The 50 Greatest Pittsburghers of All Time
These are the people who, throughout the past 200-plus years, helped put Pittsburgh on the map. From familiar names to unexpected choices, these 50 made contributions both locally and nationally to fields ranging from business and government to culture and sports –– all of which put the spotlight on Pittsburgh.
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1. Fred Rogers
By Morgan Neville
Fred Rogers, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Peabody Award and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy, produced 895 episodes of the iconic television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for PBS. Born in 1928 in Latrobe, he created his Neighborhood of Make Believe in WQED’s Oakland studios. He died in 2003.
I think we’re just catching up to where Fred Rogers always was. I think it’s a testament to the fact that his show transcends nostalgia; he was dealing in timeless issues. In certain ways, his shows and his ideas feel as current as ever. I’ve often said that Fred wasn’t ahead of his time — he was out of time. He was somebody who was utterly unique. Because of that, he never ages.
I’ve had scores of people come up and tell me stories about encounters with Fred Rogers or letters or moments that changed their lives. There are so many things that we don’t even mention in the film — for example, his commitment to writing letters to every child that wrote to him. The depth of his faith, his daily prayer time and his study of the Bible and of all religion. His deep relationship with theologians — the way he really looked at the big questions we should all be looking at.
I think it’s very easy to get caught up in the superficiality of everyday life, but Fred was excellent at always thinking about what was most important.
Joanne showed us a letter Fred had written her, right after they were engaged; he was working at NBC in New York, learning how television works. The letter said something to the effect of, “Everybody here is so busy. But I’m not sure they know what it all means. I’d like to do something meaningful, but I’m not sure if I’m good enough.” That kind of doubt makes him human and relatable; if ever there was a character who is easily sanctified, it’s Fred Rogers. But [to sanctify him] does him a disservice, because it doesn’t acknowledge the human struggle he put into his work.
He spent his life trying to translate the complexity of the world to children. His job was to distill the essence of what was important to kids who were trying to figure out how the world works. Fred was also childish in the best sense of the word — he had the honesty and the simplicity of a child, and his sincerity was immense and complete. He always said what he was thinking and asked what he wanted to know, like a child does. As adults, we lose touch with that. To be that sincere is to be vulnerable; as adults, we don’t like to be vulnerable. But Fred was never afraid to be vulnerable.
Fred was somebody who held up a mirror. He allowed us to look at ourselves. That’s a gift. That’s something that’s timeless. It’s something I wanted to do with the movie; the film makes you think about yourself and the people in your life. We ended the film ... with this idea that the question is not, “What would Fred Rogers do?” It’s, “What are you going to do?” We all have to share responsibility for making this world a better place, and we can’t just wait for other people like Fred Rogers to come along.
There are so many things that he was doing that we’re now just coming to terms with; we talk about mindfulness and emotional maturity today, but he was working on those things decades ago. As our culture gets faster and more abrasive, we come to see his wisdom in greater relief — especially the idea that our neighborhoods, which also means our community and our society, are things that have to be nurtured and cared for. Part of why I wanted to make the film was that I couldn’t think of another voice that I wanted to hear more today, in our cultural dialogue, than Fred Rogers.
Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville is the director of “Wont You Be My Neighbor?,” the lauded look at the life and impact of Fred Rogers. Neville's film, “20 Feet from Stardom,” won an Oscar in 2014.
2. August Wilson
By Todd Kreidler
August Wilson (1945-2005) was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in the Hill District; he later adopted his mother’s maiden name. His childhood home, 1727 Bedford Ave., is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wilson is well-regarded for his portrayal of the black experience in America through his Century Cycle of plays, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle; each of the 10 works is set in a different decade of the 20th Century. After his death, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theatre; it was the first Broadway theater named for an African-American. His plays are performed regularly today, and one of his two Pulitzer Prize winners, “Fences,” was made into an Academy Award-nominated film directed by Denzel Washington.
A few months ago, I was having breakfast with my son at Eat’n Park. “Look at the ketchup bottle on the table,” I told him. “I don’t like ketchup,” my 6-year-old responded. “But look at the back,” I said. What’s on the back of a ketchup bottle? “H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, PA.”
While working with August Wilson in the last years of his life, we’d often meet at “our spot” for breakfast; it changed depending on what city we were in. In Seattle, it was the Mecca Cafe. In New Haven, Atticus Bookstore. In Chicago, Cartons. In Los Angeles, the Original Pantry Cafe. In New York, the Cafe Edison. Most often, it was a diner, which meant that most often, there was ketchup on the table. August would always say, no matter where we were, we had Pittsburgh on the table.
Pittsburgh was at August’s heart, the setting for nine of the 10 plays in his groundbreaking American Century Cycle, his hometown, where his legacy arguably lives most visibly today. I love taking my son to events at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture Downtown, to the playground at the August Wilson Park in the Hill District, and I can’t wait for us to visit his childhood home, currently being restored at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District. As August’s name literally becomes part of the architecture of the city, the Winston Churchill quote he turned me on to comes to mind: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Pittsburgh shaped August; thereafter his work shapes us.
His work shapes other cities too; we’re not the only place to consider August Wilson its own — particularly those spots with theaters where he developed some of his plays. Walk into Seattle Rep, Yale Rep, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Huntington Theatre in Boston, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles or even the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway, they’ll all rightly say: “This is August Wilson’s home. He sat at our table.”
But claiming the name “August Wilson” does more than celebrate a connection to a famous author. All of the actors, directors, designers, stage crew, producers, theater administrators, fundraisers, academics, journalists and audiences who continue to champion and support his work are also hoisting a flag to defend the values, insights and struggles embodied by his life and art. August’s name demands that art be born from necessity, inspires all who encounter it to live and maintain a life of high purpose and honor, and challenges everybody to stand up against the brutalities of our history, especially as that brutality continues to plague our current events. From his masterpiece set in 1904, “Gem Of The Ocean”:
My mama named me Citizen after freedom came. She wouldn’t like it if I changed my name.
SOLLY TWO KINGS
Your mama’s trying to tell you something. She put a heavy load on you. It’s hard to be a citizen. You gonna have to fight to get that. And time you get it you be surprised how heavy it is.
Out for breakfast with my son again, a few weeks ago, he was thrilled to spot another ketchup bottle. “Dad, look, look! We have Pittsburgh on the table! August would love that!,” said Evan August Kreidler. Yes, I do hope he would.
Pittsburgh native Todd Kreidler is a writer and director who worked as August Wilson’s dramaturg in the last years of his life and co-founded the national August Wilson Monologue Competition.
3. Andrew Carnegie
By Mary Frances Cooper
Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie ranks as one of the richest people of all time, but he was also one of the most philanthropic, and Pittsburgh reaped the benefits. The Scottish immigrant born in 1835 worked, and invested in, the railroads in his early 20s and quickly became known as a shrewd businessman before making his fortune in steel. He formed the Carnegie Steel Company, which comprised many of the former mills still standing in the region today, and in 1901 sold it to J.P. Morgan, for $480 million, which would be more than $370 billion today. It became the United States Steel Corporation. Carnegie was also a well-regarded author and in 1889 wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” which argued a wealthy industrialist’s life should include not only accumulating wealth but also distributing it to worthy causes. He died in 1919.
If a legacy can be defined as your name and your work living on long after you are gone, then consider that more than 20 major cultural, educational and civic entities founded by Andrew Carnegie are still in existence today, still bear his name and are still dedicated to their founding principles. One hundred years after his passing, we continue to look to him as an example of an immigrant who came to this country, worked hard, achieved astounding wealth and gave back to his community.
Long before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pledged to give away the bulk of their fortunes to causes that benefit humanity, Andrew Carnegie defined philanthropy. The robber baron turned robin hood once argued that it is the moral obligation of the wealthy to use their money to promote the welfare and happiness of others — and to do so before their deaths. “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” he wrote in a famed 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth.”
Making good on his promise, Carnegie gave away nearly 90 percent of his fortune — more than $350 million — for what he considered to be the improvement of all humankind. Throughout his lifetime, he worked to foster peace and donated pipe organs to churches without regard to denomination. In Pittsburgh, he established Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museums, Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which bestows medals to citizens who sacrificed to help others.
Carnegie, who was mostly self-educated, believed that with access to books and reading and self-directed learning, a person could be anything he or she wants to be. He coined the idea that knowledge should be “free to the people” and spurred a worldwide movement that resulted in his personal funding of more than 2,500 public libraries.
For more than 120 years, our library has embraced our founder’s vision, welcoming newcomers to our community, whether they arrive from across town or across the globe. They come to our library to get oriented, find community, start a job search, support their children’s schoolwork and much more. In the past few years, we have been fortunate to host naturalization ceremonies at our libraries. Each time several people nod and smile when I talk about the library, and on occasion someone will pull out their library card to show me, and it grabs my heart.
Andrew Carnegie’s true legacy is how his particular brand of philanthropy reflects a fundamental faith in people and in our individual and collective desire to do the right thing. Through the institutions and causes he chose to fund, we see evidence of his belief that, if given the right support, people will work hard, study and learn, become better versions of themselves, value science, arts and culture, aspire to world peace, and risk, or even sacrifice, their own lives to save others.
As the President and Director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Mary Frances Cooper champions the changing and increasingly important role of libraries in society.
4. Rachel Carson
By Robert K. Musil
Rachel Carson is a product of the culture, the land, the times and the influence of her family in western Pennsylvania. The roots of who Carson is are in Springdale, where she was born in 1907. The smokestacks were starting to creep out from nearby Pittsburgh, and she watched the process of pollution and the industrialization of the city, leading to her life’s work.
Rachel was brought up in what at the time was called the Nature Study Movement, and Rachel’s mother used the curriculum to teach what would now be called experiential learning. By the time she was 11, Rachel won her first literary prize; she later graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University).
Of course she’s best known for “Silent Spring,” for her exposé of chemical companies and their spraying of harmful pesticides, as well as for her love of the sea. She was dying of breast cancer while writing “Silent Spring,” and she said she wanted a group to carry on her work. That became the Rachel Carson Council, and the early part of our work did focus on pesticides. But her important legacy is what we call her environmental ethic. She wrote many times about how she had a reverence for all life, in that all creatures were creatures of god and of evolution. We had to love, understand, respect and feel for all of them with awe, imagination wonder and empathy, just like in the childhood stories she wrote in Springdale about the wrens, when she said animals are her friends.
For example, RCC has a project concerned with factory farms. Rachel wrote the first introduction to a book called “Animal Machines,” where she writes beautifully and movingly about the horrors that happen to the animals in confined feeding operations. This is long before anyone understood the problems of how meat is produced in places like this. Rachel didn’t call it this, but she was an early proponent of what we now call environmental justice. She understood there were lots of people who through no fault of their own were harmed by the environmental pollution of large corporations.
So her legacy goes quite a bit beyond just the problem of pesticides and chemicals. Her great gift was to be able to reach the public. You have to have impeccable science but you can’t simply publish scholarly articles that only a few experts will read. Every one of her books is a best seller. She’s influenced millions of people over the years.
With her politics, she early on was seen as a saint or a nun of the environmental movement. She was single, not terribly social and shy. So a lot of what is said about her is that when “Silent Spring” came out it created the early environmental movement. And that single book did cause a major stir — if we had social media back then it would have gone viral. But she wasn’t just a lone writer who wrote a book that started off the movement. She was engaged, corresponding and working her whole life. Rachel died in 1964.
What’s going to happen as a result of her legacy? The Rachel Carson Council has a network of more than 50 college campuses, and we’re continuing to build that. We try to get students and academics who are interested in the environment into the advocacy and policy-making process. Voting matters. Getting involved matters. Working to get pro-environmentalist folk into all levels of the government is necessary. We need a platform that goes beyond educating the same people who have already bought in.
Rachel Carson said over and over again that she will not remain silent. We cannot sit back and watch the thing we love, the planet, be destroyed. Now we are seeing a broader, more diverse environmental movement. Despite the dark times we’re living in, people can take hope and take action and see that we can make a change.
Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., MPH, is the President and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, the legacy organization envisioned by Rachel Carson and founded in 1965 by her closest friends and colleagues.
5. Jonas Salk
By Peter l. Salk, M.D.
In 1947, Jonas Salk became director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he began to develop a vaccine that could immunize against polio, a dreaded disease that affected more than 40,000 people in the U.S. each year. On April 12, 1955, the results of his testing were announced: the vaccine was safe and effective and by 1962, the number of polio cases had dropped to 910. Salk never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible. He died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80 in La Jolla, Calif., where he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Jonas Salk was once asked why he had come to Pittsburgh in 1947 to continue his research on prevention of viral diseases. His answer was “I guess I fell in love”.
His love for the city and the University of Pittsburgh led to the development by his team of the first successful vaccine against polio. In the seven years after the vaccine was introduced in 1955, the number of cases of polio in the United States, which had averaged around 40,000 in each of the prior four years, fell by 97 percent. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief as the prospect now existed to bring epidemics of the feared paralytic disease under control. Today, with the global use of this and a second polio vaccine, both developed through the support of the March of Dimes, the number of reported cases worldwide each year is hovering around 100 — down from over half a million estimated cases a year prior to 1955.
Jonas Salk did not stop there. He went on to found the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., in 1960, which has become one of the world’s leading biological research institutes. He carried out studies in his own lab and with collaborators on cancer, multiple sclerosis and, towards the end of his life, a vaccine against HIV/AIDS. In addition, he devoted a great deal of attention towards understanding the nature of the challenges and opportunities confronting humanity in the present era, and the steps we might take as a species to improve the prospects of moving into a sustainable and thriving phase. One of his four books was titled “The Survival of the Wisest”, reflecting his own preoccupation with the importance of cultivating wisdom in our society. Another, coauthored with the youngest of his three sons, Jonathan, has recently been republished in an updated and revised version titled “A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future.” When presented in 1977 with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the title of his acceptance address was a question: “Are We Being Good Ancestors?”.
Jonas Salk’s legacy is alive and well in Pittsburgh. With every visit I make to this city, which had contributed so much to the polio vaccine effort through the support of its philanthropies and the participation of its parents, children and other citizens in the early trials of the vaccine, I reexperience the love that flows in both directions in the expressions of gratitude from those I meet. And in ongoing interactions with the University of Pittsburgh, with its breadth of strength in the health sciences and its drive to contribute in all dimensions to improving our lives, our wellbeing and our spirits, and with recognition of the wealth and depth of other educational and civic organizations in this vibrant town, I am confident that the forces that led to the world-changing event in the health arena, in which my father took part more than 70 years ago, are still operative and flourishing, and that Pittsburgh will continue to make an uplifting mark for generations to come.
Peter L. Salk, M.D., is the director of The Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation and a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. He is a son of Jonas Salk.
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