In his more than 13 years on the bench, District Judge Robert C. Wyda developed a reputation for his calm demeanor, his concern for young adults with substance abuse problems and his practice of treating everyone who came before him with respect.
He was also known in his public life as a commander in the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps who was called to active duty for tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay between 2003 and 2008, helping to prosecute suspected terrorists.
But among his circle of close friends, Judge Wyda, whose district served Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair, was best known as a devoted family man.
"People know him as a judge and as an active military man but as a husband and father, there really was none better. He really took that role seriously and everything centered around his family," said Vince Gastgeb, director of corporate, community and government relations for the Allegheny County Airport Authority and friend of Judge Wyda's for the past two decades.
Judge Wyda died Monday evening at his home of heart disease. He was 54.
The death shocked his friends, family and colleagues who had watched the judge fight back to full health after suffering an aortic dissection in August 2008. He experienced multiple complications from that incident, which led to three major heart surgeries, said his wife, Shannon. Still, he returned to his courtroom July 1, 2009.
Judge Wyda had a full day of hearings on Monday at his courtroom, but took time to hold a birthday celebration for a staff member and to set up a meeting with the parents of a troubled teen who asked for his help, said Bethel Park school police Officer James Modrak.
"Parents knew to call him when they had trouble with kids. He'd hand out his cell phone number to anybody and be of complete assistance to try to stop problems from becoming more serious," said Mr. Modrak, who worked with Judge Wyda as a Bethel Park police officer and later as a school police officer.
Mr. Modrak said Judge Wyda took a special interest in cases involving young adults who faced charges related to drug or alcohol problems and would have drug and alcohol counselors in the courtroom when handling those cases. The judge would offer them the opportunity to go to rehabilitation rather than jail.
"He had a role as a magistrate, but he took it a whole lot further to assist families to get young adults what they needed," Mr. Modrak said.
Judge Wyda was first elected district judge in Bethel Park in 2000. His district was later merged with Upper St. Clair, making it one of the largest magisterial districts in the county.
Richard King, who serves as district judge in Carrick and as district director for the Allegheny County Court Special Judges Association, said Judge Wyda "had a good demeanor on the bench, nothing rattled him. He always understood when people were coming into court it probably wasn't their best day."
Bethel Park Councilman Jack Allen said Judge Wyda worked well with municipal officials and had a great relationship with the municipal police departments he dealt with. "He will be hard to replace," Mr. Allen said.
Friends and colleagues described Judge Wyda as a concerned individual who never failed to ask about the well-being of others and their families. "He was genuinely concerned about other people," Judge King said.
Mr. Gastgeb and Mr. Modrak said Judge Wyda, in his role as a naval commander, annually attended the Bethel Park High School graduation ceremony to present diplomas to students entering the military. At the 2013 graduation in June, he was also able to present a diploma to his daughter, Rachel, who will be a freshman at Vanderbilt University this fall.
Judge Wyda was also a frequent speaker at high school events where in recent years he outlined his health battle and used it as an example to students to never give up hope.
Mrs. Wyda said her husband lived by that philosophy and since his recovery was moving forward with his life by teaching criminal justice classes at Community College of Allegheny County and briefly entering the primary for Superior Court, but withdrawing before the election.
Judge Wyda held a law degree from Duquesne University and before taking office in January 2000, he spent seven years as an assistant district attorney and three years as an assistant court administrator supervising the county's district courts.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by his son, Jared, and his mother, Martha, all of Bethel Park.
Visitation is from 2 to 8 p.m. today at Beinhauer Funeral Home, 2828 Washington Road, Peters, and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, when a funeral service will be held at the home. Burial is in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.