After State Sen. J. Barry Stout had quadruple bypass surgery in 1995, the onset of diabetes and a serious bout with influenza-turned-pneumonia last year, ambitious politicians began wondering whether his days as a senator were numbered.
But back on the job since June, Stout, 67, had a recent response to the political "vultures" aspiring to his position: "They'll take this office out of my cold, dead hands," he said, clenching and shaking a pencil triumphantly.
Late last year, Stout, a Somerset Township Democrat whose term expires in 2006, wound up in the hospital for two weeks after suffering from intestinal flu and a severe case of pneumonia, complicated by diabetes.
Depression and a weakened immune system followed, keeping Stout out of commission for months. Within a few weeks, political observers took notice. Questions arose over who could take his place if the senator couldn't return.
As weeks stretched into months, it became clear that local projects and grants would stall, perhaps even evaporate, without the famous "Stout clout" behind them. Although Stout continued to work from his home most days, speculation was rampant about a possible successor.
"Those are some big shoes," said county Commissioner J. Bracken Burns, a Democrat, who said he was not among those interested in Stout's job. If anyone gave it serious consideration, no one wanted to risk affronting Stout by volunteering for his position before a retirement announcement.
"They were like circling vultures," Stout said, a sentiment echoed by Burns.
Stout returned to work full of new vigor and purpose in June. Retirement is not a consideration at this time.
A state senator for 27 years and state representative for seven, Stout has had a political tenure that has made him "dean of local politics," as Burns describes him.
To his colleagues, Stout is one of the most powerful and longest-serving members of the Senate, having served as leader of the Senate Transportation Committee, as Democratic Caucus administrator and as a member of numerous committees, such as those governing policy and appropriations. His political arm-twisting and favor-culling is legendary.
And so are his down-home turns of phrase, which people refer to as "Stoutisms." He has a folksy adage for every occasion.
Such quips as, "I'm as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs," or "I'm as happy as a puppy in a roomful of rubber balls," have become his trademark.
If a plan for new jobs in Washington County comes to fruition, Stout said last year, "I'll be happy as a pig in slop."
To the people of Washington County, "Barry Stout means money," Burns said.
Stout's 34-year tenure "brings with it perks and power of great value to the people he serves," Burns said. "He's certainly the dean of the county."
Without doubt, Stout is the most powerful state politician in Washington County. His 46th District covers most of the county, all of Greene County, and parts of Beaver and Westmoreland counties. A recommendation or project approval from the grandfather of 10 is considered a done deal, an offer not to be refused.
Pretty much any local road or development project created in the past two decades has Stout's fingerprint on it. Southpointe, Washington County's prize business park in Cecil, the Mon-Fayette Expressway and the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum were created and enhanced with assistance from Stout.
He wasted no time throwing himself into the state budget debate and lobbying hard for the passage of slots legislation after returning from his illness.
He zipped through promised grants and loans, including a new sanitary sewer system for Monongahela.
He called a meeting of local authorities and state transportation officials for a quick remedy to the one-mile "death trap" on Route 18 in Smith, where four people were killed in traffic accidents within three months. Stout persuaded officials to conduct a traffic study, lower the speed limit, place speed monitors and install more road signs along the stretch.
Eventually, he said, he wants to have the speed limit lowered and the berm widened.
Stout maintains a home office in the village of Eighty Four and keeps field offices in Burgettstown, Waynesburg and Monessen.
He works hard to remain visible. Whether it's an appreciation award from the state Turnpike Commission for his work on the Mon-Fayette Expressway or a youth baseball wiener roast, Stout prefers to keep close to his home base.
His lessons came from nights spent around the dinner table as a boy with his father, William B. Stout, a local Democratic committeeman. The family made their home in the village of Good Intent in West Finley. The "hollow," Stout remembers, then included three houses, a one-pump gas station and a Presbyterian church.
It may have been isolated, but the family, including five boys and two girls, hosted a variety of colorful characters, including the late U.S. Rep. Thomas Morgan, a Democrat from Fredericktown.
"My eyes were as big as saucers," Stout said, recalling when Morgan stopped by. Morgan would "shoot the bull" with the family about the goings-on in Washington, D.C., over baked goods and "sippin' whiskey."
In the mid-1940s, William Stout began working in the railroad business for several local contractors. When one of them went under, he took his $1,500 severance check and started his own business, Atlas Railroad Construction Co.
His boys went to work for the company, getting paid through company stock instead of cash. It turned out to be a wise investment, though Stout's involvement in the construction business would later dog him in his political life.
"We struggled. We worked hard seven days a week," he said. "We were the cheap labor."
By 1950, the Stouts had moved to Bentleyville, where Stout met his wife, then Lenore Thompson, on a bus trip to a football game.
"I was in ninth grade and she was in eighth grade," Stout remembered. "It was Sept. 18, 1952."
An only child, Lenore was enthralled by the Stout gang.
"I liked his family," she said. "There were so many of them."
The couple married July 18, 1959. They have six grown children -- five daughters and a son. For their 45th wedding anniversary this summer, Stout bought his wife a fire-engine red convertible.
Early in life, Stout aspired to be a chemist, perhaps a chemical engineer or teacher, but decided to follow his father-in-law into the mortuary business. He earned a degree from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and joined the family business, the Thompson-Marodi Funeral Home in Bentleyville.
But it wasn't long before the political bug bit. Morgan encouraged him early on to explore politics, and others encouraged him to run for a state House seat vacated by Austin Murphy when he followed Morgan into Congress in 1970. But party officials had another candidate in mind.
"I was written off as just a kid from Bentleyville," said Stout, choking back tears. "I worked hard. I worked so hard."
He was elected to the Senate in 1977 and has faced only token opposition since. He took on the former administrative assistant to the Washington County commissioners and former county chief clerk and administrator Chuck Crouse as his chief of staff and quickly gained a reputation as someone who could bring home the bacon to local constituents.
"I tell my staff to get me 10 votes a day," said Stout, who keeps his home phone number listed in the phone book. His constituents frequently take advantage after hours, calling him for help with everything from washed-out bridges to run-ins with the law.
"I'll help people who want to help themselves," he said, "but not someone who's too lazy to get out of bed."
He has earned his nickname as "king of the roads," using his powerful position with the state Transportation Commission and the Transportation Committee to bring new road projects to the area and improve road safety.
Stout was instrumental in persuading Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials to build a barrier to keep trucks from overturning at the South Junction of interstates 70/79 in South Strabane. He also kept state officials from clashing with then-county Coroner Farrell Jackson, who threatened to subpoena officials for not acting to improve safety at the junction, the site of several fatalities.
"Barry was able to get the money to build the wall," Jackson said. "In my opinion, he's one of the finest officials the state has ever had."
Stout used his influence as well in gaining funding and support for the Mon-Fayette Expressway, a portion of which is named in his honor. Twice, he withheld budget votes and persuaded his colleagues to do the same to get a percentage of gas-tax increases earmarked for the project. He sees the 17-mile, $475 million toll road as his legacy and as a way to help keep young people from leaving the area.
For all of his transportation successes, Stout still has come under scrutiny for his involvement in several transportation-related companies. In the 1980s, the family split up the Atlas Railroad Construction Co., and he and his brother Philip started a company called MARTA Track Construction Co. The family also created Atlas Services, an excavation company that does only private work, Stout said.
His companies do no turnpike or state road work, Stout said, and all other projects are awarded through bidding.
"People like to say Barry Stout is rich. Well, yes, Barry Stout is rich, but I worked for it," he said. "I couldn't raise six kids and put them through college on a legislator's salary."
Stout defends his work to get slots legislation passed this summer, saying that, like local harness racing, which was brought to the area in the early 1960s, it will boost the local economy.
"I voted for the gaming bill because it was needed for Pennsylvania. People vote with their feet," he said, referring to large numbers of Pennsylvanians who travel to West Virginia to slot parlors. "I'm not a liberal Democrat. I'm a responsible Democrat."
Crouse said his boss had no hobbies and remained devoted to his staff and constituents.
"We have one rule: We're honest with people in the sense that we don't like false expectations," he said.
"I'm a team player," Stout said. "I've voted for tough bills. I can't tell you what you want to hear. I'll vote with you when you're right, but I'll vote against you when you're wrong. I don't have a 100 percent voting record with anybody. Nobody is right 100 percent of the time."
Janice Crompton can be reached at email@example.com or 724-223-0156.