N.J. prof more than ready to come home
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The first sentence of Judy Glies' e-mail last Monday morning captured my attention: "Save me a seat, I'm coming home."
Thousands of the Pittsburgh diaspora read this newspaper online, especially the morning after a Steelers game. Ms. Glies is a displaced native who reads it every morning, with her mug of coffee, before leaving for work.
That's how she encountered my column last week on the city's amazing cultural amenities that, judging from sometimes sparse attendance, too many residents overlook. Judy would not, and will not, come April.
"Like many, I left Pittsburgh in the mid-70s to find work," she wrote, "but I have kept close ties with Pittsburgh and can hardly wait to be where there is great music, many artists, great people, great sports, wonderful museums and that gem, Heinz Hall."
Close ties with Pittsburgh? This education professor, who's taught at New Jersey City University for 16 years, returns to the 'Burgh almost monthly to visit family and longtime friends. When I answered her letter, she told me she'd be here this past weekend for a Super Bowl party.
I found her Saturday afternoon at a friend's house in Carrick, her hands in a bowl of ground meat for stuffed cabbage.
"I put them on a bed of sauerkraut," she said, adding that the recipe came from a Serbian woman she met years ago at her dad's pharmacy in Aliquippa.
If Malcolm Gladwell had met Judy Glies before writing "The Tipping Point," he would have included her in his chapter on people who are "connectors." Her connections are more numerous and vibrant than any I've ever seen, and she keeps making new ones in her old hometown.
"Pittsburgh is quite famous as a city that people come back to," she said. What took Ms. Glies away 30 years ago was the search for a teaching job. She'd come to that profession a little late, having married right out of Coraopolis High School.
But her husband left the family, and when she took their two young daughters to a Sewickley community center for preschool, the director offered them free tuition if Ms. Glies would work there.
The director soon encouraged Ms. Glies to try college. After earning a two-year community college degree, Ms. Glies entered the University of Pittsburgh.
Then known as Mrs. Kioussopoulos, her married name, she finished her bachelor's degree in one year and her master's the year after. Early in her doctoral studies, she applied for a Nationality Rooms scholarship.
"One of my professors said, 'You don't have a chance as a single mom with two kids.' That made me mad, so I said, 'You want to come to the airport to wave at me when I go?' "
She won the three-month scholarship to Norway and took her young daughters with her.
After a stint teaching high school in Colorado, Ms. Glies won a batch of fellowships, to Yale, to Princeton, to a school in Japan and finally, a Fulbright scholarship to the Netherlands in 1986.
When she returned to the States, she earned a doctorate in education at Columbia University and landed a professorship in New Jersey.
"My students are from 80 different countries," she said, but added just seconds later: "I'm a Pittsburgh girl."
Asked what's drawing her home after a career spent elsewhere, she paused to consider.
"There are very few places that have the beauty of Pittsburgh -- the bridges, the onion-dome churches" and the view from the tunnels, of course, she said. "I'll go out of my way for that."
So is that Pittsburgh's draw? Physical beauty and the vibrant culture praised in her e-mail?
"It has a charm," she tried again, "the neighborhoods and different cultures, maybe. It sure isn't the weather."
And then she hit on her answer: "It's the stories."
There's certainly nostalgia at work in a woman who grinds her own coffee beans so she can recreate the smell she remembers wafting from a warehouse at the end of the Coraopolis-to-Pittsburgh trolley ride.
She'll explore the family tree, the Havekotte and Glies ancestors who made their mark on "Mount Troy," Downtown and the North Side. Those are stories she wants to learn more about.
But her own story isn't done. So far it's one of scrappiness and perseverance in adversity. It's a lot like her hometown's story.
At 65, Judy Glies isn't looking backward, but forward -- to more contact with her 200 Pittsburgh cousins; to volunteering at Heinz Hall, Children's Hospital and Pitt's Nationality Rooms; to enjoying the city's riches that are so close at hand.
We talk a lot in Pittsburgh about the importance of keeping university students and attracting young families. But there's reason to celebrate the worldly wise native's return and to ponder the passion that would cause someone to say: "I've been praying for years to come back."
First Published February 5, 2007 12:00 am