Editorial: Favorite son / In Bob O'Connor, the city lost more than a mayor
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Mayor Robert E. O'Connor Jr. was his formal title and name, but even in untimely death it seems too pretentious. The people knew him as Bob, a Pittsburgh original, as friendly and straightforward as the city where he lived and died ... the city of Pittsburgh that now comes together to mourn him.
The passing of Bob O'Connor is so freighted with irony and disappointment that calling it tragic doesn't convey the full measure of sadness. If Mr. O'Connor were a literary scholar instead of a man of the people, you might more easily call it Shakespearean in its abundant pathos. Instead, let us call it simply a crying shame.
By any reckoning, this is a cruel ending to an appealing story of growth, perseverance and eventual success. Here was a son of the city who grew up in Greenfield, attended local schools and worked in the steel mills before rising to a management position in the fast-food business.
Blessed by an affable nature, Mr. O'Connor had a sincerity and commitment to doing good for people regardless of creed or color -- qualities that led him to a political life on Pittsburgh City Council, where he served honorably for a dozen years as a member, the last four as president.
Twice Mr. O'Connor battled Mayor Tom Murphy, his greatest political rival, for the Democratic nomination for the city's top job, the last time in 2001 when the incumbent won the primary by just 699 votes. When Mayor Murphy was overwhelmed by the city's near-bankruptcy and other woes and decided not to run for a fourth term in 2005, Mr. O'Connor seemed the obvious choice of fate. He won the primary easily and romped home in the general election.
The third time was supposed to be the charm -- and for six months it was. For all the concerns of his earlier critics, Mayor O'Connor proved in short order that nobody was better suited to lead Pittsburgh at this moment in its history. With city operations under the limiting eye of two fiscal watchdogs, others might have contented themselves to sit back in their offices and not do much.
Mayor O'Connor was not one to sit back in an office. He took his smile and handshake to the streets. At a time of gloom, he radiated confidence and hope in the future. Although his powers were apparently eclipsed by circumstances, he knew that he could do a few simple things well and understood that optimism was contagious. His "Redd Up" campaign was the perfect example -- it charmingly enlisted a bit of Pittsburghese to muster the people's pride behind a cleanup of their city.
Then, still in the first flush of success, he was struck down with cancer. It happened just before the All-Star Game in July, which brought the gaze of the nation on the city he so loved. Despite his determination to carry on bravely and despite the heartfelt prayers of a whole city, Pittsburghers must now grapple with the heartbreaking news that Mayor O'Connor's time is done so soon after it had begun. His death at age 61 is too soon in every way.
God bless him and give him rest. God bless his family and his extended family that, even in his short time in office, had come to include a city full of different political factions and faiths who today are united in the knowledge that a good man, and a committed Pittsburgher, has died.
First Published September 3, 2006 12:00 am