Obituary: Sean Malley / 'Like this piece of gold that you want to hold onto'
Sean Malley is shown at an aquatic therapy class in the swimming pool at the Allegheny Valley School in Robinson on Aug. 25, 2009.
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When Sean Malley was born with Down syndrome in 1959, his parents refused doctors' advice to institutionalize him and raised him to do everything that other children did, despite predictions that he wouldn't live to be 25. When Mr. Malley passed away Sunday at age 53, he had achieved communitywide popularity for his enthusiastic devotion to Shaler sports teams.
The cheerful extrovert had worked at an auto parts store and had a wide circle of friends who included him in all of their activities, whether that was water skiing or club-hopping.
"My best friends became Sean's friends, and he became a big part of their lives," said his nephew, Marc Voit of North Park. "I was talking with one of them today who told me that every single one of us who had a chance to be around him is a better parent, a better individual. He had a love and a joy that was always present, and tremendous loyalty to his friends."
When he was born his parents vowed to raise him as they had his sisters. His mother, Clara, looked after him at home while his father, Ralph, became his advocate in the outside world. Both parents are deceased.
Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality that causes delays in physical and intellectual development and is often associated with other medical problems. The average lifespan of people with Down syndrome is now 55.
"His father was a tremendous guy and introduced Sean to everything. He acted as if he had no disability whatsoever," said Todd Luniewski of Deer Lakes, a lifelong friend.
He attended the St. Anthony School for Exceptional Children in Oakmont until he was 18, continuing another three years in a different program. When he graduated, his father resisted the idea of employment in a sheltered workshop and brought him into a family auto parts business as a stock clerk. When Malley's Auto Parts was sold to a NAPA dealer, part of the deal was that Mr. Malley would continue in employment there.
"He would clean up, he would walk parts over to local repair shops that were in walking distance. He was also like a greeter at the store. Sean was a cornerstone of the operation," Mr. Voit said. He loved his job and couldn't be dissuaded from going to work even when he had an offer of a favorite pastime.
"I can't. NAPA is short-handed," Mr. Voit recalled him saying on many occasions.
But he had a rich and varied social life outside of work.
Born to a sport-loving family, he was an avid participant in the Special Olympics, where he won a state title in swimming, said his sister Kathleen Splane of Cranberry. He was an equally avid participant in dances held by TRY, a church-based social network for adults with intellectual disabilities. But he was also extremely active in the mainstream sports and social scenes, where he was quickly accepted as a well-liked peer.
Many of his relatives played sports at Shaler Area High School, where the football and baseball coaches welcomed his presence on the sidelines. During the 1980s and 1990s he sang the national anthem at basketball games and became something of a football mascot, regularly leading the team onto the field. He traveled with the football team to away games, riding the Titans' bus. After the school district raised liability concerns, his father drove him.
Mr. Luniewski played hockey, "and Sean would give the pre-game pep talk before we entered the locker room," he said.
The Pirates were his favorite professional team. During baseball season he religiously wore the shirt of his favorite player, Jason Kendall, for luck.
None of his relatives could recall anyone being unkind to him. Ms. Splane said her husband once took him into a biker bar and worried about how the regular patrons would receive him. "They all ended up loving Sean. When they left the bikers were saying goodbye to him, not to my husband," she said.
His young adult nephews and friends took him to college parties and dance clubs. He loved to dance, especially to oldies music, and had no trouble getting women to dance with him.
"He would be the first to introduce himself to all the girls," Mr. Voit said. "People wanted to spend time with him. Everyone he was involved with saw something special in him. He was like this piece of gold that you want to hold onto."
He had a gift for making others feel good about themselves, Mr. Luniewski said.
"He was always happy. He was always positive. He was always an optimist about everything. If you were having a bad day, go see Sean. He showed you why you weren't having such a bad day," he said.
People didn't feel sorry for him because there was no reason to. "His life wasn't limited at all," Mr. Luniewski said.
He lived with his parents until 2003. When their health failed, he moved in with Ms. Splane, a nurse who had always helped to care for him and who had his power of attorney. He lived with her family until 2008, when dementia forced him to stop working and required a move into the Allegheny Valley School in Robinson. A 2009 photograph with a Post-Gazette story on the Terrible Towel's funding of the school showed the former state swim champ participating in aquatic therapy. More recently he had been unable to move or speak and was likely unaware that his favorite season, Christmas, was arriving.
He is at peace now, family members said.
"Everything has a purpose. People grow the most when they face adversity. You see that some of the most successful people in the world have faced the most challenges," Mr. Voit said. "There is no doubt that God put Sean on this Earth to make other people better. He did. He literally changed hundreds and hundreds of lives."
In addition to Ms. Splane, he is survived by a sister, Patricia Voit of North Park.
Friends will be received Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 9 p.m. in Worrell Funeral Home, Sharpsburg. A Mass will be celebrated Friday at 10 a.m. in St. Joseph Catholic Church, O'Hara.
Gifts may be made to TRY Special Needs Inc., P.O. Box 40, Wexford, PA 15090 or the Allegheny County School, 1992 Ewings Mill Road, Coraopolis, PA 15108.
First Published December 25, 2012 12:00 am