Obituary: Daniel A. Pietragallo Sr. / Advocate for low-income residents, headed city housing agency
Jan. 4, 1925 - April 17, 2013
April 20, 2013 4:00 AM
Daniel A. Pietragallo Sr.
By Gary Rotstein Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Daniel A. Pietragallo Sr. called it "a lifelong dream come true" when he was sworn in to his high-level position with the city of Pittsburgh on March 17, 1977.
As executive director of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, a role he would relish for the next 12 years, it meant Mr. Pietragallo dealt with issues of poverty, crime, drugs, racism, bureaucracy, politics and other potential roadblocks to efforts to raise the standard of living for public housing residents. His tenure ended in controversy over his political fundraising activities while running the agency, but it was a rare day when that or any other challenge would hamper his enthusiasm.
"He had an amazing ability to interact positively with people and get things done," said Bruce Campbell, who was Mayor Pete Flaherty's executive secretary at the time Mr. Pietragallo was appointed. "His was a sparkling personality that made everyone feel good, made everyone feel important -- he never complained about anything."
Mr. Pietragallo, a former Highland Park resident, died Wednesday in the Oakland apartment he shared with his second wife, Christine. He had had multiple strokes recently, but he was in good health for most of his 88 years.
He was so vigorous late in life that then-Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty employed him as an adviser and government liaison for most of his eight-year tenure that ended in January 2012. Mr. Flaherty said everyone assumed Mr. Pietragallo was far younger than his actual age, and everyone seemed to remember his government service that dated to the early 1960s.
"I can remember during my first week or two in office when we'd go to lunch, and we couldn't go down the street without 10 people running into Dan and wanting to talk to him," Mr. Flaherty recalled. "I said to him, 'Boy, I don't know who the elected official is here -- me or you.' "
Mr. Pietragallo had no connection to the government or political worlds while growing up in a blue-collar family in the East End. After graduating from Central Catholic High School, he went into the Army Air Forces in 1943, becoming a gunner on a B-24 bomber flying combat missions over Germany and Italy.
After the war, he married his high school sweetheart, Emily, who was his wife for more than 50 years before preceding him in death. She suffered from lupus, and he was a devoted caregiver for her after he left the housing authority in 1990.
Mr. Pietragallo started on the lower rungs of the authority in 1961 after obtaining a business administration degree from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s and trying several other jobs. He found government work most to his liking and spent most of the 1960s as manager of the authority's East Liberty office and 1970-77 as director of its relocation office.
Mr. Campbell said he was won over by Mr. Pietragallo during their first interaction, when he saw him efficiently handle new housing for a family that a government project had forced out of its prior residence.
"That was a time when getting things done was not a hallmark of City Hall," Mr. Campbell said. "It became obvious he was the guy at the housing authority who knew how to get things done. He was the person who could not only get things done effectively, but without getting people upset."
So there was no public dissent in 1977 at Mr. Pietragallo's promotion. With buoyant, back-slapping demeanor, he reshaped an agency that had numerous troubles with its finances, physical structures, employee morale and tenant relations.
During most of his tenure, the housing authority received high marks for administration from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for which it relied for most of its funding, and for openness to the leaders of tenants councils.
Mr. Pietragallo, sensitive to the image of the low-income residents he interacted with, made it a point to remove all references to public housing as the "projects" because of the associated negative connotation. He always called them "communities" and praised the efforts of their residents, regardless of the problems that other citizens connected to the mostly black, isolated neighborhoods they never visited such as St. Clair Village, Allequippa Terrace and Northview Heights.
By the late 1980s, the agency had nearly 10,000 housing units and 30,000 residents, with a $30 million annual budget.
Mr. Pietragallo reported to a mayoral-appointed board, and his relationship with one member -- former city council President Ben Woods -- led to his downfall. The councilman was successfully prosecuted on corruption charges in 1989, and Mr. Pietragallo sought and obtained a grant of immunity from his own prosecution before testifying about campaign fundraising he had done on Woods' behalf.
Mr. Pietragallo was never charged with criminal wrongdoing, and his explanation for seeking the protection was that he may have unintentionally violated the federal Hatch Act while pursuing contributions from housing authority employees and one of its contractors. Regardless, negative publicity led to a revamping of the agency, and he was pressured to resign. Further controversy surrounded a $43,500 retirement bonus he had already been awarded before the outgoing authority board voted on it publicly.
Mr. Pietragallo's son, William, a lawyer, subsequently recruited his father to work as a public relations specialist for his law firm. He worked in that position until Mr. Flaherty hired him in the county controller's office.
William Pietragallo, of Shadyside, said his father kept looking forward, retaining a zeal for work after his 1990 departure from the housing authority. "He said, 'I had a great run, and I think it's time to move on.' ... He always had a positive attitude. For him, the cup was always half full."
Dan Pietragallo volunteered for numerous community activities over the years, serving as a board member of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, the Asbury Heights Foundation, the North Side Geriatric Council, the Columbus Day Parade Committee, the Pittsburgh Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame and the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the Lupus Foundation.
Honoring his service to public housing, the Daniel A. Pietragallo Carrick Regency is a city-owned apartment complex that was named for him during his tenure.
In addition to his wife, Christine, and son, William, he is survived by two other sons, Louis of Mt. Lebanon and Daniel of Penn Hills; one daughter, MaryAnn Anderson of Long Beach, Calif; 13 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today at St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Lupus Foundation, 100 W. Station Square Drive, Pittsburgh 15219.