Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The mayor, my friend and neighbor

The national press has made quite a big deal lately of the fact that Pittsburgh now has a mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, who is just 26 years old, making him the youngest mayor right now of a major American city. While I am happy for my underestimated and much maligned city that it is getting some positive press right now, I think it is unfortunate that the sad circumstances that led to this development have been given far less attention.

Bob O’Connor, the man who was mayor until Sept. 1, when he died, lived about a block and a half away from me in a very modest home. I walk past that house at least once a week on Shabbos on my way to shul and Bob would always greet me when I saw him out in the yard, or walking his dog, or getting into his car. He was always enthusiastic and friendly, often saying Good Shabbos, or asking me how work was going, or chatting about the weather.

More than just polite pleasantries, Bob’s greetings always felt like those of a friend. He really knew who I was – which became clear when he visited my workplace on official business and said, “Oh, you work here!” It takes real talent to recognize a person out of context like that – but Bob wasn’t just being a politician, he genuinely took an interest in his neighbors and constituents.

Bob became Pittsburgh’s mayor in January, but he had been a city councilman for long before that, and even though he was a public figure, he remained incredibly personable and neighborly. He also had a very special relationship to the Jewish community. His wife, Judy, is Jewish, and her sister and brother-in-law are active members of the local Lubavitch community. Even though Bob remained a devout Catholic, he became an active supporter of many Jewish causes and institutions. As someone told me in an interview, Bob attended more Jewish community events than most Jews.

After he became mayor, I would see Bob less often and thought that, out of necessity, he might be less accessible than he had been previously. However, when I did see him, he remained as friendly and approachable as he had always been. Not long after he was elected, I was walking past his house when he was pulling his car out of the driveway. When he saw me, he stopped and rolled down his window to remark about something in The Jewish Chronicle. We chatted briefly, smiled at each other, and then went our separate ways. I marveled to myself about how special it was to have a mayor, in a city the size of Pittsburgh, who was so much a man of the people, and who continued to be everyone’s friend and neighbor.

Bob’s death brought shock and sadness to the whole city. Not unlike the death of Mr. Rogers a few years ago, we all felt a sense of loss. On the day of his funeral, I joined a couple of coworkers in standing along the route of his funeral procession. In addition to dozens of police cars and motorcycles and cars filled with dignitaries, the procession also included a shiny red fire engine and a sparkling blue garbage truck, symbolizing the mayor’s campaign to clean up the city. While many of us watched the procession with tear-stained respect, the tribute also expressed the hope of better days for our city, and a continuation of the programs initiated by our beloved mayor, Bob O’Connor.


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