The Next Page / A Pittsburgh hero: John Minadeo
Growing up in the small community of Port Vue, being sick might mean a trip to the doctor. My parents would load me into the car for the dreaded trip to Palky's office. Our family, whose strong Hungarian roots were planted in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh, had a penchant for assigning nicknames. "Palky" was Dr. Joseph Palkowitz, whose office was located at the corner of Second and Hazelwood, a steep, cobblestoned avenue.
When my father would come on these visits, he always made mention of the bronze plaque that hung on the exterior wall of the building near the entrance on Hazelwood Avenue. The plaque, he reminded me, honors a hero: John Minadeo.
Not much is known about the young man whose bravery on a chilly afternoon in October 1954 saved the lives of several of his classmates at Gladstone Junior High School in Hazelwood. Today, most Pittsburghers know Minadeo as the name of the elementary school in Squirrel Hill. But the story of the actions taken by this ninth-grader -- who achieved hero status for placing others first -- is not widely remembered.
Antonio and Rosa Minadeo came to America in 1950 from the desolation of post-war Italy. Known back then as "displaced persons," they settled in a little row house on the far side of Hazelwood at 242 Glenwood Ave., near the Glenwood Bridge. Mr. Minadeo found work as a laborer in a cemetery. John quickly adapted to the melting pot of Pittsburgh. After school, he helped his parents by working as a stock boy at the California Fruit Market on Second Avenue.
As a ninth-grader at Gladstone Junior High School, he was known for his dependability and good behavior. His peers elected him captain of the school patrol at the beginning of the school year.
On Thursday morning, Oct. 7, 1954, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette greeted readers with the news that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were parting ways. There was a story of two American servicemen, Army Pvt. Charles Julius and Marine Lt. Col. Herbert A. Peters, who were released by the North Korean "Reds." The Carnegie Institute was receiving $3 million for a renovation project. The weather report was calling for "chilly weather following the four-day rainy spell."
After breakfast, John Minadeo would gather his books, homework and, most important, his white Sam Browne belt and captain's badge that would distinguish him as a member of the school patrol. He would leave the little house in Glenwood to travel the 12 or so blocks to his post at Second and Hazelwood avenues.
Back then, Hazelwood was in its heyday. There were shops, a movie theater, an Isaly's (the precursor to modern-day convenience stores), grocery stores, fruit markets, doctors and haberdashers, banks, savings & loans and the J&L Steel Coke Works. Hazelwood was a thriving small town in a big city. This made Second Avenue a very important and busy street.
On that same morning, George King would leave his home at 48 Genesta St., a few blocks from Captain Minadeo's post. He would drive off to work as an inspector for the County Bureau of Testing. On his way there, Mr. King quite likely would have passed by the corner of Second and Hazelwood avenues.
The school bell would ring at 3 p.m., signaling the end of classes for the day. Once reaching the doors, the students would scatter, many headed to busy Second Avenue to the bus stop. But before doing so they were helped at the corner of Sylvan and Hazelwood Avenues outside the school by "lady cop" Mary Gralka (today, we'd call her an adult crossing guard).
If they hurried, maybe there would be enough time to buy some penny candy at the corner drug store before the bus came or for the walk home. Captain Minadeo would have already deployed his troops along Hazelwood Avenue before taking his position on the corner.
Like any of us would do, George King would take the quickest way home from work. Hazelwood Avenue is a challenge for a driver even today. First there is an uphill climb from Beechwood Boulevard. The main entrance to Calvary Cemetery is at the crest of the hill. The street then descends at a gentle manageable grade. It flattens out somewhat near the Gladstone Junior High baseball field before another gentle descent. After negotiating a small but blind turn, the street falls more steeply directly above Gladstone Junior High.
It was at this point above the school, that Mr. King must have been panic-stricken. He pressed the pedal to slow down, but the brakes failed!
It's incomprehensible -- the thoughts that must have gone through this poor driver's mind at lightning speed. Most important of them: How to regain control of the car that violently shook from the cobbled street?
As the careening car rolled by Mrs. Gralka at her post in front of the school, she heard Mr. King shouting, "MY BRAKES ARE GONE!" Upon hearing his shouts, she screamed at the children at her post to get out of the way. She then began blowing her whistle as a warning to the children at the Second Avenue intersection out of her sight line two blocks down the hill. Mr. King began blowing the horn continuing to yell a warning. He tried to shift into second gear to slow the car, but it had no effect.
A postal worker who was unloading his truck at the Hazelwood Post Office looked up and saw the car pass when he heard it rattling over the cobbles. "It bounced when it hit the intersection," he said. "It looked like it was out of control then."
Joseph Zsak, one of John Minadeo's fellow school patrol members, also heard the car and its horn. He began yelling as he ran down the hill to warn his fellow students who were standing on the sidewalk in front of the drug store.
As Mr. King approached busy Second Avenue, witnesses reported another vehicle was stopped at the intersection. When he tried to steer between it and the curb where the children were standing in front of the drug store, he hit the curb, glanced off of a utility pole, onto the sidewalk -- and into the crowd of children.
Without regard for his own safety, reliable, dependable John Minadeo, exemplified why two weeks before he was elected captain of the school patrol by his classmates.
In this maelstrom of noise and chaos swirling about that corner at that eye-blink in time, he focused and performed as the leader his fellow students entrusted him to be.
With his back to the oncoming danger, he fearlessly pushed several of his classmates onto the sidewalk.
A sobbing William Bair, a fellow school patrol member stationed on the opposite corner, witnessed John pushing several kids out of the way to safety. John, along with a classmate -- Ella Cornelious -- was struck by the vehicle. Both would succumb to their injuries.
Students Betty Jean Gilliam, Suzanne Pearson, Ernestine Hollis and Gladys Allen were all hospitalized. Betty Jean Gilliam remained in serious condition for days. Gladys Allen would be treated and released.
Mr. King, the driver, was diagnosed with a possible broken arm, shoulder and ribs. An examination of his car by the city superintendant of motor vehicles, Leo Gill, determined that there was a leak in the master cylinder, causing the brakes to fail. In addition, Mr. Gill determined that the hand-brake linkage was intact but he could not tell if it had been engaged.
The Post-Gazette reported that, for the Oct. 11 funeral, a crowd of nearly 7,000 gathered outside Hazelwood's St. Stephen's Catholic Church and the O'Toole and O'Connor Funeral Home. Superintendent Earl A. Dimmick requested patrol captains from around the city to attend the funeral. They wore their Sam Browne belts with their badges. Gladstone Principal Robert Cresswell excused students from the school to attend the funerals for both John and Ella.
Eight fellow patrol boys, assisted by two men, served as pallbearers, carrying his casket across Second Avenue and up the steep steps of St. Stephen's. After the solemn high funeral Mass, Captain John Minadeo was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery.
The same day, "a similarly impressive crowd," as the PG reported, gathered for Ella Cornelious' funeral at the Second Baptist Church of Homestead. She was buried at the McKeesport-Versailles Cemetery in McKeesport.
On the day of the funeral, acknowledgements of John Minadeo's heroism would begin. Pittsburgh City Council issued a special resolution, introduced by Emanuel F. Shifano, citing him for saving the lives of his fellow students. The citation would include a moving Post-Gazette editorial, titled "Captain John Minadeo." Council was joined by Mayor David L. Lawrence in extending sympathies to the Minadeo and Cornelious families and having the resolution delivered to them.
The Post-Gazette editorial page again paid tribute with a drawing by editorial cartoonist Cy Hungerford, titled "His Spirit Carries On."[see end].
On Jan. 22, 1955, the Carnegie Hero Commission cited John Minadeo for his selfless act. On May 5, 1956, Vice President Richard M. Nixon visited Gladstone Junior High and awarded John Minadeo a Lifesaver Citation posthumously.
In 1957, the Pittsburgh Public Schools created the John Minadeo elementary school in his honor. Each February, around John Minadeo's birthday, the school holds a talent show that recognizes his sacrifice.
Hazelwood has changed dramatically since that day in 1954. Second Avenue is no longer a bustling business district. The movie theater is closed. The Isaly's chain ceased operation in the area in the 1990s. The last grocery store in Hazelwood, Dimperio's, closed its doors in 2009 after 80 years in business. The massive coke works closed in 1999 and was razed.
Gladstone Junior High became Gladstone Middle School and was closed in 2001. In the city, you don't see members of the school patrol wearing badges helping fellow students at crosswalks. That responsibility has been entrusted to adults.
The buildings at the corner of Hazelwood and Second were razed many years ago. The lot where the drug store once stood is now empty and is overgrown with weeds. The building where Dr. Palkowitz practiced is gone, too. The bronze plaque hangs in the hallway at Minadeo School.
After all these years, I understand the message my father was trying to convey to me as a little boy when he pointed to that bronze art piece commemorating John Minadeo. Sometimes in our lives we have to have a little courage. The 15-year-old son of "displaced persons," captain of the Gladstone Junior High Safety Patrol -- a true hero -- epitomized that.
An editorial from the Post-Gazette on Saturday, Oct. 9, 1954
In the four years since he came here from Italy, young John Minadeo had made the most of his opportunities as an American. As a member of the ninth grade at Hazelwood's Gladstone Junior High School, his reputation for dependability and good behavior led to his election two weeks ago as captain of the safety patrol. After school hours, he works as a stock boy in a fruit market. That was a help to his father, who labors in a cemetery.
When school let out on Thursday afternoon, there was hardly a prouder or more impressive looking lad in all of Hazelwood than 15-year-old John Minadeo. Resplendent in a white Sam Browne belt, symbol of his leadership and responsibility, he stood in the bright October sunshine directing schoolmates across a busy street intersection.
Suddenly there was a commotion up Hazelwood Avenue. Down the hill toward the intersection an automobile sped crazily out of control, its driver shouting that the brakes had failed. Captain Minadeo reacted promptly, pushing the child nearest to him to safety. But the car plunged on into a group of children.
When this brief nightmare had ended, Captain Minadeo lay dying of a skull fracture. He had responded heroically to the last opportunity afforded by his adopted land.
The short life and tragic death of John Minadeo are at once a challenge and a rebuke: a challenge to all who believe that in every human soul there is an infinite potential for good, a rebuke to all who would for reasons of color, creed or national origin discriminate against any American school child.
First Published September 18, 2011 12:00 am