Joe Zyra's love for longtime wife was no everyday affair

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When I explained to a colleague what I intended to write, he asked for a heads-up on the publication date so he could hide this column from his wife.

"I don't want her to know about this,'' he said.

Indeed, I'm a bit wary myself. Joe Zyra, who died last month at 92, made pretty much every other husband in the world look slack. For more than six decades, every day of his married life, Mr. Zyra wrote a love note to his wife.

His death left Mary Jane a widow at 89 and ended the morning tradition that dated to the late 1940s. Take this excerpt from his note on their 50th wedding anniversary:

"... To me you are everything. I never thought that I could be the happiest person in the world. I am. And you are the reason. Every morning I can't wait until I see you again. I am always thinking about you. I love you dearly ... "

A grandniece of the Zyras had told me of his writing habit a while ago. I regret now that I never met him, but she put me in touch with his son, Gary, the district judge in Scott and the third of the Zyras' seven children. (There are now 20 grandchildren and one great grandchild.)

I talked with Gary, 59, and his mother in her apartment in the Broadmore Senior Living Center in Bridgeville last week. Mrs. Zyra, who doesn't hear well anymore and gets around in a wheelchair, left it to her son to tell much of the love story.

Growing up in Scott, he and his siblings never thought their father's notes were any big deal. They'd find one waiting in the kitchen each morning, sitting on the table or taped to the wall, but it was no more of a surprise than the box of Cheerios. As they got older, though, they realized this wasn't the way most husbands behaved.

Gary carried with him a box of the love notes that his sister Mary had saved.

"Precious,'' one began seven years ago. "I was asked this question: What would you rather have?

"1. $1,000,000

"2. Cadillac car

"3. A mansion

"4. Another $1,000,000

"5. A beautiful, wonderful, loving precious, super red hair/freckle-faced wife.

"I chose No. 5.''

Mrs. Zyra recalled how they met. She was a nurse at Mercy Hospital in the late 1940s, and this Joe Zyra character was admitted because he had been driving with his arm hanging over the window when another car sideswiped his car and his arm.

She couldn't recall the extent of the injury, but she could still recite his rap.

"He said, 'When I leave here, I'm taking you with me,' " she said. "Well, they all say that.''

Ah, but this man wasn't kidding. Their first date was a baseball game at Forbes Field. She was already a Pirates fan, and Mr. Zyra impressed her by getting the great slugger Ralph Kiner to visit the hospital. He'd made that connection through his friend Frankie Gustine, the Pirates third baseman who owned Mr. Zyra's favorite Oakland bar.

She was Mary Jane Conner then, living in an Irish enclave in Homewood, and had never tasted a pierogi. This was a time when an Irish woman marrying a Polish man could still create a mild stir, but their parents waved off neighbors' suggestions to break up this romance. They married Dec. 29, 1948.

He made his living driving a semi for Lockhart Iron and Steel in McKees Rocks. As newlyweds, they lived above Sharkey's bar in Heidelberg, but they ultimately made a home in Scott, not far from where he grew up in Carnegie.

"I wasn't pretty or anything,'' she lied. (The old photo of her in her Army nurse's uniform evinced her quiet beauty.) "He liked me right away.''

Decades later, there'd be a photo of the two of them, with her wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Pray For Me, My Husband is Polish'' and him wearing one that pleaded "Pray For Me, My Wife Is Irish.'' But they were made for each other, as he knew from the start. In a note years ago, he recalled their Manhattan honeymoon:

"When I sat with you in Billy Rose's club, I said to myself, 'I can't believe I have you!!!' I said to myself, 'Yes you have her but you must love her every day if you want to keep her ... Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Bette Davis and all the beautiful ladies in the world in one person, you!!!

"I was crazy about you from Day 1 to today -- love ya, Sweets -- JS."

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette or 412-263-1947.


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