When my father, Raymond J. Fischer Sr. of Sheraden, died 17 years ago, I was delegated the task of placing his obituary.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the woman who answered the phone responded. “Was he well known?”
“Well … he came from a large family,” I stammered. “He had lots of friends.”
“No, I mean, was he someone important?” she clarified. “Was he an elected official or a prominent businessman? Our editor may be interested in writing an article if your father was well known outside his circle of family and friends.”
I remember my father reading every page of the daily paper, and I thought it would be a wonderful tribute for his death to be acknowledged with an article, but painful to admit, I couldn’t think of anything that would make his life seem important enough to warrant a news article. I reluctantly replied, “No, I don’t think he was well known enough.”
When my brother heard this later, he said, “Why didn’t you tell them he was a boxer? That would have made him important.”
My father was a prized member of the U.S. Marines South Pacific Fleet Boxing Team during World War II. After the war, in 1947, he won the semifinal round of the Pittsburgh 160-pound Golden Glove championships before a sold-out crowd at the Duquesne Gardens in Oakland.
But this story isn’t about my father’s boxing prowess. It’s about what really made him important beyond his family, friends and the boxing ring.
It would be hard for you not to have known him. He spent his entire life in Pittsburgh, a blue-collar worker whose tax dollars and charitable contributions supported the growth of our city.
If you or a loved one ever received a blood transfusion, he was that regular donor whom the blood bank depended upon.
He was hard-working, sports-loving and the first to offer his hand if he knew someone needed help. He was like the thousands of other Pittsburghers whose endearing qualities contribute to the character of our local community.
If you ever shopped at an A&P grocery store, you knew him. His long hours of overtime as a truck driver kept the local stores stocked with fresh produce and provisions. That was until, like so many others, he became a victim of the downturn of the local economy in the 1970s.
It was a difficult time for my family when he lost his job after 30 years of dedicated service, and my mother’s entering the workforce to help with expenses must have bruised his ego, but it didn’t break his spirit. He eventually regained permanent employment driving a truck for the Allegheny County Maintenance Department.
If you flew out of Pittsburgh’s airport decades ago, you might not have noticed him, but you knew him. He plowed the runways so planes could depart and land safely.
If you ever drove in the western district of Allegheny County, you surely remember him. He salted the roads in the winter and helped repair the potholes the rest of the year so you could travel home safely. Like so many other Pittsburghers who spent their lives laboring for the public good and welfare, he was very important.
He wasn’t all work and no play. He was known as a prankster, or in Pittsburghese, a kidder. My mother’s friends will never forget when he appeared as a “streaker” during one of her card parties. My father adored my mother, and after 49 years of marriage, his blue eyes still sparkled when he looked at her.
After reading others’ obituaries, he used to muse, “Did ya ever notice that everybody’s a saint after they’re dead?” He would want me to tell you that he wasn’t perfect.
He was a humble man, so I know it didn’t matter to him whether his death notice was a news article or a classified ad. The number of visitors who packed the funeral home paying their last respects to a man who treated others as he wished to be treated — with respect, honesty and compassion — overwhelmed us.
For 17 years, I thought my failure to mention my father was an accomplished boxer made a difference whether he would be remembered as important or not. I’ve had years to realize that his significant contributions to our local community as a regular blue-collar guy well overshadowed his boxing career.
Darlene Fischer Zellers of Crafton, an associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh, can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Biography” submissions about special local people, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.