More of The Next Page: Pittsburgh superheroes, then and now

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Joe Magarac was an imaginary folk hero from Pittsburgh who was to steelmaking what Paul Bunyan was to timber. Steelmaking and other manufacturing remains important to Pittsburgh, and hard work remains highly valued, but we wondered what a modern-day Joe Magarac might look like, a folk hero who represents other types of workers the region will need to thrive in the 21st century.

So please let us tell you about Joe Magarac -- and introduce you to Adisa O'Leary.


Joe was of eastern European stock and worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. His physical power and his courageous, giving and industrious character made Joe the greatest steelworker who ever lived.

In fact, Joe was made of steel, born in an iron mine and raised in a furnace. Some versions of his story said Joe was 7 feet tall. Others claimed he was as tall as a smokestack! He ate hot steel like soup and cold ingots like meat.

Mighty Joe could do the work of 29 men because he never slept, working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He stirred vats of hot steel with his bare hands. He made train rails by squeezing molten steel between his fingers.

Joe was generous, self-sacrificing and brave. Once, for example, he won a weight-lifting contest and the prize was marrying the mill boss' daughter Mary. But Mary was in love with Pete Pussick. Instead of claiming his prize, Joe stepped aside so she could marry her true love.

Joe regularly saved steelworkers from danger. When a crane holding a ladle with 50 tons of molten steel broke above his crew, he caught it with his bare hands. A whole train of ingot-buggies broke loose and headed full steam downhill toward a group of workers. In the nick of time, Joe caught the last buggy and pulled the train back up the hill, saving everyone!

No one is sure what happened to Joe. In one version of his story, he jumped into a Bessemer converter to save a load of steel and lives on in the girders of a building or bridge. Another version claims he is still alive, waiting in an abandoned mill for the day that the furnace burns again.


Adisa is "Cabalasian," like Tiger Woods -- part Caucasian, part black, part Asian. She speaks seven languages, led the Pitt women's volleyball team to a national championship and employs her Ph.D. in microbiology to cure disease and create renowned works of art based on the structure, movement and chemical make-up of microorganisms.

Adisa was born in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, emerging in molten glass from the furnace of the Pittsburgh Glass Center (her name means "one who is clear" in the Yoruba language of Africa) and shaped by the hands and imagination of a 14-year-old girl. Adisa came to life upon her graduation from Pittsburgh's Neighborhood Academy and acceptance into London's Royal Academy of Art.

Brilliant and loving, Adisa travels the world on gossamer wings, dropping in on collaborators to find cures for cancer, heart disease and the common cold. Along the way, she gathers the latest medical research to inform her paintings, sculptures and collages; mentors young children in science and the arts, and plays pickup games of volleyball. She is credited with saving millions of lives, not only by conquering diseases but also by firing the imaginations of young people so that they, too, can lead economically rewarding lives of purpose and joy.

Adisa is fabulously wealthy, earning millions from the patents she owns and the artwork she sells, but she gives hardly a thought to herself. She lives in an efficiency apartment, buys her clothes at thrift stores, grows her own food in a backyard garden and gives virtually all of her money to charity.

It is said that after Adisa dies, her spirit again will inhabit an endearing work of art crafted by the hands of a child, and she will come to life once again.

The Joe Magarac story is adapted from the website of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association ( ). The story of Adisa O'Leary is by Greg Victor, oped/Forum editor of the Post-Gazette ( ).


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