There are rags-to-riches stories, and then there's Charles H. Shelton Jr.'s rubbish to ribbon-cutting rise.
Known as "Buddy," Mr. Shelton saw his father toil as a garbage man in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. So when he found himself doing the same after serving during the Korean War, he earned a landscaping associate degree from Penn State University. He became the first African-American to be certified by Allegheny County in its program for minorities in business and formed Shelton Landscaping in 1967.
Three decades, numerous sculpted landscapes of new and restored buildings and many compliments at ribbon-cutting ceremonies later, his company won the contract to landscape the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, capping a remarkable career for Mr. Shelton, who retired in 2005.
"He called it persistence," said Mr. Shelton's nephew, Kenneth Ross of Highland Park. "He would not be denied."
"He felt he could do more in his life than that, and strove to do what he felt was right for his family," said his widow, Norma. "He stepped out on faith." They were married Feb. 21, 1997.
Mr. Shelton died at his home from complications from prostate cancer. He was 78.
Born Oct. 24, 1931, and raised in the Hill District, Mr. Shelton attended Fifth Avenue High School, graduating in 1950. He joined the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic, primarily serving in Greenland, until 1953. The experience inspired him to later take up the hobby of flying Cessnas.
But when he got back to Pittsburgh, he also abruptly returned to Earth.
"Being a garbage man for the City of Pittsburgh was one of the few jobs available when he got back," said Mr. Ross, who worked with Mr. Shelton. "He said that Pittsburgh is one of the few cities that worked humans harder than animals. This was before the packing trucks [existed]. They carried rubbish on their backs."
But Mr. Shelton's drive would not stand for that.
"He went after the American dream," said Mr. Ross. "He wanted to be what he wanted to be."
"At first he just started cutting grass in the neighborhood," said Mrs. Shelton. "As he got more customers he got more comfortable in what he was doing and eventually got contracts." Mr. Shelton's company went from three workers and maintenance jobs in the '60s to more than 10 employees and contracts for building and designing landscapes. The company landscaped many projects, including the downtown of Washington, Pa.; Peabody and Langley high schools; Port Authority projects and many more.
From his landscaping work, Mr. Shelton also realized his artistic talents, and after taking a few courses at the Carnegie Museum of Art, he later became its first African-American art instructor, said Mr. Ross. "He taught beginning drawing and painting to children, college and adults."
In addition to his nephew and his wife, Mr. Shelton is survived by daughter Kellie Shelton of Silver Spring, Md.; stepchildren Ron Paiva of the Hill District and Lisa Moran of Wilkinsburg; sister Betty Cunningham of the Hill District; and grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at West Funeral Home, 2215 Wylie Ave., Hill District.
Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .