Margaret Mary the adjunct professor

Her final days were difficult, but her life was well lived


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I read Daniel Kovalik's op-ed in the Sept. 18 edition of the Post-Gazette titled "Death of an Adjunct." The subject was the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor at Duquesne University, and the university's fight against the unionization of its adjuncts.

In an article appearing in the Sept. 20 edition of the Post-Gazette, Duquesne responded, claiming that Mr. Kovalik used Margaret's death to advance the agenda of the United Steelworkers and its efforts to unionize the adjuncts at Duquesne. That's a battle I'll leave to the United Steelworkers and Duquesne University.

Caught in the crossfire is Margaret, a private person, and the plights she dealt with in the finnal years of her life. Her personal and financial struggles are now part of the public record. But there is much more to her life, much more to her legacy. The real story is not the death of an adjunct, but rather the life of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

As a matter of full disclosure, I'm not the best person to write about Margaret. That would be my wife, who, like her dear friend, is a very private person. She's the one who drove Margaret to her chemo treatments at West Penn Hospital, the one who transported her to Homestead almost on a weekly basis, the one who drove her to Sherman's, her pharmacy in Munhall, the one who shopped for her, who visited her daily in the ICU unit at UPMC Mercy after her heart attack, the one who arrived at the hospice in West Penn only 10 minutes after Margaret had died, the one who ... the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Margaret was her dear friend.

Margaret was born Jan. 15, 1930. I'm told by her colleague, Sebastian Renault, that as a young girl Margaret attended St. Michael's School in Homestead. She was a member of St. Maximillian Kolbe Church, which is just a short walk from the home in which she lived for her entire life. I should add -- because she would want me to -- that Margaret was a vocal critic of the Pittsburgh Diocese and its decision to close many of the ethnic churches, a battle Margaret knew she was bound to lose.

After graduating from high school she studied stenography and became very proficient with the use of the typewriter, winning a contest, which served her well when she landed her first job as a secretary. However, after World War II ended, and recognizing that many wounded veterans returning to Homestead needed help, Margaret turned to nursing as a career.

Through the years, she also nurtured a love for literature which finally led her to Washington, D.C., and The Catholic University of America, where she eventually received a master's degree in French literature. She later pursued a Ph.D. but, during her studies, a brother, Edward, became ill. Once again Margaret rekindled her nursing skills and began to care for him. He died in 1993. An older brother, George, whom she affectionately called "Fatty," died in January of this year in California.

After graduating from Catholic University, Margaret began her teaching career at the University of Pittsburgh. Later, she became an adjunct professor at Duquesne.

Her tenure there is well documented, and I will comment no further except to say that she was a well-respected instructor. It should also be included in her record that she edited the thesis of many Ph.D. candidates while at Duquesne.

The one true love in Margaret's life was Homestead. She was born there, bred there, lived there and suffered the heart attack that eventually claimed her life on a sidewalk there while walking up a hill toward her home. She knew where every ethnic church was located in Homestead, was proud of the Homestead Works, the Homestead High Level Bridge -- now the Homestead Grays Bridge -- proud of its detail, its lamps and proud of the Grays, her hometown baseball team.

Knowing that I'm a baseball addict, about two weeks before her death Margaret gave me a DVD entitled "Josh Gibson -- The Legend Behind the Plate." One summer day when my wife and I were taking her to West Penn Hospital, I began to quiz her about the Grays. She knew them all -- Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Ray Brown, Jud Wilson and, of course, her favorite, the legend behind the plate, Josh Gibson.

As I sat at Epiphany Church on the day of Margaret's funeral, I looked beyond her spartan casket, which I believe served as a symbol of her austere life and her minimalist views. It was something I think she really wanted.

Years back, Margaret sang in the choir at St.Paul's Cathedral. I was told that the organist at her funeral service knew Margaret. He played the appropriate music for a Requiem Mass, in keeping with her wishes. A priest, her cousin, celebrated Mass, assisted by two Spiritans from Duquesne. And a choir sang -- voices singing and chanting what I believed to be Gregorian melodies -- celebrating not the death of an adjunct but rather the life of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

I know that I could have done more for Margaret -- relieving my wife of some of her responsibilities, not complaining when we went to the airport to meet Margaret after she returned from California following the death of her brother George. And I could have helped in so many other ways.

I'll leave it to others whether they could have helped more. Heaven knows, even Margaret could have helped herself more. She drew a line, and may God help anyone who dared cross it.

Safe passage, Margaret! I hope you're there to greet me when I cross over.

opinion_commentary

Francis X. Caiazza is a retired magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.


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