Jerry Vondas, whose graceful prose celebrated the lives of the region's Everyman in feature stories for the former Pittsburgh Press and in obituaries for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, died Tuesday. He was 83.
Mr. Vondas, of Squirrel Hill, a journalist for 45 years, was seriously injured in a traffic accident in March and died of a related infection at UPMC Passavant, McCandless.
As a young man in Hazelwood, Mr. Vondas took on the support of his parents and sisters when his father fell ill. He worked as a waiter at the Duquesne Club, Downtown, for 10 years and was a bartender while attending the University of Pittsburgh.
He joined the staff of the former North Hills News Record in 1968 and in 1971 was hired by The Pittsburgh Press as a features writer. He worked there until the newspaper closed Dec. 31, 1992. After working for the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh newspaper, Mr. Vondas joined the Tribune-Review in 1998.
For the last 15 years, he was the newspaper's feature obituary writer, chronicling the lives of the well known and the common man, giving each their dignified due. His daughter, Maria Vondas Connelly of Brookline, said she often asked her father how he could do a job so laden with sadness.
"He would say, 'This is a story about their life, not about their death. It helps people remember what they did in life and what they accomplished.' For him, he saw it as providing solace. He was able to memorialize them and to capture the human spirit with his writing talent. It's a gift to capture a person's essence. This was his calling."
Ms. Connelly said the families and friends of those he memorialized let him know in letters, calls and emails how much they appreciated his prose and empathy.
Tribune-Review managing editor Jim Cuddy said Mr. Vondas was so successful as an obituary writer because of his personality.
"He could relate to people he was talking to," Mr. Cuddy said. "He could get information without being pushy. He was always a gentleman. I think people felt he cared about them and the story they were telling him.
"He was there to talk about what people had done in their lives and not to focus on the cause of their death."
Mr. Cuddy said Tribune-Review staffers were remembering their colleague with tales.
"Everyone has a Jerry anecdote. He touched a lot of people," Mr. Cuddy said. "He was a constant in the newsroom, a fellow in his 80s still coming to work and looking forward to it. His very appearance set a standard that everyone else wanted to follow. He loved the job. He loved being part of the newsroom."
Ann Butler of Burgettstown, who was a feature writing colleague of Mr. Vondas at The Pittsburgh Press said he was well suited for the human interest stories he wrote for that newspaper because "he always saw the good in people."
Wearing his trademark tweed cap, Mr. Vondas loved going out with a photographer for a "man on the street" story. "He got such a joy out of that. He had so much enthusiasm."
Often during his tenure at the Press, he would work a day as Santa Claus at the former Kaufmann's department store, Downtown, and would write about his experience, Ms. Butler recalled.
"Jerry was one of a kind," she said. "Gosh, he was a nice man."
In 2000, the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania presented Mr. Vondas with its inaugural Service to Journalism Award for his decades of reporting excellence.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Laura Baccelli Vondas; a sister, Olga Mervosh of Gibsonia; and two grandsons.
Friends will be received at John A. Freyvogel Sons, 4900 Centre Ave., Oakland, from 6 to 8 p.m. today, and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Services will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.