Charles E. Puskar, an Edgeworth businessman and promoter of Steelers-related charities who turned grief over the death of his infant son into a life-saving organization, died Tuesday after a long battle with diabetes and kidney disease. He was 67.
"We are mourning his passing but celebrating his life because he was extraordinary," said Steel Curtain linebacker Andy Russell, a close friend.
He grew up in Imperial and played football at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where one of his buddies was drafted by the Steelers. When he returned home, his friend introduced him to other players.
In the mid-1960s the Steelers had no social cachet, so his hospitality was much appreciated, Mr. Russell said. Their mutual best friend was center Ray Mansfield, who joined Mr. Puskar as a partner in Puskar Mansfield Financial Services, an insurance and financial consulting firm. Mr. Mansfield, now deceased, organized Steelers reunion events and got Mr. Puskar involved.
Charles "Chip" Puskar III, his son from his first marriage, said his father was a welcome guest in the Steelers locker room when the team was winning its first four Super Bowls.
"My dad was always a very big guy, and when he would come out of the locker room, people would ask for his autograph because they figured anyone his size had to be a Steeler. Eventually it got so exhausting to refuse that he would just sign," he said.
Tragedy struck in 1976 when Mr. Puskar found his 3-month-old son, Bryan Patrick, dead in his crib in the Downtown apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. The cause was sudden infant death syndrome, which was little known at the time. Both parents later told interviewers that grief nearly destroyed their marriage. Instead, they founded a local group, which became SIDS of Pennsylvania, to support other grieving parents.
Mr. Mansfield, the baby's godfather, tapped his NFL connections to raise money for it. A highlight was a 1990 reunion game between the 1978 Steelers and the 1978 Dallas Cowboys.
It became a premier chapter in what is now the National SIDS Alliance. Mr. Puskar was on the national board. He was chair of the local group in 1989, leading its transformation from a volunteer support group to a professional organization engaged in research and prevention, said Judith Bannon, whom he hired as executive director.
As evidence grew that infants were far more likely to die when sleeping on their stomachs, the Pittsburgh group launched a campaign to teach parents to put babies to sleep on their backs. Since then, SIDS deaths in the Pittsburgh region have dropped 50 percent, she said.
But deaths remained high in low-income areas, and a study showed that 90 percent of those infants weren't sleeping in cribs. In 1998, the group launched Cribs for Kids to provide cribs for every baby in Allegheny County. It has spread to 40 states.
"It all started with Chuck Puskar deciding that we had to find out why these babies were dying way back in 1989," Ms. Bannon said.
"He was very tenacious. You didn't tell Chuck no. You figured out a way to get it done."
Faith, his extended family and inner strength enabled him to "turn something horrible into something beautiful," Chip Puskar said.
"He had been a strong Christian, but he became more so," he said. "It seemed to all of us that he had some sort of inner reserve that kicked in when times got tough."
He worked on fundraisers for other charities, including the Ray Mansfield Smoker, benefitting the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Mr. Russell's UPMC Russell Celebrity Golf Classic for Children's Hospital.
"He was very intelligent, very innovative. He helped us with ideas on how to raise money," Mr. Russell said. One of his brainstorms was to get a car dealer to donate a brand new vehicle to anyone who hit a hole-in-one in the golf tournament.
"Chuck had a great sense of humor. He could be very serious, but do it with a smile on his face," Mr. Russell said.
He had been battling health problems for several years and underwent a kidney transplant.
"It was miserable, but his attitude was the best I've ever seen," Mr. Russell said. "He had an incredibly positive attitude and I think a lot of that came from his faith."
Besides his wife and son Charles, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., he is survived by another son, Michael Sean of Arlington, Va.; two daughters, Cathy Puskar of Alexandria, Va., and Stacy Ann Simpson of Potomac Falls, Va.; three sisters, Maureen Lesniak Grimm of Jensen Beach, Fla., and Sharon Fodse and Mary Alice Medlin, both of Moon; and four grandchildren.
Friends will be received today from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Huntsman Funeral Home, Moon. The funeral will be at 2 p.m. in Christ Church at Grove Farm, Ohio Township.
Gifts may be made to SIDS of Pennsylvania, Suite 250 Riverfront Place, 810 River Ave., Pittsburgh 15212.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.