No matter how dire the crisis, Kenneth G. "Sonny" Baldinger remained calm, reassuring the multitude of people who called 911 during the past 26 years.
"Nothing rattled the man. Ken had the patience of an angel," said his boss and longtime colleague, Cmdr. Hank Caparelli. "He made a difference in thousands of people's lives."
Mr. Baldinger, a shift commander for Allegheny County's Emergency Services, died of cancer Thursday at his Overbrook home, one day after celebrating his 62nd birthday and less than two weeks after renewing wedding vows on Aug. 14, his 40th wedding anniversary.
Mr. Baldinger and Cmdr. Caparelli began working as emergency dispatchers for the City of Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, 1985. Fresh from a month of classes at the police academy, they were among the first civilians trained as telecommunications officers, then a new profession.
A major test of their endurance and nerves came on April 11, 1987, when two passing Conrail freight trains derailed in Bloomfield. One train carried toxic chemicals, forcing the evacuation of thousands of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville residents. The two worked 17 hours straight in the Public Safety Building that once stood on Grant Street. If an explosion had occurred, both men knew they would have to evacuate, too.
"When we were finally relieved, we were home for less than an hour and called back. The leak had started again. We put another 8- or 9-hour shift in," Cmdr. Caparelli recalled. Both men were promoted to shift supervisor in May of 1988.
When you handle emergencies on Christmas morning while most people are opening presents, Cmdr. Caparelli said, "that builds a closeness that is unmatched in any other business. Ken never raised his voice. ... He was very much a problem-solver."
Even in the midst of a crisis, he added, Mr. Baldinger showed kindness to citizens and the news media.
Mr. Baldinger grew up in Baldwin Borough and graduated from Baldwin High School in 1967. In 1971, he married his high school sweetheart, Diane Ekiert, whom he met at Kennywood Park. He worked as a dispatcher for a transportation company, then for the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie Railroad. In 1985, he became a City of Pittsburgh emergency dispatcher. In 2005, the city merged its 911 operations with Allegheny County and Mr. Baldinger became a shift commander.
While he enjoyed workplace camaraderie, Mr. Baldinger, the eldest of five children, treasured his family. Sunday suppers with Italian food were a tradition. He cooked the spaghetti and sauce; his wife made the gnocchi. Family vacations in Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head,. S.C., were another regular part of his life.
Lisa LaMolinare of Upper St. Clair said her father owned a black 1977 Corvette, "which was his other pride and joy, besides me." He often drove it to a DuBoise vacation home on Treasure Lake, a getaway he built with his brother, Bruce, in 1993. There, Mr. Baldinger drove his speed boat and his children and family members went water-skiing.
"He was a strong leader. People relied on him. He could handle anything," Mrs. LaMolinare said.
"You just couldn't help but like the guy. He was very personable, very caring. He always looked out for others," said Bernie Roskov of Franklin Park, Mr. Baldinger's brother-in-law.
Mr. Baldinger also took an annual trip with his brothers and Mr. Roskov, often to Las Vegas. He also maintained a camp in Elk County, where he hunted for deer.
On Sept. 13, 2007, the Baldingers lost their 33-year-old son, Mark, who was killed in a car accident while traveling to Timber Oaks, a horse stable in South Park. The family donated his horse, Harley, to MARK's SMILE, a foundation that teaches equestrian skills to children with special needs at Slippery Rock University.
Besides his wife and daughter, Mr. Baldinger is survived by a sister, Cindy Nolfi of Hopewell; and two brothers, Bruce of Baldwin Borough; Jeffrey of Whitehall.
Friends may call today from noon to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Cieslak & Tatko Funeral Home, Brentwood. Public safety employees will pay their respects at 7 p.m. today in a special ceremony. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Wendelin Church.
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.