The view from the inside of a steel mill was not to his liking, so Thomas V. Letky took a job as a streetcar operator. The change proved fortuitous, both for him and for Pittsburghers with disabilities.
Mr. Letky advanced from the trolley operator's seat at the old Pittsburgh Railways Co. to driving a bus at the newly created Port Authority in 1964. By the time of his retirement in 1998, he had risen to one of the transit agency's top posts, operations director.
He played a leading role in making public transit more accessible to disabled people and helped to establish ACCESS, now considered one of the nation's best paratransit services.
"He was well-loved in the disabled community. He knew everybody in the disabled community," said William Millar, former Port Authority CEO.
Mr. Letky, 75, of Ross, died Sunday of complications from myelofibrosis.
After growing up in McKees Rocks and graduating from high school there, he took a job in the mill and "hated it," said his son, Darren.
When he was appointed by Mr. Millar as transit operations director in 1995, Mr. Letky explained his career change. "After high school, I spent two years working in steel mills, where you couldn't look out of windows. So when I was 19, I left to work at Pittsburgh Railways Co. Streetcar windows were in front of my face, and I could watch life unfold."
In March 1969, Mr. Letky was driving a bus, working out of the Ross Garage, when he was attacked by five men who tried to rob him. Back then, bus drivers carried change. Rather than surrender the money, Mr. Letky fought the attackers, but suffered permanent muscle and nerve damage in his right hand and could not return to regular driving.
"My dad was a fighter. He never backed down from that," his son said.
After the injury, Mr. Letky worked in a seat repair and sign shop, and recalled the incident that started his managerial career. He was putting up signs explaining the features of an "ecology bus" that Port Authority displayed at the old Allegheny County Fair.
"People kept coming up and asking me questions about it. I knew the answers because I watched the mechanics put the bus together, and I asked the same questions. I was intrigued by their work," he said. He opened the engine compartment for the onlookers and was entertaining their questions when a manager approached.
"He told me to see him in his office on Monday. I thought I'd be fired," Mr. Letky said. "When I went in, he said I belonged in community relations work."
As manager of elderly, handicapped and public services, he visited senior centers and groups representing the disabled. He once spent an entire day in a wheelchair to gain perspective about what users face.
Later, he helped establish the ACCESS paratransit program, the proudest achievement of his career, according to his son.
"We had an international reputation for that program," Mr. Millar said.
"Tom was a real stalwart supporter of accessible public transportation that was available to everybody," said Lucy Spruill, director of public policy at the nonprofit Community Living and Support Services. "He was kind. He was very knowledgeable. Transit professionals trusted him and people with disabilities trusted him. That was hard to pull off."
When the first full-size accessible buses were being put into service. Mr. Letky would attend community meetings at all hours and on weekends, often bringing one of the buses so people could familiarize themselves with it. "This was an enormous social change, and he was one of the pioneers," Ms. Spruill said.
Mr. Millar said Mr. Letky loved people and was "the definition of gregarious. He developed slide shows that he would take to AARP meetings and senior centers. Long before Rick Sebak came along, he was showing pictures of old trolleys and old buildings in Pittsburgh."
After retiring from the transit agency, Mr. Letky worked part time as a host on cruise ships. He had been on a cruise and "they saw how Tom interacted with everybody and they offered him a job," Mr. Millar said.
Mr. Letky is survived by his wife, Deidre; sons Lane of Ross and Darren of Ohio Township; sisters Audrey Opperman of Rome, N.Y., and Joanne Fortun of Arizona; brother Paul of Emsworth; and three grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at O'Brien's Funeral Home, 3724 California Ave., Brighton Heights. A Mass will be celebrated at St. Cyril of Alexandria Church at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Burial will be in North Side Catholic Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions in Mr. Letky's name to www.penniesfromheavenPittsburgh.org.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868.