feel alone and forgotten... as if you do not belong.

"The deepest hole anyone can dig is addiction and dependency. My mother dug that hole, but she dug herself out."

With the perspective of years, Mr. Vilsack finds the value of that experience, but it is a perspective the adolescent going through it didn't share.

"[When] my parents split up, I had a tough time, a very tough time, my first two years at Shady Side," he said "I had a hard, hard adjustment. Then my parents got back together in my junior year and my grades went way up."

"That was a tough period for him," his friend, Mr. Campbell, said. "What got him moving was, as his mother emerged from alcoholism, seeking that discipline. He applied it in his own life. He was dogged. He made himself a good student. In a way, what she went through served a purpose for him."

"It's a fair observation that my mother was the most profound influence in my life," Mr. Vilsack said.

His campaign rhetoric reflects the vocabulary of addiction and recovery.

"We've got to have the courage to change,'' Mr. Vilsack told the Squirrel Hill Democrats, he described proposals for energy independence.

"We've created a culture of dependency in Iraq,'' he said, critiquing the Bush administration's foreign policy.

While he was an indifferent athlete, he recalls sports as a major influence on his growing up, with frequent trips to Forbes Field and, later, to Three Rivers Stadium to see the Pirates. Visitors to Terrace Hill, the ornate home of Iowa governors, are greeted with the sight of a Pirates cap perched improbably on the giant moose head that looms over the entrance hall.

He played first base on a Little League team that won the 14th Ward championship. Later, as a student at Shady Side, he was a dogged, but unspectacular, football lineman.

"He was a real hustler. He had that drive to succeed," said Bob Grandizio, his Shady Side football coach. "He wasn't a great football player. He'd be the first to admit that, but he could not put up with failure. He got upset with himself and he'd work harder."

"I wasn't a great athlete, but I tried. I worked hard," said Mr. Vilsack, who, as an adult, turned his dogged athleticism to marathon running.

"That experience really affected me, to the extent that I still run and lift weights. ... So I'm still trying to get in shape to play ball, I guess," he said.

Mr. Vilsack jokes that old acquaintances' recollections of his athletic prowess have become increasingly charitable as his public profile has climbed.

"That's the great thing about this job," he said. "If I go back to Shady Side one more time, I'll be an all-stater."

Mr. Vilsack's improved grades won him a place at Hamilton College in New York.

Love and Iron City
In his first months there, he met Christie Bell, of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. She says their first conversation began when he approached her in the cafeteria and asked, "So who are you for, Nixon or Humphrey?"

From that less-than-romantic seed, a relationship blossomed.

Several years later, on a visit to Pittsburgh, they were engaged over Iron City Beer and Mineo's pizza.

Mrs. Vilsack recounted that memory to a Mineo's staffer yesterday as she and the candidate collected a stack of pizzas before heading back to Des Moines for a fund-raising event last night.

In a previous interview, Mrs. Vilsack said they hadn't planned to go back to Mount Pleasant after her husband got his law degree at Albany Law School, but a letter from her father, urging them to return and Tom to join his law practice, changed their minds.

Mr. Vilsack found a home in Iowa. But in his wife's recollection, it came, at first, at the cost of a name.

"When you move from somewhere else into a small town in Iowa, you don't have a first name," she said. "You're Christie's husband. You're Tom Bell's son-in-law."

In December 1986, a disgruntled man shocked the small town by storming into a council meeting and fatally shooting the mayor and wounding two councilmen. Several of his neighbors, including, Mr. Vilsack said, the late mayor's father, urged him to run in his place and, in 1987, he was elected mayor.

Chatting with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday, Mr. Vilsack compared notes on mayor's terms launched by tragedy.

"I was a young man too, at the time,'' he said, "It's a shocking thing.''

Other local Democratic officials who turned out to greet the native included county Chief Executive Dan Onorato, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Rep. Dan Frankel, and county Council President Rich Fitzgerald.

Mr. Vilsack was elected to the Iowa state Senate in 1992. After being elected to his second term, he decided to return to full-time law practice. At the time, in the spring of 1996, the Vilsacks' older son, Jess, was graduating from high school.

"It makes you think about a lot of things. You question, gosh, where did the time go? Did I do what I should have done? Was I there when I should have been? ... Douglas [their second son, named for his boyhood friend Doug Campbell] was coming through the pipeline and I wanted to be there for him, so I announced that I was getting out of politics."

But just as one tragedy had gotten him into politics, another persuaded him to stay.

Christie's brother, Tom Bell, came back to Mount Pleasant for the graduation. He was an accomplished lawyer who had served with Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, on the House impeachment inquiry into President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Vilsack said that, in a conversation the night before the graduation, the younger Tom Bell's reaction to his decision to leave public life was, "What are you doing? This is crazy. You've been there for your kids. You've got to stay in the game."

The next morning, before the graduation, Tom Bell went for a bicycle ride, had a heart attack and died.

"That was probably one of the most shocking things that ever happened to me in my life," Mr. Vilsack said. "He was full of life, a great guy. ... And that conversation we had the night before came back to me."

Mr. Vilsack ran for re-election that fall. After an easy victory, he and Christie decided he would run for governor in 1998 in a state that hadn't sent a Democrat to Des Moines in 32 years.

Mr. Vilsack faced what figured to be a tough Democratic primary. He credited hi s neighbors in carrying him to a 51 percent victory.

Mr. Vilsack was considered an even greater underdog going into the general election in a state with 3 percent unemployment.

On Election Day, Mr. Vilsack prevailed by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent over U. S. Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot, an outcome that led the authoritative Almanac of American Politics to dub Mr. Vilsack, "probably the biggest upset winner of the year."

Mr. Vilsack enters this race as a consensus underdog in a field with such better-known potential candidates as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

As she thanked the 14th Ward Democrats yesterday, Mrs. Vilsack described some of the evidence of her husband's abiding Pittsburgh ties.

Steps away from his office in the Iowa governor's mansion is an anteroom. It's a veritable shrine to Pittsburgh. During an interview two years ago, Mr. Vilsack pointed to one particularly prized possession, a Pirates jersey with Roberto Clemente's No. 21, autographed by Willie Stargell.

"If I'm not buried in that jersey, I'm going to come back and find out why," he said. "I don't want my sons to fight over it."


James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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