The Ravenstahls: Just a couple of 20-somethings
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Bob Donaldson, Post-GazettePittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his wife, Erin, in their home in the Summer Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh's North Side.
When Luke Ravenstahl pulled his black city-issue Chevrolet Impala up to his Summer Hill home last Sunday, the news media had already taken the two available spaces in his driveway.
He took it in stride, parking on the street, and he and wife, Erin, walked up past four plastic jack-o'-lanterns on the steps, into the house they too rarely get to share these days.
The drive to and from church that preceded this encounter was a rare moment of waking privacy for the two 26-year-olds since Mayor Bob O'Connor's death on Sept. 1 and Mr. Ravenstahl's succession.
"It's been full speed ahead ever since," he said. First, there was a week dominated by Mr. O'Connor's funeral, then another in the national spotlight as America's youngest big-city mayor, then a budget deadline and now a whirl of events that may be mere prelude to an all-out mayoral campaign.
The first casualty may be their fish.
"We're getting rid of them," Mrs. Ravenstahl said of the four freshwater fish in the aquarium that burbled away in their dining room. "He wanted them, and I didn't. And now he doesn't have any time to take care of them."
Picture yourself at 26. Now add responsibility for 3,200 employees, a $429 million budget and the image of a city of 317,000.
Daunting? If the pressure is getting to the Ravenstahls, they do a good job of hiding it.
He's preternaturally calm. Put him in a room full of reporters asking tough questions about the Penguins' future in Pittsburgh, as he was Thursday and he doesn't break a sweat.
She strikes a charming balance, not shy but far short of extroverted, and refreshingly open about the challenges of being a public spouse. Faced with the nerve-wracking prospect of accompanying her husband on a Sept. 14 trip to New York to go on the "Late Show with David Letterman," she "was stressing a little bit the night before," she said. "What am I going to wear?"
But once there, she balanced the role of tourist -- buying a "Late Show" mug for herself and a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex for Mr. Letterman's child -- with the duties of a hostess, sharing a crowded dressing room and their CBS-provided fruit plate with the media horde.
Those who know the young couple well say their family backgrounds, staid demeanors and attachment to each other will help them endure the pressures of public life.
"They're truly what you see," said Bud Beatty, 47, a longtime friend of the couple's who, like many in their circle, is a generation older. "They're honest people. There's no sugar coating."
Nine years ago, Luke Robert Ravenstahl and Erin Lynn Feith were starting to date during their senior year at North Catholic High School. She was from Spring Hill, he from Observatory Hill.
"He was president of the class," she boasted. "I was definitely not the honor student."
"I used to do her homework for her," he said. She denied that, saying he just helped now and then.
They were united by a reserved approach to social life -- neither was a big partyer -- and a love of sports. She was the catcher on the girls softball team and a big Steelers fan.
"She used to be a bigger sports fan" then than now, he said, "before I drove her over the edge."
He was the Trojans' star second baseman, "never really a long-ball hitter," according to his then-coach, Tim Banner. He was, nonetheless, able to reach deep and smack a game-winning home run in a stunning playoff win over North Allegheny.
"I think baseball taught him a lot about keeping on an even keel," Mr. Banner said. "If you don't keep your cool, you get in trouble.
"He had a boyish side to him once in a while, but he was mature," Mr. Banner said. "Wherever he was, I didn't have to worry about anything going wrong."
In college, Mr. Ravenstahl, a defensive back at North Catholic, opted for football. He kicked at Mercyhurst College, tried to make it as a walk-on at the University of Pittsburgh, then settled in at Washington and Jefferson College.
"He was a very good kicker," said former Steeler John Banaszak, then coach at W&J, now at Robert Morris University. "The tougher the kick, or if you were in a situation where time was running out ... he thrived on that."
After big games, the guys would go out, and, sometimes, they "let it loose a bit," Mr. Banaszak said, but his kicker never got in trouble. "He was a role model student athlete."
He graduated with honors and a bachelor's degree in business administration.
He kept in touch with his roots, coaching baseball at North Catholic. He worked summer jobs for the post office, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the city controller's office.
While he went to school, she worked, first as a bank teller, then an accounting secretary.
Mrs. Ravenstahl said going to beauty school was "something I always thought about, even in high school," so she enrolled in the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy. She worked in a series of salons before settling at Allure Hair Designs and Mini Spa, where she has worked for nearly two years.
"She's one of our top stylists," said Tami McCleary, co-owner of Allure. "She has a true talent for it."
Ms. McCleary said she didn't mind that her stylist needs some evenings off to attend her husband's events, and sometimes ducks into the back room to take calls from reporters. The Ravenstahls' political adventures are the talk of the spa.
Always the captain
It all started early in 2003, when Mr. Beatty, who had been athletic director at North Catholic, suggested that Mr. Ravenstahl run for City Council. It wasn't exactly a stretch. His dad is District Judge Robert P. Ravenstahl, and his grandfather was a state legislator.
The young Mr. Ravenstahl won, upending the incumbent, fellow Democrat Barbara Burns. He and his then-fiance bought their three-bedroom house late that year and have since added siding, replaced carpets and redone the kitchen.
At his Jan. 5, 2004, swearing in, he called it one of the biggest days of his life, but predicted it would be overshadowed by his wedding day seven months later. Bob and Judy O'Connor attended the wedding, cementing a friendship that would prove pivotal.
When the council presidency opened last year, he made a bid, with Mr. O'Connor's blessing. Some on council thought it presumptuous that someone so young and new to government would seek the post.
It was a characteristic move, said Brad Ravenstahl, 25, the mayor's brother. "He was always the team captain, and everyone always knew that he would make the big play."
At the time, no one guessed how big that play would be. When Mr. O'Connor died of brain cancer after a two-month hospitalization, the council president became mayor.
The couple was at a North Catholic football game when he got word of Mr. O'Connor's death. They sneaked out, then went Downtown to face a throng of reporters in the mayor's conference room.
His face was a mixture of pain and excitement as he accepted a letter offering him the mayor's job. It was a portrait of stoicism a half hour later, when he took the oath to serve, read a short statement honoring Mr. O'Connor and hugged his wife and his mother, Cindy.
"Going into a crowd of reporters like that was pretty intense. I didn't know there would be so many crowded into that little room," Erin Ravenstahl said. "I kept thinking that I had to be strong, for Luke."
Five weeks later, that's still her focus. Last Sunday's schedule included church at Holy Wisdom Parish, a lengthy media interview, a Catholic school principal's retirement party, a spaghetti dinner on Mount Washington and Italian Days in Bloomfield.
At 26 years old, they can no longer simply get into the car and go somewhere. That trip to morning Mass was the first time the mayor had driven himself anywhere in a week. He now usually rides with his police driver. The administration urges him to keep security with him on most trips, he said.
"You can't just run over the hill to the store and get a carton of milk," he said. "I'm a lot more recognizable, and that's probably what's been the hardest."
For Erin Ravenstahl, the toughest thing has been seeing less of her husband. During the week, they hardly see each other in daylight unless there's an evening event she can attend.
"I'm [at work] most of the time before 8 a.m.," the mayor said. "I generally don't get home until at least ... "
"Nine," his wife said. That doesn't leave much time for chores. "I called Bud Beatty and said, 'This is all your fault. You should come over and take out my garbage.' "
She's not entirely comfortable with the limelight. At swank events, she says, she's "usually in the corner," talking with someone she knows.
Mrs. Ravenstahl is great with people but doesn't seek fame, said Cookie Beatty, Bud's wife and a longtime friend of the mayor's wife. "She just is not really used to getting so much attention, and so many people talking about them," she said.
Mr. Ravenstahl knew that as a politician he'd be under the microscope and crazy busy, but he couldn't have guessed just how frenetic life would get this soon.
"I didn't anticipate the increased invites and demands for appearances," he said.
The crowning indignity?
"I had to hire a young guy from up the street to cut my grass," he said, adding that he had vowed never to foist on another his sacred duty as a homeowner. "I couldn't find an hour to do it."
Friday night is still family night. They go to North Catholic football games. North is coached by his father and Erin Ravenstahl's brother, Zachary Feith, is a sophomore lineman for the team.
Trips to the Ravenstahl family's Conneaut Lake retreat are out for a while. So are movies, except maybe on DVD. His favorites are 1993's "Rudy" about Notre Dame football player Daniel E. Ruettiger, and 1986's "Hoosiers," about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship.
Also on hold is any thought of children.
"Our family, really mostly Luke's family, would love us to have kids right away," she said. "We've never been in a big hurry." His rise to mayor reinforced that wait-and-see approach.
They both know that the pressure will only intensify when he runs for the post. The Allegheny County Board of Elections is expected to announce this month whether the mayor will be on the ballot next year or in 2009.
Will all the attention change them? "Not one bit," Brad Ravenstahl predicted.
The couple went to his house for the Sept. 18 "Monday Night Football" game between the Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars. Brad wanted to show off the Letterman interview, but Luke wanted none of it. "He was like, 'Aww, we don't have to see that.' "
"It really hasn't gone to her head," said Ms. McCleary, the mayor's wife's boss. "A new client said, 'What does your husband do?' And she said, 'Oh, he works for the city.' "
First Published October 8, 2006 12:00 am