A Tribute to Mr. O and the Bonds of Western Pennsylvania

By Nick Deiuliis

Movie fans marvel how actors on the big screen are famously linked within six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.

Western Pennsylvania is far from Hollywood, both geographically and culturally. It’s been home all my life, a place where the connections and relationships run wide and deep. A place where everyone is connected not by six, but only by a degree or two of separation.

In western Pennsylvania communities, the good fortune of one is often enjoyed by many, and someone’s misfortune is willingly shouldered by many. We look after each other as extended family. A big, boisterous, dysfunctional, loving clan of yinzers.1

And no one epitomized the essence of these exceptional people more than “Mr. O.”

I first met Mr. O when I was 13 and his house sat at the beginning of my route that I tended as a paperboy. The street he and I lived on was a long line of modest ranch and split-level homes neatly kept by no-nonsense, middle class, blue-collar types. Real people living normal lives.

He was a good tipper, a trait this old paperboy never forgets. Mr. O was one of those rare adults who could put a teenager at ease while keeping it clear who was boss.

Mr. and Mrs. O had two daughters who I went to school with, the older a year ahead and the younger a few years behind. The girls and their friends would hang out with my friends and our brothers and sisters. When I traded the paper route for another job, and graduated high school to move onto college, I may have from time to time ended up in Mr. O’s backyard at night with friends, sipping adult beverages and playing music.

All that socializing through the years led to wonderful things. Before you knew it, one of my best friends ended up dating Mr. O’s younger daughter. Their wedding ended up being a reunion of the same group of people from decades earlier in that South Hills backyard on my old paper route; just older, better dressed, and less fit.

Mr. O sadly lost his wife too early, but never moved. His girls lived close by (that’s Pittsburgh for you). His home enjoyed a few updates to the exterior through the years, but it still looked much the same as it did in the mid-1980s: happy, neat, and reflecting pride.

A few years ago, I was back at the old childhood homestead working in the front yard when Mr. O drove up in his vintage 1960s-era Volkswagen Beetle. He stopped and as was his custom, started to chat. As I watched him drive away, I experienced an incredibly strong sense of déjà vu, back to 1986. And it felt good.

I continued to see Mr. O each summer at a July picnic party his daughter and my old friend would throw at their house. It was evident Mr. O was taking full advantage of the little things in life. He couldn’t be happier.

Then news came down about a month ago that Mr. O wasn’t doing well. His health took a turn for the worst, and it wasn’t looking good. Thankfully, he was resting comfortably at home.

I asked the family if it would be ok for me to stop by and visit, and one sunny spring afternoon I made that familiar drive of a few miles, parked the car on my old street, and walked up those steps to Mr. O’s front door that I traversed daily for years as a teen delivering newspapers.

‘C’mon in’ I heard after knocking on the screen door. In I went and there in the living room was Mr. O, reclined in a hospital bed. ‘Hey, Nick! Why aren’t you at work?’ That was classic Mr. O and so…Pittsburgh.

We talked. About everything. How he met his wife. His time in the army. All those clean-ups after storms when he worked as a utility lineman. I found out he and I both hailed from the Mount Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh before we moved to the South Hills, albeit he made the move south as an adult about twenty years before I did as a kid.

Mr. O knew his time was short. But he was grateful for his long journey. He was happy his kids were married to good men. He was content with his eighty-five years of living a genuine life.

Two days after my visit, Mr. O passed away.

Reflecting on the man and his life, I think I stumbled on what he meant to me. He wasn’t a mentor I looked to for advice. He wasn’t a father figure or friend as much as a friend’s father.

Mr. O, when it is all said and done, was a role model.

He showed how to live a complete life. A life not measured by awards, scores, or account balances; but one measured by being comfortable within your own skin and being content with your decisions.

Next time I drive down my old street, as is often my habit, I will come to the house at the start of my old paper route. The old Beetle won’t be in the driveway, the house exterior might wear a different color, and the new owners will be strangers. But to this old paperboy, that house will always remain Mr. O’s home.

Whoever said you can’t go home again sure as hell wasn’t from western Pennsylvania.2

1. yinzer (noun) – a native or inhabitant of the US city of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. “I walked over to a table of yinzers and instantly felt at home.”
2. Apologies to one of my literary heroes, Thomas Wolfe.

A Tribute to Mr. O and the Bonds of Western Pennsylvania