Storytelling / Local landscapers had close brush with Jonas Salk breakthrough

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It was a typical Holy Thursday in early April in 1955 -- cold, wet, rainy, soggy, cloudy, miserable, heavy with gray skies.

I sat at my family's kitchen table in Oakland, wearing a long face because I had not been picked as one of the altar boys to serve Holy Thursday services.

My dad looked at me. "Instead of moping around, why not go to work with me today? I need all the help I can get."

It didn't take me long to put on my heavy-duty clothes, including three sweatshirts, two pairs of socks and a tassel cap. My mother, the food maestro, made me three gigantic Italian sandwiches with Isaly's chipped-chopped ham, salami, prosciutto, provolone, Swiss cheese, two apples, two oranges, a banana ... and a big thermos of coffee. A typical lunch for an 11-year-old Italian kid.

Out the door we went into my dad's 1951 red Ford dump truck, that very famous dump truck that everybody in the whole world knew from Max Sestili's nursery operation.

Along with my cousin, Frank Sestili, and two Italian guys, we headed out to Squirrel Hill to work on the many yards. It was a typical spring cleanup job: raking leaves, liming, cleaning out deadwood, making sure all the flower beds looked good.

We were working on houses near Murray Avenue, belonging to Dr. Rubinstein, Dr. Silverstein, Dr. Goldman, Dr. Schwartz -- one well-known surgeon after another. The customers loved my dad.

"Thank you for coming today, Max," they would say over and over again, as if he were doing them a favor.

"OK, Mrs. Silverstein, my pleasure, thank you."

Everybody knew my dad: milkmen, mailmen, chauffeurs, maids. Everybody.

About 2 o'clock in the afternoon a car came screaming down the street, as though the guy who was driving it had stolen it. Quite reckless.

The driver made a hard left, a quick right and shot up the driveway right next to us, totally out of control. He just missed hitting one of our workers, Dominic Vennizzi of Abruzzi, by the slimmest dusting of his thick corduroy pants.

That four-door, dull green, bullet-nosed Studebaker stopped at the side door of the house. A guy wearing a white lab coat jumped out and flew inside.

With the door flung wide open, we could hear screams of joy. You could tell they were joyous screams because nobody was hollering for help. All they kept saying was, "Yes, yes, yes! ... Finally. Finally. Finally!"

Dominic looked at my dad and said, "Max, che tipo di lavoro fa?"(What kind of work does he do?)

"He's a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh."

Dominic answered back in Italian, with a hearty laugh, "Whatever he does, I guess he just got a big raise, and he can buy me a new pair of pants."

Ten minutes later the man in the white lab coat jumped back into his Studebaker, put it in reverse and swerved down the driveway before slamming the rear bumper against the street and banging the tire against the curb. He threw it into first gear and peeled off, blowing the horn all the way down to Beacon Street.

What the heck could've happened?

Later that night our family was sitting around the kitchen table getting ready for dinner when my older sister, Mary Ann, came running into the kitchen.

"Hey Dad, do you have a customer by the name of Dr. Jonas Salk?"

"Yeah, I do," Dad said.

"Well, you better come and see this. He's on TV."

Our whole family stood there in the living room staring at our 15-inch black-and-white Zenith in quiet shock as we heard the news.

The polio vaccine invented by Dr. Salk had been accepted by the National Academy of Sciences, or whatever academy accepts that kind of evidence. Very calmly, Dr. Salk was answering all of a television reporter's questions as if he were giving the nightly baseball scores.

We were dead quiet with mouths wide open, thrilled and chilled that we actually knew this guy, newly famous for his miracle accomplishment.

Thinking back, there could have been a different headline that day: "Jonas Salk wipes out polio worldwide ... and, uh, one small Italian guy from Oakland."

And now Pittsburghers know the rest of the story.

Rich Sestili, an adjutant with Disabled American Veterans in Marietta, Ga., can be reached at

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