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Jim O’Brien: “Only in America”

February 13, 2012
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Jim O’Biren: “Only in America’”:

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

I turn to the obituary pages of the two Pittsburgh dailies each morning to check to see if anyone I know has died, and when the funeral services will be held.

         My late friend Tom “Maniac” McDonough referred to the obituary pages as “the Irish sports section.”

         He thought there was something about death that appealed to the Irish.  They loved going to wakes.  “It’s the only way you see old friends,” said McDonough.

         I don’t think a day goes by that there isn’t a funeral in Munhall or Homestead. 

         When I was a kid, I used to deliver a newspaper to Leo Sullivan, a nattily-dressed funeral director on Second Avenue in Hazelwood.  In the summer, he wore a straw hat and wide suspenders which set him apart from the pack.

         We had a standup routine.  I’d see him standing on the porch of his funeral home, and I’d say, “How’s business, Mr. Sullivan?”

         He’d smile and say, “It’s dead.”

         The names of six remarkable men I have known appeared in the obituary notices over the past two weeks.

         One day, I knew three people in a row in the paid listings, a personal record I think.  Their names were George Esper, Fred Fetterolf and Thomas “Red” Garvey (as in E, F,G).  The other three names I recognized on other days were Fred Yee, Bernie Powers and Tunch Ilkin.

         In Ilkin’s case, his wife Sharon, age 55, had died after a difficult six-year battle with breast cancer.  Tunch remains one of the most popular Pittsburgh Steelers, first as an offensive lineman and now as a sidekick providing analysis to the play-by-play call by sports broadcaster Bill Hillgrove.

         Among the pictures on display at the Beinhauer Funeral Home in McMurray was a framed cover of Sports Illustrated that had two cheerleaders at Indiana State University flanking the great Larry Bird.  One of the beauties was the future Sharon Ilkin.

         The Ilkin children often kidded their dad that their mom made the SI cover, but their dad never did.   Tunch told them his black Steelers’ helmet was visible at the bottom of one of the covers in the ‘80s.

         “We’ll miss her dearly,” Tunch told me.  “But she was in such pain.  She was a woman of great faith, so she’ll be fine.”

         Let me tell you a little about each of these men I mentioned earlier.

         Fred Yee’s daughter Michelle is my next-door neighbor in Upper St. Clair.  Her father, who lived in Bethel Park, has been ill the past year.  He died of cancer at age 76 at St. Clair Hospital.  I’d see him in the driveway or yard for the past five years.  He loved to play golf each morning at South Park.  We’d talk sports.

  He is the only person of Chinese descent who has been inducted into the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.  He played basketball at Pitt in the mid-50s and he won five City League championships and a state title while coaching the boys’ basketball team at Schenley High School and then won five City League championships coaching girls’ softball at Carrick High School.  He must have been some motivator.

Our friend Bernard “Baldy” Regan, a Pittsburgh politician and sports promoter, used to praise Fred Yee      by saying, “Only in America can a Chinese guy coach an all-black basketball team to a state title.”

Baldy borrowed that phrase from Harry Golden, an editor and publisher of the Carolina Israelite, who wrote a popular book called Only In America in 1958.  I read it when I was a student at Taylor Allderdice High School.

The “Only in America” tag is applicable to most of the men I have mentioned.

Tunch Ilkin came to America as a child from Istanbul, Turkey and marries a cheerleader from Indiana State.  He returned after being cut from the squad at his first Steelers’ training camp to play 13 seasons with the Steelers and one year with the Green Bay Packers.  He was one of Art Rooney’s all-time favorite players.

Fred Yee grew up in Little Allentown, a stretch near Beltzhoover and Arlington on the backside of the South Side Slopes, unfamiliar to most Pittsburghers.  His family ran a laundry business.

When Yee’s team won the state title in 1978, students at Schenley High created a banner they hung in the hallway renaming the school “Schen-Yee High.”

There were two sports personalities I recognized at Yee’s viewing, Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi, who starred in several sports at Clairton High and the University of Pittsburgh, and whose last job was in administration at Steel Valley High School.  “Look at how many people are here,” Cecconi observed.  “That’s a real tribute.”   

Paul Tomasovich, a tall, husky fellow best known as “the Babe Ruth of Pittsburgh softball,” and more recently a sports official, was present as well.  Tomasovich was a close friend of Baldy Regan.  I have been fortunate to know such fascinating fellows.

“I was refereeing a basketball game between Schenley and Farrell at Farrell,” recalled Tomasovich.  “Fred was on the sideline coaching Schenley, and he called out, ‘Paul, Paul’ and signaled for a time-out with 14 seconds showing on the clock.  His team was down by a point.

“I stood by his huddle to hear what he was saying to his team.  He told them to get the ball to his star player, Sonny Lewis, who was a really good player.  He told Sonny to hold onto the ball and that Farrell would foul him.  He told Sonny he’d make both free shots and Schenley would win.

“Schenley inbounds the ball to Sonny Lewis and he immediately unleashes a long shot and misses.  That’s the ballgame, folks.  As I am running off the court, Fred calls out to me again, ‘Paul, Paul, tell me, was I speaking to those guys in Chinese?’ ”

There are always such stories shared at funerals.  There are laughs to go with the tears, and the solemnity of the occasion.  You are never quite sure what to say.  I used to admonish my mother as we were entering a funeral home not to say, ‘He looks good.’  Now I frequently find that’s my thought exactly.

I saw Tunch Ilkin’s mother near the head of the receiving line and I remembered that she was once “Miss Turkey.”  As I held her hand, I said, “You are still Miss Turkey.”  She smiled and said, “That was a long time ago.”

What do you say to a man who has lost the love of his life much too early?

Here’s what I said:

“Tunch, me boy, how are the Turks doing?  Are they still killing each other…like the Irish.”

Tunch smiled and hugged me.  It was something Art Rooney Sr. used to say to him whenever he saw him in the lobby or locker room at Three Rivers Stadium.  Tunch told me that when I was interviewing him in my family room for one of my books about the Steelers.  Tunch has always been a favorite topic.  He’s a good man, a good story.

Tunch told me how much Sharon had suffered and that she was in a better place.  When Tunch first came to the Steelers he was a Muslim.  But his teammate and still loyal sidekick, Craig Wolfley, influenced him spiritually and Tunch converted to Christianity.

Wolfley’s father was ill during training camp and Ilkin was impressed with the strength Wolfley gained from his Christian faith.  In time, Ilkin preached at churches and youth gatherings.  He even tried, but failed, to convert Myron Cope.  Cope married a Presbyterian, but he was proud to be a Jew.

Try to imagine that conversation between Cope and Ilkin.

There were lines out to the parking lot at the Ilkin viewing for one of the afternoon sessions.  I saw several former Steelers such as Edmund Nelson, Dwayne Woodruff, Bill Hurley, Craig Wolfley     Members of the media present were Gene Collier, Jerry Dulac, Ed Bouchette, Paul Alexander, Bob Pompeani and Dan Potash.

It was the same room where I had attended funerals for former Steelers Ray Mansfield, Steve Furness and Lloyd Voss.  

I had not seen or heard of George Esper in a long time, but I met him in the summer of 1963.  I had an internship at The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, when George was writing at the Philadelphia branch of the Associated Press.                        

         He was a friend of George Kiseda, then a sportswriter for The Bulletin. Kiseda was a Pitt grad from Pittsburgh’s South Side and he got his start as a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.          He was a great writer.

         Esper and I each had rooms in the upper level of a home owned by the mother of Ralph Bernstein, the sports editor of The Associated Press.  Esper hailed from Uniontown.  His parents had immigrated to America from Lebanon.  His voice positively crackled when he spoke.

         He went on to become an AP correspondent covering the war in Vietnam and he won several major awards for his coverage.  How fortunate I was to share a summer with him when I was a student, and learn from him and Kiseda.  Philadelphia had some of the best sportswriters in the business at the time, such as Larry Merchant, Stan Hochman, Jack McKinney, Ray Kelly, Jack Kiser, Hugh Brown and Sandy Grady and I hung around them as much as possible.  They were great mentors.

         Esper and Fred Fetterolf both qualify in the “Only in America” category as success stories.

         Fetterolf was a mild-mannered but enterprising young man as a student at Grove City College in the early ‘50s.  He stood five feet, five inches tall, yet he won varsity letters in three sports for the Grovers.  He played on the football, basketball and golf teams.  Yes, basketball.  At 5-5!  He may have given a half inch to Myron Cope.

         Fetterolf went on to become a giant in the corporate world.  I met him when he was the President and COO of the company in 1979, his second year in that position.  Vince Scorsone, who had come out of McKeesport High to star as a lineman at Pitt, was a vice-president at Alcoa at the time.  Fetterolf was proud to show his spiritual side and lent his presence to many good causes.

         Fetterolf and Scorsone ordered 1,000 copies of each of the first two books I wrote and edited with Marty Wolfson, namely Pittsburgh: The Story of the City of Champions and Hail to Pitt: A Sports History of the University of Pittsburgh

I never would have been able to write and publish 20 books about Pittsburgh sports achievement if I had not had that kind of support at the start.  So I will always be indebted to those great gentlemen.

I remember Scorsone telling me a story about running into Duke Weigle, his football coach at McKeesport, prior to entering Pitt as a freshman.  Weigle wanted to know what Scorsone planned to major in at Pitt.

“I’m going into phys ed, Coach,” said Scorsone.  “I want to be a coach like you someday.”

“No, you don’t,” said Weigle.  “You should major in business.  You’ll be better off.”

Scorsone did just that and look what it led him to at Alcoa.  “Those were the days when you did whatever your coaches told you to do,” said Scorsone.

Red Garvey and Bernie Powers were both coaches and they had Mt. Lebanon ties, starting with St. Bernard’s and then South Hills Catholic.  Garvey coached for a couple of years with the football program at Pitt in the late ‘60s.  I’d see him on the Pitt campus and, in more recent years, bump into him at Atria’s Bar & Tavern in Mt. Lebanon.  Powers became the director of the City Catholic League sports programs.

I saw Jerry Conboy at Garvey’s viewing at the Laughlin Funeral Home in Mt. Lebanon.  Conboy was a terrific basketball coach at South Hills Catholic and Point Park College.

We agreed that we were going to too many funerals lately.

I blame it on Art Rooney.  He’s the one who told me why you have to go to the funerals.  What he told me made more sense than what Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t go to your friends’ funerals they won’t come to yours.”           

 Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a series of Pittsburgh Proud books available at area book stores.  His website is www.jimobriensportsautor.com   He can also be found on Facebook.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. bob bauer permalink
    February 13, 2012 6:09 pm

    Great Stuff, I am a Schenley grad and went there with Fred’s younger brother John who was a very personable and bright young man. I saw in the obit he lives in Baldwin. Good memories.

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