In Praise of Reunions

When I was a child growing up in the Duquesne area, the approach of summer was an exciting time. The anticipation of being able to play outside with friendsand not having to go to school was almost unbearable for me by the time May arrived. Although children managed to get outside to play during the months that school was in session, they still had to fit in homework and chores before dusk robbed them of additional outdoor playtime.

During the dead of winter in January and February, sunset ranged from 5 p.m. at
the beginning of January to 6 p.m. by the end of February. By the time kids were summoned home during the months school was still in session, it was time to
wash up for dinner, eat dinner, get a bath and perhaps watch a favorite TV show
like The Rifleman, Ozzie and Harriet or Red Skelton before being sent to bed.

As children, our “Universe” was centered on family, friends and being able to play outside, making the summer months Utopian for us. Playing to our hearts content and having only a few chores to hold us back was heaven. To be able to play outside with our friends was our singular focus as we were growing up. It’s amazing to think how drastically that focus has changed for today’s children. Computers, video games and television have managed to make children captives within their own home. The idea of having to play outside is agonizing to most kids today, quite the opposite to our way of thinking when we were small.

During the latter part of spring and throughout the summer, life shifted outdoors not only for children, but for adults as well.  Neighbors were very likely to visit, and neighborhood parents often gathered on front and back porches to enjoy a cup of coffee or a cold beer. What was meant to be a quick visit turned into a major “BS session” as my dad would call it. Casual conversations would somehow turn into spontaneous picnics as parents decided that they were enjoying themselves too much to call it a night. The moms would run off to
their kitchens and either return with what was to be their evening  meal or with something they quickly whipped up to share with the neighborhood. This allowed the kids to continue to play throughout the evening. If we were really lucky, one of the dad’s would haul out some sparklers that were left over from the 4th for us to enjoy or, there were always lightening bugs to collect!

Hunky families would often decide to hold a family picnic at some point during the summer. It would be a stretch to call them a family reunion since we were never apart as a family group. My family favored one of three places for these picnics. We either met in my Uncle Gary and Aunt Helen’s backyard, or for a bigger treat, we would secure a pavilion at Renziehausen Park inMcKeesport or venture out as far away as South Park. Those day long events were the highlight of the summer. To be able to play with all of our cousins in the wide open spaces was a priceless joy.

In August  2002, my immediate family and I had the opportunity to attend an “official” family reunion of the Puskaric/Stepetic  families from Hamilton Avenue in Duquesne. We had not gathered for anything other than the funeral of one of our parents, aunts or uncles for decades. The last time we had an actual family reunion had been in the 60’s. As with so many families, time, distance, private lives and life in general had brought us to the point that over 35 years passed since we last met for an affair that wasn’t coupled with the death
of a family member. It certainly was about time.

One of the attendees was my first cousin’s husband, Jim O’Brien. Jim is an author of considerable notoriety in the Pittsburgh area. Having authored 20 books about Pittsburgh sport teams or athletes, Jim is a celebrity as well as our family’s “superstar!”  Shortly after our reunion in 2002, Jim published an article in The Valley Mirror that beautifully describes what was a magical event for all of the hunkys in attendance. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, allow me to share Cousin Jim’s words:

The Valley Mirror issue of August 22, 2002

Cousins Come Together For  Reunion On Idyllic Farm

A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words.  It was, indeed,  when my wife’s cousins held a reunion last Saturday.

Everyone brought family photographs, but one in particular sparked the most conversation.  It was one of Kathie and five of her cousins sitting alongside each other on a small wall.  Most of them were two years old at the time, one about four, the other  five.  They looked like Spanky McFarland  and Alfalfa and “Our Gang.”

Most of them hadn’t seen each other since a funeral, and some hadn’t seen each other in as many as 15 or 20 years.  Most of them are in their late  50s or early 60s now, but for one day they were all kids again.

Once upon a time, they used to see each other every weekend, after church, and during holidays, especially Christmas, and at family picnics.  They were so close when they were growing up in places like Kennywood, West Mifflin,  Munhall, Duquesne, McKeesport and North Versailles.

Now they came from as far  away as New Mexico and North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, and some from White Oak, Upper St. Clair and Robinson Township.

They gathered on a mostly  sunny day on an idyllic 50-acre farm in West Sunbury, just above Butler.  The farm is owned by Joanne and Ken  Matthews.  She was Joanne Carr when she
grew up in Duquesne.  Her dad, Sam Carr, was well known in the community.  He looked after all the ball fields.  Now
she and her husband and their kids looked after farm fields.   Their farm is better maintained than most backyard gardens.

It took an hour and a half to drive there.  It was a trip back in time, to the ’50s and ’60s, and no one showed their AARP membership cards when they opened their wallets to show more family photos.

The corn and tomatoes and peppers and herbs came fresh from their fields and the food was terrific.  So was the IC Light and Rolling Rock  so everybody would remember their roots.  Before I left home, I pumped up a pro-model  football and grabbed a baseball and some gloves.  I thought we could at least pass the football around, or play pitch-and-catch with the baseball.  But no one touched them.

I was three days away from my 60th birthday and trying to fend off getting old by playing ball.  Everyone, however, was content to sit around and pass around pictures and stories, identifying whoever wasn’t  familiar to someone.

For the spouses, it was a chance to learn more about the family they had joined.  Kathie’s mother, Barbara Churchman, kept in
close touch with all her nieces and nephews through the years.  She was good about that.  She would have celebrated her 85th
birthday last Sunday.  She would have been proud to know that Kathie had been the catalyst for this reunion, and that  her son, Harvey Churchman Jr., was there, too.  Kathie was joined by Joanne Matthews and Betty Jane Peckman in putting this gathering together.

Kathie lost her mother last July and her father in December.  It was the most difficult year in Kathie’s life. Her parents both died at Asbury Heights, an assisted care residence in Mt. Lebanon.  These were all cousins on her mother’s side of the family.

Everyone at the reunion remembered their own parents; most of them have died as well.  And they remembered favorite aunts and uncles.  They remembered Christmases past, and family folklore.  They caught their cousins up to date with what their families were doing.

Among those in attendance at the reunion were Louis and Judy Goldman and her service dog Lucie from White Oak; Harvey and Diane Churchman of Clayton, N.C. (he grew up in White Oak and she, as Diane Thomas, grew up in Munhall); Karla and Paula Goldman (Smith) of Vienna, Va., who  grew up in West
Mifflin; Francis Ann Puskaric Trimble of North Versailles; Bobbi Carr of Duquesne and now Robinson Towmship; Betty Jane and Bob Peckman, both of Duquesne and now Avalon; Tim Stepetic of Duquesne and now Albuquerque, N.M.; Jim and Judy Volk and their daughters, Abby and Megan (Jim grew up in West Mifflin and the family now lives in Ocean City, Md.)

I have always enjoyed my wife’s family reunions more than some members of their family.  I envied them their closeness.  I see my cousins when I am doing book-signings at South Hills Village and Century III Mall.  When I was a kid, I don’t remember us ever visiting anyone who was not a relative.
But my family hasn’t had a reunion in over 30 years.

It seemed like a lifetime, to this impatient photographer anyhow, as we tried to recreate that photo of the six cousins on the wall at this farm near Butler.  Every one sat in the same position, from left to right, and took their cues from the childhood photo to pose in a certain way, and the cameras kept clicking.  The original picture was taken on Hamilton Avenue in Duquesne, behind one of the family homes.

If there’s anything we all ought to have learned at this gathering it should be the importance of family pictures.  Most of our memories are not of actual events, but more so of the photos that preserve those events.

This was a good idea.  Having a family reunion like this is well
worth the effort.

John Barrymore once said “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” This year, I think each one of us needs to dream BIG and make an effort to try to reconnect with family and childhood friends. This blog has provided me with that opportunity,  and the joy it has given me is priceless. To be able to connect with family via a reunion provides the “perfect storm” to rekindle relationships. If there is ANY chance you can make it happen, I urge you, DO IT! If it’s impossible to go the reunion route, visit, pick-up the
phone, write or email, but somehow, reconnect.

This summer, what will hopefully be a LARGE group of former classmates and childhood friends will be reconnecting at a BIRTHDAY BASH in Kennywood Park. This is for the entire Duquesne High School Class of 1969 who will be turning the big 60 this year, myself included. If you are a member of the Class of ’69 or know someone who is, check out the link below and just DO IT!! Life is short! Live to dream, not to regret!

DUQUESNE HIGH SCHOOL CLASS OF 1969
BIRTHDAY BASH!

The Class of ’69 is having a birthday bash at Kennywood on June 11, 2011. This is the year the entire class is turning (gulp) 60! This ought to be a lot of fun. See Happy Birthday DHS Class of 69 on Facebook for details. Many of us worked at Kennywood as our first job. Come on by and see who shows up! For more information or to sign up, email Carmella Pucci at carmellapucci@msn.com!

Lastly, my hunky pride and family pride force me to brag a little on my cousin Jim O’Brien. Now that you’ve read his story about our family reunion, read more about Jim and the memory provoking books he has written about profession sports in Pittsburgh!

About Jim O’Brien

Jim O’Brien is proud to be the only Pittsburgher ever named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame. He was honored at the NCAA Final Four Basketball Tournament in New Orleans in April of 2003.

O’Brien has also won the Bob Prince Award for his contributions to journalism, the Vectors’ David L. Lawrence Award for promoting Pittsburgh through his books, and was inducted into the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. He was honored as a “Legend” by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

O’Brien grew up in Hazelwood at the southeast end of Pittsburgh and is a graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School (1960) and the University of Pittsburgh (1964), with a degree in English. Currently Jim has written his 18th book in 18 years, his 20th about Pittsburgh and 23nd altogether. He has been a sportswriter with The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The Miami News, The New York Post and The Pittsburgh Press, a contributing columnist to The Sporting News, The Football News, Basketball Times and Basketball News.

He continues to write a weekly column for The Valley Mirror. He was the founding editor and continued to contribute to Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbook for 37 years (1970-2007). He is a member of the champions committee advisory board for the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum of the Heinz History Center. He has been married to Kathleen Churchman O’Brien for 41 years, and they have two daughters, Dr. Sarah O’Brien-Zirwas, and Rebecca O’Brien. They are the proud grandparents of Margaret and Susannah Zirwas. Jim and Kathie reside in Upper St. Clair, a suburb just south of Pittsburgh.

Click here to connect to Jim’s website! If you
want to stroll down the memory lane of Pittsburgh sports, check it out.

 

 

This entry was posted in My Hunky Family, Parents. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to In Praise of Reunions

  1. Deanne Harris Seese says:

    Betty Jane, what a great pix of you & Tim and your cousins. E-mail me at dseese1150@comcast.net or call me 412-638-5766. Remember last time we saw each other, we were up til midnight at my house talking. Just read were Joanne Sinichak’s Mom passed away. Love to hear from you.

  2. Linda L. (Negley) Gibb says:

    Hey Betty Jane Stepetic was a classmate of mine (61) ask her if she is coming to the reunion in Sept.

  3. Colleen Byrne Travis says:

    I graduated from West Mifflin North in “gulp” 1968. Maybe I’ll hit Kennywood on 6/11 ! Even though I was a year ahead of them. — By the way — I alway like to say that I was one of the youngest in my class. Hey, I really was!!!!

  4. Colleen Byrne Travis says:

    I graduated from West Mifflin North in “gulp” 1968. Maybe I’ll hit Kennywood on 6/11 ! Even though I was a year ahead of them. — By the way — I alway like to say that I was one of the youngest in my class. Hey, I really was!!!! I was born during the BIG SNOW of 1950!!!!!!

  5. Wendy Kingsland says:

    I have to tell you thanks Jim. I’m Bobbie Carr’s daughter and I have shared your blog with my mom and my aunt Joanne Matthews. We all so look forward to your writings. I print them for my mom all the time and she just loves to read them. Truly a gift you are giving us. Thanks again.

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