Frank Balistreri, the Pittsburgh Public Schools' in-house piano technician and a former information technology executive who helped build the telephone systems of several Pittsburgh corporations, died on Wednesday. He was 53.
Mr. Balistreri had been diagnosed with lung cancer fewer than two years ago.
A Pittsburgh native who lived in Oakwood, he was known to family members and friends in the Pittsburgh chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild as a brilliant, warm man who dedicated his time -- if sometimes obsessively -- to projects and community service efforts, including refurbishing pianos to send to New Orleans churches damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
His older brother, Jim Balistreri of Rochester Hills, Mich., recalled that his brother approached all of his pursuits with "intensity," from the speed with which he learned to play the piano as a child to his dedication at overhauling the information technology systems at Alcoa and U.S. Steel, where he worked before switching careers to pursue piano-tuning full time.
Since childhood, Mr. Balistreri harbored a fascination for music and the instruments that made it. He first picked up the violin in fourth grade, quickly mastering it and then moved on to the guitar, the bass, the drums, and, of course, the piano. By the time he was a teenager, his brother said, Mr. Balistreri could play all but the horn instruments.
"He was never really interested in horn instruments," Jim explained. "I guess he wanted to be able to talk or sing while playing."
In the late '70s, Mr. Balistreri enrolled at Robert Morris University to study information technology, a degree that would propel him into a 20-year career of rebuilding the telephone systems of several major companies. Those jobs suited his meticulous nature -- he would begin by combing through a system's underlying computer code, identifying long strings of encryption that could be condensed or eliminated.
"He was excited by computers -- they were brand-new in the '80s, and they came easy to him," Jim said. "He liked trying to figure out what the issue was."
Still, throughout his career in I.T., Mr. Balistreri kept one foot in music, playing guitar on several albums produced by local bands and performing jazz piano numbers at the Shiloh Grill on Mount Washington.
"He has a natural talent. He could play any song by ear, just by listening to a song and playing it," said Randy Mangus, a friend of Mr. Balistreri's from the Piano Technicians Guild. "He was pretty much MENSA material."
About a decade ago, Mr. Balistreri turned to musical instrument repair as a full-time gig.
He was soon hired by the Pittsburgh Public School District as its full-time piano technician, tuning the district's many pianos and refurbishing old ones for continued use. He also opened his own business five years ago, Upscale Music near Oakwood Park on Noblestown Road, where he would sell fine vintage pianos and custom guitars, and offer repairs and music lessons.
He joined the Piano Technicians Guild and quickly volunteered to build the organization's first website. He was later elected guild secretary.
Musical instrument repair allowed Mr. Balistreri to pursue some of his most significant charitable projects.
In late 2005, soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana shoreline, Mr. Balistreri encouraged his Piano Technicians chapter to round up old pianos from the Pittsburgh area and refurbish them for use in New Orleans churches that had been destroyed. With a meager $2,500 budget, he publicized the effort and rounded up 25 pianos, which the Guild repaired and shipped down the Mississippi River.
In 2011, Mr. Balistreri presented Jim's son with a custom-designed guitar that bore a carved Navy Seal insignia. Jim's son had recently been named to the prestigious special forces unit, and his Uncle Frank intended to ask a famous guitarist to play it so that it could then fetch a large donation for the Navy Seals in an auction.
However, he soon grew too ill to pursue this, and his nephew inherited the guitar as his own.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Balistreri is survived by his parents, Sam and Margaret of Scott; and another brother, Tom, of Plum.
Visitation will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. today at William Slater II Funeral Service, 1650 Greentree Road, Scott, where a funeral will be held 11 a.m. Monday.
Michelle Hackman: email@example.com or at 412-263-1969.