Obituary: James F. McGrath / Championed cause of Allegheny County retirees

March 13, 1936 - June 4, 2009

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James F. McGrath worked throughout his career as a police officer, representative of county retirees and township commissioner to try to right wrongs.

Mr. McGrath, who spent 20 years working with Allegheny County retirees after nearly three decades with the county police department, died Thursday from liver failure at his home Downtown. He was 73.

After Mr. McGrath retired from the police department, he worked to revitalize the Allegheny County Retirees Association. As president of the association, Mr. McGrath challenged the county's rule allowing only active employees and not retirees to vote for or serve on the Retirement Board of Allegheny County.

He filed a lawsuit in 1990 and won, enabling retirees to vote for and become members of the board that decides their pension benefits, said Michael Louik, a lawyer who represented Mr. McGrath in his lawsuit.

Mr. McGrath won the first election in which retirees were allowed to vote, defeating four other candidates for a board seat. He went on to serve as a member, president and vice president of the board during his 10-year tenure.

"He had this amazingly inquisitive and inventive mind when it came to dealing with wrongs that he thought should be corrected," Mr. Louik said. "He was always thinking of ways to make things better and more open, particularly in terms of things that affected or benefited retirees."

Bill Gallagher, the current vice president of the Allegheny County Retirees Association and one of the elected representatives on the Retirement Board, said Mr. McGrath frequently traveled to Harrisburg to lobby for retiree benefits when he was president.

He worked tirelessly, "particularly for those people who served in lesser jobs," Mr. Gallagher said.

Mr. McGrath helped get an increase in the cost-of-living allowance for retirees passed in the Legislature, said Bruce Campbell, solicitor for the Retirement Board. Last June, state Sen. Jane Orie bestowed a Senate citation on Mr. McGrath for 20 years of service with the association.

Mr. McGrath was born in Oakland. His father died when he was 3, and his mother, unable to financially support her children, sent the youngster and one of his two older brothers to the Toner Institute for Boys in Brookline. When he was 8, Mr. McGrath moved with his family to the Terrace Village public housing complex.

At 18, Mr. McGrath enlisted in the Army and was sent to Germany in the early 1950s, where he was a tank driver for two years.

Mr. McGrath returned to Pittsburgh and soon joined the Allegheny County Police Department, working his way up from patrolman to lieutenant when he retired at age 50, after 28 years of service.

Mr. McGrath served as a commissioner in Neville Township from 2003 to 2007, during which the police force was disbanded and the township began contracting with Ohio Township for police service.

The move drew ire from many citizens, but as he explained at the time: "We haven't had enough money to fix roads or repair infrastructure, and we'll never be able to encourage business if we can't do those things. We bring in $1.2 million in taxes and we're spending $800,000 on police."

Mr. McGrath, who was of Irish descent, had a deep interest in Celtic culture. He traveled to Ireland and Scotland with his wife, Fiona McGrath, six years ago, and for several years, she said, they volunteered at Pittsburgh's Irish Festival together.

Local Irish musician Mike Gallagher said he could usually hear his friend singing loudly from his seat as he played.

"He knew all the words, especially the old rebel Irish songs," Mr. Gallagher said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. McGrath is survived by a daughter, Ann of Eagle River, Alaska; a son, Mark of Panama City, Fla.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at a time to be set. Donations can be sent to St. Mary of Mercy Red Door Fund, 202 Stanwix St., Pittsburgh 15222.

Kaitlynn Riely can be reached at or 412-263-3798.


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