‘Conversations’: 8 Interesting People Revive a Lost Art
We sit down with hockey coaches, college students, farmers and the mayors of two cities to see what they had to say.
In a time when texting, emailing and tweeting has become the norm, a conversation between two individuals may seem like a lost art. Yet nothing beats a face-to-face talk between individuals who have something in common, or in some cases, nothing in common but a willingness to listen with open ears — and an open mind.
For the Conversations feature, we asked Pittsburghers who hail from different walks of life, but who work in similar fields, to engage in a dialogue.
Among them is the mayor of a major city in the midst of a renaissance and the mayor of a struggling former steel mill town. There’s a former NHL player coaching professional hockey and a physical education teacher dealing with parents as he tries to grow his peewee hockey players in body and mind.
The intimate discussions take different dips and turns, but like any important conversation, it’s never boring.
Conversations were edited for length and clarity.
Hockey coaches know the score
photos by Martha rial
Mike Schall and former Pittsburgh Penguins player Mark Recchi spent two years together coaching peewee minor and major players for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, a AAA amateur hockey organization. Hall-of-famer Recchi, now assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Schall, a physical education teacher in the Bethel Park School District, both know the pressures and expectations faced by players — on the professional and amateur level.
— Jessica Sinichak
Mark: Some of the biggest differences, obviously, are you’re dealing with the family. We’re dealing with players and probably more agents, but you’re not dealing with families necessarily. In minor leagues, you’re dealing with families.
PM: Can the parents be intense?
Mark: To put it mildly.
Mike: Very intense.
Mark: Sometimes that can be good. Sometimes it can be not so good.
Mike: Absolutely. I think looking at it, at the minor hockey level, we’re trying to get the kids to that [professional] level. Maybe to get to their dreams, step by step. That’s how we go with it. Being able to work with Mark for two years was a pretty cool experience with the knowledge you brought to the game — to show us, the kids. By the time they’re 12, 13 years old, it doesn’t sink in what they’re going through.
Mark: It’s challenging when you’re at our [professional] level. Now it’s more of the mental part. You’re developing guys. (To Schall) You’re trying to develop kids mentally and physically. You’re trying to help them along. You’re trying to get them better, you know. Whereas at this level, they’ve pretty much got that skill set. They’re as good as they’re going to get. Yeah, you always have to work on things, but it’s more of a mental aspect now than it is with minor hockey. You’re developing both aspects, which is very important, especially at those ages.
Mike: There’s so much going on in their lives between school, hockey, sports — everything. So they have all the elements.
Mark: Then you start getting puberty in there. That factors in. The hormones are going everywhere. There’s a lot going on for you.
Mike: As they see it, they’re trying to work through it. Sooner or later they figure out their path and their process.
Mark: Were you with Caden that year when he kept growing? Remember he just kept growing?
Mike: His dad’s a minor leaguer.
Mark: A bantam minor leaguer. So we had this young gun, and he’s like 6’4 or 6’5 now. But he would grow like 2 inches — and you could just see it. He was like clumsy — clumsy! And then he’d get his legs under him again and he’d grow another two inches and then he’d get clumsy again. I remember after one game, I said to his mom, I said, “Did he grow again? Because he is clumsy as crap right now.” She’s like, yes, yes, he did.
Mike: He’s all the way up to 6’4 now. He’s a monster. (Laughs)
Mark: I think the expectations and the pressure of being an NHL player is, this is your job. This is what you do, and you’re expected to be at a certain level. With minor hockey, I think a lot of the pressure comes externally from parents and things like that. Like, why isn’t he getting looked at individually? Why isn’t he getting this? Especially when they start getting to be 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. I think a lot of the damage gets done by parents, personally, because that’s the pressure they face. The parents are putting the pressure on them to get them to the next level. If they just let kids do what they wanted, they wouldn’t have that pressure and I think the results would be better.
Mike: I think a lot of the pressure, too, is driven by social media. Everything you see on social media is “proud to announce a commitment here. Proud to announce a commitment there.” I mean, the internet has changed, and it’s changed the kids a lot. Because at the end of the day, with minor hockey, what should be the pressure? It should be fun. You don’t get these times back, but a lot of people see what’s going on Twitter, or what’s going on Facebook and they start looking into those things, like, “Oh, I’ve got to get to here.” It’s a process. Enjoy it. Because you really don’t get it back again.
Mark: You are never going to get it back again.
The conversation continues …
Excerpts which were not published in the print issue
PM: Do you see yourself as a mentor to the hockey players you coach?
Mike: I think you’re a role model. You’re always trying to carry yourself the right way, do the right things. I try to set an example. There’s a fine line. You know with little kids, if you’re all the way down with the 7, 8, 9 year olds, you’re like a big kid on stage — just having a blast and teaching them. But you can still set examples for those kids. You want them to have multiple role models as they work their way up through [the ranks].
Mark: There’s a fine line between accountability and kind of being their friend and being somebody they’re trying to learn from. I think it’s great. It’s a lot of fun at those ages.
Mike: Oh, absolutely.
Mark: I’d coach those ages again. I’m not sure I’d coach 14 or 15 year olds again, but I’d love to coach the little kids again.
Mike: Their biggest problem is what to have for a snack. It’s awesome. One kid falls and the four behind him are falling over.
Mark: They’re out there having fun.
Mike: They’re not talking about anything else. They’re out there smiling.
Mark: And waving at their parents in the stand.
Mike: A little guy was standing there the other day, looks up, waves at grandma, gives her a big thumbs up. You’re can’t get that back. It’s tremendous.
Mayors Go Social
The motto for the City of Aliquippa, located just 25 miles up the Ohio River in Beaver County, is “Founded by Steel; Formed by Its People.” The same could be said of Pittsburgh, a city with a number of similarities to its smaller neighbor to the north. Both cities have struggled financially and required state intervention under the Act 47 recovery program. Pittsburgh exited Act 47 in February, and Aliquippa officials are hopeful to leave the program in the near future. The cities’ mayors, Bill Peduto and Dwan Walker, have a number of things in common. Both are Democrats; both are in their second term. And both often take to social media any time of the day or night to respond to constituents over issues from potholes to the opioid crisis.
— Lauren Davidson
Dwan: You’ve been doing a lot of big things I’ve been trying to follow.
Bill: So we got out of financial distress.
Dwan: I was paying attention to that. They want us to get out in like 2020.
Bill: We asked council to pass laws that make it city code so you can’t borrow beyond a certain extent, you can’t negotiate through legislation, pension enhancements, all the things that got us in trouble. We passed laws in order to make it so you can’t do it in the future. And then we got out.
Dwan: We want to do it the same way. … We’re the next-to-last longest-standing third class city in a distressed status. I don’t like the moniker at all. It doesn’t speak to the hard working people in Aliquippa and what our history is, it’s the people. And again, watching what you guys have done, Amazon and the most livable city and things like that, that speaks to opening up the distressed status that you’re labeled with, and that’s what I want. Perception over reality is what I’m dealing with now.
PM: Speaking of perception versus reality, could you talk a little bit about engaging with people on social media in this era of “fake news?”
Dwan: Social media is a gift and a curse. It is a bad thing in a way because you really can’t defend everything that’s out there, some things you just got to let it unfold, let it play out, then you deal with it as it comes. If you react you’re already late. I want to be proactive and try to meet these things head on but sometimes you can’t.
Bill: It is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you get to interact directly with people. It’s a curse because there is a part of social media that knows no boundaries. And it’s an unfiltered communication that can become offensive. It really tests the boundaries of democracy. The old fashioned way is still the best, it’s still being out at the events.
Dwan: The best thing I can tell anyone, go meet people where they are. Be. My dad used to say the word “Be.” He’d say, “Just be where they are son and you’ll meet that need if you can, and if you can’t, be a facilitator or a connector.”
Bill: You know the common ground between both is your dad’s thing: just be. It’s being genuine. You can tell the politician who doesn’t write his own Facebook posts or tweets, the one you can tell it’s staff written and it comes out plastic. And then you can tell the politician who doesn’t enjoy being with people.
Bill: Because you can’t fake it. You can’t BS people about authenticity or being genuine.
Dwan: Most real people can spot that a mile away.
Bill: A mile away.
Dwan: I hate the word politician, I always say more of an activist. I’m an activist, you’re an activist, for the city we live in. We want to change hearts and minds about our city, we want to do it in the best possible light, if it’s social media, print media, blogs, whatever it is, so that they understand there’s a heart behind the suit. And that’s what we do every day. We hurt too, tweets hurt. If you say it doesn’t bother you, you’re lying. It bothers you to an extent.
Bill: And I don’t think people understand how much you have to love doing what you’re doing in order to put yourself out there. If you don’t really love it, it’s very easy to stay away from it. To not get online, to not go to that community meeting, to not being in that church basement, to not being yelled at by somebody while you’re in the grocery store, because you just hide from it and you just take the job and the title. I think you and I, the thing that we do is we dive in because we love it.
Dwan: And we make a difference. I think the hardest job I’ve ever had is being mayor. And I’m not even a full-time mayor; I make 175 bucks a month to be a mayor of a third class city. So I go in there and I show up at things and I make sure I just be. In one month I could be Serbian, Croatian, Italian.
Bill: Right? [Laughs]
Dwan: Greek, all in one month, but you get invited into the room to be there.
Bill: And people say the mayor is here! That’s what I try to explain to people — they say, what’s the best part of the job? It’s having an all-access pass to everything in the city. You are not only invited, but when you’re there, you’re welcome.
Dwan: And they’re happy that you’re there. Maybe we have a pothole on our street, but you still showed up, and they appreciate that. This is their religion, their heritage, what they do, this is what made your city, this is what made my city, all the nationalities, all the walks of life you get to interact with and that’s just beautiful.
The conversation continues …
Excerpts which were not published in the print issue
PM: What would both of you be doing if you weren’t mayors? What was the career that got away?
Bill: I have my dream job. I’m the mayor, this is my dream job. I really didn’t want another career. I guess when I was in first grade I wanted to be the first astronaut baseball player, but by ninth grade I was bad in science and I couldn’t hit a curveball so that dream was lost.
If I wasn’t the mayor, I’d be working for a nonprofit. I would wanna head up a nonprofit or potentially work in a foundation, but definitely within the nonprofit industry. Then I would teach. I still have a dream of potentially doing both as my next career.
I don’t want to run for any other office. I don’t think after you’re a mayor, being one of 435 or one of 253 or being in charge of a state, none of that seems appealing. When you’re the mayor, you get to run the show and it’s manageable so you can actually do things.
Dwan: I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up when I became mayor. The instant impact, the process of it all, I think I was more in love with the process of making things happen that nobody thought could happen in the city of Aliquippa where they think no earthly thing good is coming out of Aliquippa, just football players and bad things. I do have aspirations to be something different, I do. It’d be a lie to say I didn’t. If I wasn’t mayor of Aliquippa I’d probably be a preacher or minister. I’d probably be a football coach like I am. I’d still be doing all the things I do now, be a good father to my daughters and always active in my community.
CMU Students Share Lessons
photos by cristina holtzer
Mera Tegene and Veronica Lopez met for the first time over cups of coffee at a Starbucks near their school, Carnegie Mellon University. Other than being young women at the same college, on paper you wouldn’t think they would have much in common, especially in terms of their career aspirations. Tegene, a sophomore from Dallas, majors in computer science. Lopez is a junior from Los Angeles studying viola performance and music education. Yet somehow, they both want to work for the Walt Disney Company.
— CRISTINA HOLTZER
Mera: I’ve always wanted to go into [studying] virtual reality and augmented reality, and that’s kind of like an emerging field. You have to be able to create an experience. If the experience isn’t realistic there’s no point to it. … I found these little facts — like it’s weirdly connected to Disney, and I’m a huge Disney fan. I found out “Big Hero 6” was kind of based on CMU’s robotics section. I was like, if this is Disney, this is my school.
Veronica: We just found something to connect with — Disney.
Mera: Yes — I’m such a big Disney fan. I’ve been crying over Disney for the last month or so because Disney labs left CMU. I was really going to try and get research with them. I wanted to fulfill my life’s dream of working with Disney. And then I walked in and they were packing up and I was like “Please no, let this be a lie, let be a nightmare.”
Veronica: Are you trying to become like an Imagineer or something?
Mera: Yeah, yeah that’s like my dream job.
Veronica: I really want to work for Disney too, but in terms of like their film scoring. I want to play for their films. I know some of my teachers have done it. Now I just need to figure out how I can do it too.
PM: Speaking of things changing, could you talk about how you see your fields changing as women in two fields that are typically more male-dominated?
Mera: I like that CMU is working toward balancing the playing field in computer science. At least within their own playing field. This current year is 50/50, may even be 51/49. I remember hearing people saying 51 [percent female] and I was like “Ahhh!” They’re trying to propel it up. They’ve noticed that it’s problematic that the teaching assistants and professors aren’t female. They’re trying to push it to having 50/50 there. Even if your classmates are 50/50 female, if all of your professors are male you might have the perception of “Well, I can never be there.”
They’re dealing with things like imposter syndrome. They’re really trying to have a support network and to combat the negativity. Because even though they’ve admitted the women, there’s still the perception that they don’t deserve to be here, that they got here by affirmative action. A lot of the women feel that. There’s a whole psychology on it.
They’re really trying to combat that. I think that’s really good.
Veronica: One of the biggest female role models that I have on this campus is Shernell Smith. She says you can do anything that you want to do, just go and do it, I will help you. I just wanted to mention her. Also our dean of student affairs, she’s so empowering. Through the administration we do have these top females to encourage us. In music at least I’ve definitely been in rehearsals and looked around the orchestra and noticed that it’s sometimes more than 50 percent female.
Mera: Oh wow, that’s awesome.
Veronica: Not to say that we’re better, because we’re not, but it’s pretty nice to see that.
I know that in some of my conducting classes we watch videos of old orchestras, and most if not all of the people in the orchestras are male. That’s how it used to be. The fact that we’re able to do the same thing that people many years ago couldn’t do shows that we can be fierce and strong with our playing. Some of my friends, they have a fire inside of them that you can hear through the music.
Mera: I was at a Women in the School of Computer Science event yesterday and it was cool because they had a panel related to STEM fields where women are underrepresented. They were talking about their experiences. It was pretty much a room of girls, but there were a couple guys there so I was like “Good. Good job for coming!”
They were just supporting each other, telling each other about their experiences so that others could learn. Just propping each other up. You shouldn’t feel like you don’t belong here.
Veronica: Every semester here we have juries where every musician has to do a jury. And we have these panels where we have one female string professor here, the rest are all males. And in my jury it’s all males. They give comments, and they’re pretty good comments. The faculty here has never made me feel that I can’t do something just because I’m a woman. They’re so supportive here and I love it. You would think that older males would be a little more “old school,” but they’re not.
Mera: Yeah I agree, every staff member that I’ve ever interacted with has been supportive whether male or female. If [sexism] came from a student I feel like I could counter it, but if it came from staff or someone of a higher status I feel like that would be more discouraging. But when professors reach out and give me guidance I appreciate that.
The conversation continues …
Excerpts which were not published in the print issue
PM: What about Disney exactly do you both love so much?
Veronica: For the pre-college interview they asked us, “What do you wish people would ask you more?” I honestly love people to ask me why I love Disney so much. They don’t understand that it’s not an obsession. It’s like a passion.
I went through a period of researching everything I could about Disneyland. I got really into the history of the railroads, I would watch Walt Disney history videos on YouTube. There’s a 40- minute time lapse of the entire park being constructed. It’s pretty cool. I love all the detail that goes into everything that they do despite how expensive it is. I love everything that goes behind it. It’s a lot more than just a company. They make dreams come true for kids. How they’re able to create the magic — I find that really fascinating.
Mera: In general when I like something I lookup the history. Most times the history just isn’t good. There’s a lot of controversy related to his origins and views. I guess because of that, I don’t look upon it with positive views … but I appreciate that it’s evolved past being his company. It’s evolved into “imagine and create your own reality.” Yeah they have really controversial products that they’ve produced, but over time they are realized they’ve messed up, and they progress toward the future. Their princesses now represent a larger range of people. They’re trying to make it accessible to everyone. I love the idea that Disney gives that you can achieve whatever you want.
My favorite movie was “Mulan.” As a child I was very tomboyish. And I guess since I grew up in a society where women and men clearly have different roles. I didn’t like the idea that I would be limited by being a woman. I always really liked Mulan because she really proves you wrong. She shows you you can do whatever, you can save China!
Veronica: They’ve stayed true to the quote that Walt used about always moving forward. And that’s why I get frustrated at people who get mad at the changes within the parks.If they didn’t change then they wouldn’t be staying true to the whole point of Disney: imagine and create, never growing up, always being a child on the inside. You kind of have to accept change in many different aspects of your life.
Farmers Find Common Ground
photos by martha rial
Don Kretschmann, 69, is a pioneer of organic farming in Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Becky, purchased the first 38 acres of Kretschmann Family Farm in 1978; they now farm nearly 80 acres in Rochester. Kretschmann grows a wide variety of crops and operates a robust Community Supported Agriculture program. Collette Walsh, 26, started farming eight years ago. She grew up in Brooklyn and has farmed in Alabama, California and the Hudson Valley. She lives in Braddock, where this year she plans on growing cut-flowers for the market and herbs and edible flowers for the restaurant Superior Motors. This conversation took place inside a high-tunnel on Kretschmann Family Farm on a blustery morning in mid-March.
— Hal B. Klein
Don: Are you a fan of arugula? Pick some.
Collette: This is nice and peppery.
Don: We turned the soil and were keeping this tunnel ready for tomatoes, but it was such a long gap we figured why waste all this time.
Collette: I’ve noticed in western Pennsylvania, compared to other places I have farmed, it seems like there are a lot of family farms here. But there are communication barriers between young people and the established farm families, especially if you’re not from here.
Don: One biggie is the gas industry. They’ve really driven the price of land up so high that you can’t afford it. The other barrier is … about receiving and receiving and receiving knowledge. Farmers my age, all over the state and all over the country, are facing those issues of who to pass it on to.
Collette: I notice that. And I notice there is a younger generation, people like me, who are trying to figure out how to bridge that gap between wanting to keep learning and being mentored but also being able to have access to do what I want to do with my farming process.
Don: Part of that is the problem with the model that we’ve been given. This American thing of “Go it alone, it’s man versus nature out in the wilderness,” well, that doesn’t lend itself very well to the modern world.
Collette: I think about that a lot. I want to farm, but I also don’t want the farm to be my entire life. I’ve done that before, for other people. I loved and I cherish that, but I also feel like I’m at a point where it’s my full-time job but in the evening I can go to dinner somewhere if I want.
Don: Well, you know what, that brings us to a big picture thing. What is farming, really? It’s about our relationship to the earth. It’s in mythology all over the place. Why do we honor it so much in religious ceremonies? Humanity has gotten gradually disconnected from that fundamental relationship and it plays out everywhere. Whether it’s global warming or pollution or industrialization, or in totally getting lost in your cell phone or electronic devices. It’s a disconnect from the earth. And the real nexus of it is our food.
Collette: Absolutely. I come from a family of three and we always had a home-cooked meal and that was our point of connection every evening, even when we were scattered all over the place. That time to sit together and connect was so valuable. Now there are those prefabbed meals with individually packaged ingredients coming from a bunch of different farms for you to have one meal. It’s another way we’re distancing ourselves from these basic fundamentals that as humans we need to survive.
Don: It’s health.
Collette: Yeah. It’s health. Totally. And it breaks my heart a little bit when I see those boxes [from home-delivered meal kits]. I’m noticing with my generation that we have to find some kind of bridge. People want those things. It’s happening, whether I agree with it or not, which I don’t. But as a person who grows flowers and food, I need to figure out a bridge that’s authentic to me but also meets modern needs.
Don: It’s funny. There’s this thing about how you know something is right. You know it because it feels right in your heart, your head and your gut. You can’t just teach all this in health class. You have to teach it at the dinner table and at the restaurant. And the heart connection, that’s important. Because once people are emotionally attached they don’t destroy what they love.
Collette: Well, most of the time.
Don: [laughs] Yeah. If you can get people to love it. The beauty of the landscape. The importance of family connections. All of those things are part and parcel of this. You can adapt and you can always challenge people. As an organic grower we’ve always struggled with the aesthetic issue, especially with fruit. It’s … perfectly edible and perfectly delicious even if it doesn’t look perfect.
Collette: There’s a demand for food. Restaurants in Pittsburgh want it, and people want it. One thing that I’m struggling with is that there aren’t enough opportunities for young farmers to get into farming with a wage that actually makes it worth your time. It’s a huge problem.
Don: The economics are tough. And the average American consumer spends less than 10 percent of their income on food. It’s lower than anywhere else in the world. Food doesn’t need to be cheaper, people need to spend more money on food. But it can be a viable living. It’s been a very good living for us. Not in the beginning, but over time it has.
Collette: How long do you feel like it took you to feel steady and sustainable?
Don: [laughs] Twenty years. The one thing with farming is you always have a product that everybody needs. You always have that behind you.
Collette: It’s mentally stimulating, physically stimulating and you get to do something important. There isn’t a lot of work that makes you feel like that at the end of the day.
The conversation continues …
Excerpts which were not published in the print issue
Don: They say that 60 percent of all family farmland is going to change hands in the next decade or so.
Collette: I'm still new here and learning a lot, but it seems like there is so much development happening. There are these slap-up condos popping up in places that could be usable farmland.
Don: And then farmland gets farther and farther away from population centers.
Collette: And one of the reasons I love urban farming is that we get to have people walking by and they can see what we're doing.
Don: I'd love to see a garden belt develop around the city. That's a thing that used to happen but it's disappeared. If we build this into our planning, we could give young farmers access to land that they would make profitable because they'd be close to their markets.