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2015 Pittsburghers of the Year

This year, we honor three people who represent vital aspects of our city's heart while helping to propel it forward in three very different arenas: Karen Wolk Feinstein, Billy Porter, and Morgan O'Brien.



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For 30 years, Pittsburgh Magazine has recognized exceptional individuals as Pittsburghers of the Year.

All of our accomplished recipients of these annual awards have made significant, unforgettable contributions to our city; collectively, the winners represent innumerable vital aspects of our city’s heart and help us to interpret its past, celebrate its present and shape its future.

With a major anniversary, we felt an imperative to honor more than one recipient for 2015.

Their paths from, through and back to Pittsburgh are divergent, as are their personal and professional pursuits. But the accomplished trio we’ve selected as our 30th annual Pittsburghers of the Year shares dedication, passion and vision — qualities that have always made our city and its people great.
 


Take a Look Back at Previous Pittsburghers of the Year
 

This year, we honor Karen Wolk Feinstein for shepherding the Jewish Healthcare Foundation from its creation through its 25-year evolution into a national voice for patient safety and health care quality — and her own role at the forefront of major social movements to reform health care in Pittsburgh and beyond. 

We honor Morgan O’Brien for emerging as our region’s foremost economic development champion, investing time and resources both as Allegheny Conference on Community Development chairman and Peoples Natural Gas CEO towards job creation, “sustainable prosperity” and a long list of community causes. 

And we honor performer Billy Porter for his artistic talent and triumphs, for his ongoing support and promotion of the arts in Pittsburgh and nationally and for returning in 2015 to reprise his Tony Award-winning role in “Kinky Boots” — in the process embracing the city where his journey to stardom began and inspiring audiences and artists to “walk through the door that’s open.” Join us in honoring these Pittsburghers of the Year, and learn more about each of them on the pages that follow.
 

Born at the Right Time

Karen Wolk Feinstein

When Lt. Norman Sandler came home from the war in 1948, his townsmen carried his casket through the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, a sad procession for a 25-year-old Navy pilot shot down over Tokyo three years earlier, months after a last visit stateside.

Before Norman died, his 20-year-old wife Geraldine wrote to tell him his furlough had created a new life. She was pregnant. Then he was gone, his remains sent home after the Japanese surrender.

The hearse drove to Glendale Cemetery, up Polk Boulevard and past Norman’s boyhood home. In the front yard, a 3-year-old girl named Karen was playing, unaware that the father she would not know was traveling past the child he had only imagined.

Flash ahead a few years. Geraldine remarried a clothing wholesaler named Leonard Wolk, and they settled in Pittsburgh, raising a blended family on Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill. Karen Sandler was now Karen Wolk, a forward-leaning bit of a girl who preferred to spend her play hours with stacks of shoeboxes. A blended family has a lot of feet, and the boxes add up. The house was decorated with Mambo and Merengue trophies won by her dancing parents, and the kids kept busy in the family music room with a closet full of instruments. All but Karen. Neighbor Lincoln Maazel, father of the famous conductor, told the family, “I’m going to do us all a favor. I’m going to stop giving Karen lessons.”
 

“I envisioned a new Pittsburgh.” – Karen Wolk Feinstein

What she lacked in musical talent, Karen made up for in shoeboxes and dreams. She would place the boxes around her room, stacking them, building imaginary, pueblo-like towns for dolls fashioned from her mother’s garter clips, all to construct a young girl’s utopia.

She did more than act out her dreams. She would fulfill those of others she would never know: extending the lives of hospital patients by sparing them from infections; saving the lives of women by freeing them of the stigma of discussing breast cancer; feeding the souls of AIDS patients in a decade when the best many of them could hope for was to be feared.

A quarter-century ago, Karen Wolk Feinstein created the Jewish Healthcare Foundation out of dreams fueled by a steely willpower. When she agreed to be its founding director, nobody knew what to do with the $75 million that was put in trust when UPMC bought Montefiore Hospital, which traditionally had focused on Jewish patients and physicians. There was no map, no flow chart, no tradition for foundations other than to disburse cash to worthy causes and hope for the best.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation would become an entity unlike others. As it marks its 25th anniversary in 2015-16, its internal programs stretch across the health care spectrum — researching practical ways to make the system less error-prone, more efficient, less expensive and always venturing first into areas others feared to go. Karen Wolk Feinstein modeled the JHF on her vision of social utopia — a vision born of a summer in Israel in 1965 — and in doing so made it the template for other foundations around the nation as well as a leader in setting national policy.

“She creates her own gravity,” says her son, Jeremy.

“I have been rewarded for being difficult,” says Feinstein, now 70, during a conversation in her office on the 24th floor of City Tower, downtown. The corner-office view is sweeping, the lighting bright and the rules notable for their, let us say, aspirational quality.

A germ-transferring handshake is discouraged. The sign in the waiting room advises a jolly fist bump. Soda and sweets were long ago banned from the office.
“Her intellectual feelers are always on the alert, looking for ways to repair a broken health care system,” says JHF staff consultant Susan Elster. That includes “encouraging people — beginning with her own staff — to live healthier lives,” Elster says.

Late for one meeting and en route to the next, Feinstein strides into the room, skips the fist-bump to shake a visitor’s hand, and the race is on. It’s going to be a busy day, she says. It’s always a busy day. It better be.

Her husband, Steve, captures it this way: “Karen says her definition of a bad day is a day in which she can get done everything she needs to get done.”

If a fatherless beginning in the Midwest and an impulse for building playtime worlds in Pittsburgh shaped the young Karen, it was 20 years in the heady orbit of Boston in the ’60s and ’70s that created the finished warrior. She attended Brown University in Providence, R.I., and began dating Steven Feinstein, a Harvard Law student she’d met in Pittsburgh a few years earlier. By day, she would study history at Brown’s Pembroke College, then travel down the hill into the community where Providence was, like many other cities of the time, a roiling caldron of social change: workplaces and schools were integrating; women were demanding equality; social experiments were starting at every level. 
 

In the summer of 1965, Leonard Wolk sent his then-20-year-old daughter to Israel to study archaeology and, with any luck, get a little religion in the bargain. She was not spiritual. She was a utopian. The artifacts she was digging up on Mount Scopus were far less important to her than the breathing villages and kibbutzim below. “Here I am in Israel: the ultimate social experiment,” she says of that time. “For me, being Jewish was being a dreamer.” She came home, married Steven and started living that dream in her own promised land: Boston.

She enrolled in graduate school at Boston College, which offered one of the first majors in social planning. She found her first job as a community organizer in Worcester, Mass., the blue-collar birthplace of Abbie Hoffman as well as companies that built weapons for the Vietnam War. The Harrington & Richardson Arms factory turned out rifles, and Wyman-Gordon Co. churned out parts for fighter jets. The revolution in Worcester was social planning, and Feinstein was in the shoebox town of her dreams.

“The women in my life spent their time raising kids, making life comfortable for their husbands and being part of a women’s social circle,” she recalls. “How do you put that up against the War on Poverty, model cities and the women’s movement?” 

Feinstein set to work reshaping Worcester, backed by a Great Society program that unleashed billions on the idea of transforming American society. “You couldn’t write a grant that didn’t get funded,” she remembers. “Can you believe we put a family-planning clinic in a public-housing community?” She did that in Worcester, Mass., where a trio of Irish Catholic brothers were mayor, police chief and a priest.

Her master’s degree in hand, Feinstain pushed on — having three babies and plotting world change while picking up a Ph.D. at Brandeis University, then teaching urban planning at BC. “I wanted to be Emma Goldman,” she says. “I did not want to be a country-club matron.”

When Steve Feinstein’s uncle died in 1982, he had a choice: stay in Boston and let a family business in Pittsburgh die as well, or fulfill his uncle’s wish that he take it over. “I sort of came along kicking and screaming,” Feinstein says. Boston was booming in the gleam of technology. Pittsburgh seemed to be imploding in a cloud of rust. Steve concurs. “I think she had a pretty good idea of what she could expect in Boston, and she didn’t know she could have as satisfying a career here.”

Karen Feinstein came home with three children in tow and a career to rebuild. In short order, she landed a teaching post at Carnegie Mellon University. Within a year, she came to the attention of Ralph Dickerson, then the CEO of the United Way. The United Way wanted an “environmental scan” — a study of Pittsburgh’s direction post-steel. Civic leaders were surprised at her optimism. “I envisioned a new Pittsburgh,” she says. They wasted little time in appointing her senior vice president of the United Way.
That would have been the end of the story, save a call from a group of people with a problem: they had just sold Montefiore Hospital to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for $145 million; $75 million of that sum was going to start a foundation dedicated to Jewish health care. Would she come and run this foundation? She held them off for a year.

“I thought they were all crazy and would kill each other,” Feinstein says. “Nobody had any idea what they were going to do with this endowment. Nobody even knew what ‘Jewish health care’ is.”

​Sholom Comay, head of the American Jewish Committee and a Montefiore board member, took her to lunch. “He said, ‘You’re crazy. This is an incredible opportunity to start something from scratch. Stop being ‘Gal Friday.’ Go run something.’”

Feinstein turned the Jewish Healthcare Foundation into a think tank, with original research and social activism that sometimes startled her board. “People thought I was going to sit in an office and say ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to grant proposals,” she says. Jewish hospitals around the country were being absorbed into larger, non-religious health care systems. Pittsburgh’s JHF would become the model for what came to be called the Hospital Conversion Movement. What she did had a good chance of being copied, so she needed to sell it hard and get it right. She chose to reinvent how people thought of health care.

“I think the whole approach she took was you could apply the principles of business to health care,” says Alan Guttman, a JHF board member and former board chair. “She was adamant that you could bring the best of business practices to work in hospitals and achieve that.”

As the JHF kicked off, the AIDS epidemic was decimating the gay population. Today, it is easy to forget that the disease took years to acquire so much as a name. Families turned their backs on dying sons. Some doctors donned moon suits to enter a patient’s room, if they entered at all. Feinstein raised eyebrows by awarding a grant to the Persad Center so it could hire a fundraiser to keep it afloat. “She understood the issue,” says Jim Huggins, a psychologist who, along with the late Randy Forrester, created Persad in 1972 as an outreach to the region’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“She was beyond impressive in terms of the way she wouldn’t stand for prejudice or discrimination. She stepped forward as an advocate.” In its 25 years, the JHF has disbursed $101 million to programs focused on causes from AIDS to traditional cures to internal research, studies and patient advocacy.

For a mid-sized foundation tucked away in downtown Pittsburgh, the JHF under Feinstein has played an outsize role in national policy. A signature effort has been its battle to eliminate all hospital-borne infections, which at times has put Feinstein and her allies at loggerheads with hospital hierarchies. Today, that track record is evident in the Affordable Care Act, the single, largest shift in health care policy since Medicaid passed in the mid-1960s.

Feinstein and the JHF long had long been committed to some form of health care expansion, but she saw the organization’s primary focus as improving health care outcomes. Its input on the Affordable Care Act centered on how to include policies aimed at improving health care delivery. The politics of passing a health care bill sometimes paled to the intricate diplomacy of convincing hospitals to sign on to the idea of a zero rate on patient infections.

Once the ACA passed, Feinstein and her staff believed health care nonprofits faced a pivotal moment: health care access was about to be broadened exponentially, and nonprofit organizations in the field needed to understand the full impact of this change.

Feinstein and JHF called a seminar in July of 2010 at one of her alma maters, Brandeis University. They expected a handful to show.

“‘Who would want to come in the middle of July? Maybe some foundations weren’t willing to turn on a dime,” said Nancy Zionts, the JHF’s chief operating officer. “But we realized that this was a moment in time and you couldn’t let that moment in time go by.”

Led by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, another 70 nonprofit organizations turned up to seek guidance on how to play a role in the new, national policy. Since then, the nonprofit community has looked to JHF for what Zionts calls its “convening expertise” in pulling players together on how best to help the uninsured enroll in Obamacare.

Feinstein counts another of her crowning achievements to be her ouster from a state association. In 2000, acting through the JHF’s operating arm, The Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative, Feinstein announced that henceforth it would list hospital infections as medical errors — data that would be reported to employers, insurers and potentially to the public. For years it had been blithely assumed that people who go to hospitals unavoidably contract infections. Feinstein and then-PRHI co-chair Paul O’Neill stunned the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania with this announcement.

“They threw me off the board,” she says. “They said Paul O’Neill and I were the most dangerous things in health care. We were raising expectations. Can you imagine the beauty of the moment?”

An administrative aide slips into the office. Feinstein is late for a meeting. She’s expected in a conference room upstairs. “They’re going to want to kill me,” she grins, gathering up her stuff and heading for an elevator. 

With any luck, the builder of utopias will fulfill her dream of not getting everything done today. Utopias are, by their nature, unfinished business.  

Mt. Lebanon-based freelance journalist Dennis B. Roddy is a former staff writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and has written for regional and national publications. He wrote “Oh, the Humanities!” for the September 2015 edition of Pittsburgh Magazine.
 

KAREN WOLK FEINSTEIN
5 things we should know about you?

  • ‘I am wildly enthusiastic about my three (wonderful) children, the excellent people they married and my six spectacular grandchildren. I also love the family in which I grew up.’
     
  • ‘I value friendship. I am still in regular contact with many friends of 50 years — or more.’
     
  • ‘I value candor. I seldom leave an occasion and say to myself, I wish I were brave enough to say what I think.’
     
  • ‘I love mountains and lakes and any sport you can do there: bike, hike, ski, swim, paddleboard, canoe, windsurf.’
     
  • ‘I am thankful in full for a wonderful life that has been gratifying beyond my highest expectations.’
     

5 things you’d like to see in Pittsburgh’s future?

  • ‘Every child should receive an HPV vaccination before age 13 so that we would see almost no cervical, head or neck cancers (from HPV) in the future. Pediatricians need to get busy.’
     
  • ‘People should own their own health. They would take responsibility for their diet, exercise, sleep, substance use, driving and risky behaviors and not rely on some magic pill or surgery to fix them from their bad habits.’
     
  • ‘People should choose their doctors, medications and medical interventions wisely and avoid the expensive treatments for which there is no evidence of value. We would lower what we spend on health care and invest in our parks, trails, education system, early-childhood care and safe, locally grown foods.’
     
  • ‘We would have the safest hospitals in the country. Let’s get the job done and protect our patients.’
     
  • ‘We would teach ethics, values and social responsibility in our schools from the youngest ages through professional education. We would regard respect for others’ feelings, safety, and wellbeing as a core component of good citizenship and as worthy of learning and practice as math and English.’
     


Take a Look Back at Previous Pittsburghers of the Year
 

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