Obituary: John David Wargo / He pursued varied interests with passion
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Many people cut a wide swath through this Pittsburgh part of the world, but not many cut it wider, or with more generosity, skill and style than did John David Wargo.
Diverse understates the resume of the Duquesne native, who made headlines and friends as the owner of the nationally famous Voodoo Lounge in the Strip District from 1998 through 2004, but was also an accomplished artist, chef, boxer, bodybuilder, karate black belt and swimmer, as well as a gallery owner, welder, professional bodyguard, entrepreneur and father.
Mr. Wargo, 63, died Friday night at his home on Washington's Landing. The cause was esophageal cancer, which was first diagnosed last summer after he developed a sore arm pitching batting practice to his son's Little League team. An examination found the cancer had already spread through his body.
The best known of Mr. Wargo's accomplishments was the Voodoo Lounge, a unique bar and restaurant where rows and rows of motorcycle chrome were often on display out front, along Penn Avenue, but bar stools were as likely to be filled by bankers as bikers. Mr. Wargo's custom-made "chopper" motorcycle, which he built himself, was the centerpiece inside the bar.
"He was a visionary person, an entrepreneur at heart," said Mr. Wargo's wife, Amy, who met her husband at the bar and later worked as a bartender there. "Some of his visions were radical, some were wise, like the Voodoo. He did that on a shoestring, and little by little it became this iconic place in Pittsburgh."
Some of those who came to the Voodoo came for the food, some to watch Mr. Wargo cook. In 2001 he was among the finalists in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reader's poll for "Pittsburgh's Sexiest Chef."
"He had these giant muscles and tattoos and he was right out front," said Ms. Wargo, who entered her husband's name in the contest. "He liked the fact that people could watch him cook. Cooking was like a science to him. He was clean and made healthy food -- a carryover from his bodybuilding. It was all cooked on a hardwood grill. Nothing was fried."
Mr. Wargo generated some controversy when he applied for and was granted a zoning change to allow him to open a strip club in the backroom of the Voodoo in 2003. He sold the bar and restaurant a year later.
During those Voodoo years, Mr. Wargo also blocked off Penn Avenue on the last Sunday of every month in the summer to hold a "Hog Roast and Block Party," with outdoor beer vendors, a live band and barbecue that attracted 4,000 people or more, including movie star Robert Downey Jr.
Mr. Wargo was also friends with Ben Roethlisberger, who lived on Washington's Landing after joining the Steelers and also had a motorcycle.
"They both liked bikes and they found each other on the island. They would ride around together. Ben would come over for steaks, which John would cook just like he did down at the lounge," Ms. Wargo said.
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy Jr. -- who helped spearhead the reclamation and development of Washington's Landing, two miles up the Allegheny River from the Point -- remembers running on the island and stopping by Mr. Wargo's sprawling, 5,000 square-foot townhouse at the foot of the island.
"He was one of those characters of Pittsburgh who really loved the city," Mr. Murphy said. "He was an upbeat guy about Pittsburgh and what was going on around the town."
Mr. Wargo, like many Pittsburgh-area kids of his era, went straight from high school into the U.S. Steel Co. mill down the street. By age 18 he had already risen to "monkey boss" at the blast furnace, overseeing the movement of molten steel from the furnace to where it was formed into ingots. He became a welder and a member of Boilermakers Local Union 154 and later worked for the city of Pittsburgh at the Schenley Park Skating Rink and as a lifeguard at the Oliver Bath House on the South Side.
"He was on the high school swim team and swam like a shark," said his brother, Paul Wargo of Ross. "While a lifeguard, I remember, he saved several lives, including mine."
Mr. Wargo, who boxed as a kid growing up in Duquesne, ran his own boxing gym, the Tiger Boxing Club in Swissvale, where he was a boxing instructor. He later became a boxing promoter who staged matches in Heaven, a Downtown nightclub, and was a boxing judge for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. His brother said Mr. Wargo took up Chinese boxing and earned a black belt from the Academy of Chinese Boxing in Wilkinsburg, and became a bodybuilder who could bench press more than 400 pounds and set state records.
Both brothers were accomplished artists, with the late Mr. Wargo specializing in realistic paintings of the big African cats and drawing of ancient Egyptian animals and hieroglyphics. They ran a gallery on Carson Street in the South Side from 1978 to 1981 and then one on the corner of Craig Street and Forbes Avenue in Oakland from 1982 to 1985.
Mr. Wargo earned a criminal justice degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1990, at the age of 42, then graduated from the Allegheny County Police Academy. He was too old to attend the State Police Academy, so he started his own security company and became the personal bodyguard for David Roderick, U.S. Steel Corp. chairman and chief executive officer.
In recent years he opened the Babylon Restaurant on 32nd Street but sold that last year.
Ms. Wargo said her husband was proudest of his children, John Paul, 8, and Ava, 5.
"They were his greatest achievement," Mrs. Wargo said. "He became a father later in life, but he was good at it, dedicated to it. And I knew he would be. He always pursued everything with such passion."
In addition to his wife, children and brother, Mr. Wargo is survived by his mother, Ethel K. Wargo, and a sister, Nancy Wargo, both of Ross.
Visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. today at Maloy-Schleifer Funeral Home, 915 Kennedy Ave., Duquesne. Burial is private. Donations may be sent to the John Wargo Memorial Fund for his surviving children at any PNC Bank branch.
First Published March 4, 2013 12:00 am