Why These 6 Days in 1969 Were So Important to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but we're not the only ones. We take a look at six notable events from 1969.

The word “Renaissance” has become so embedded in the region’s history that its descriptive force has ebbed away. But 50 years ago, Pittsburgh was in the throes of a full-blown metamorphosis.

In the Golden Triangle, a new skyscraper was rising higher than anything outside of Manhattan and Chicago. Across the river, workers were building a modern stadium for the pennant-chasing Pirates and the hapless Steelers. Bankrolled by foundations fattened by decades of prosperity, cultural organizations and educational institutions were springing up and growing full throttle. A new children’s television program from public station WQED was quickly amassing a national following.

Yet amid the optimism, the social climate roiled. Protesters decried war in Vietnam. A new feminist movement was forming. Ghettos wracked by riots and fires in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder the previous year remained flashpoints of racial tension, both restive and resolute. Across Pittsburgh and America, voices long ignored now demanded to be heard.

Read on about six of the region’s most consequential days from that year.

{January 27, 1969}


photo courtesy Cleveland Browns

STEELERS HIRE CHUCK NOLL

“Geography has nothing to do with winning. Winning is a product of work and attitude.” — CHUCK NOLL

At least one Baby Boomer didn’t love the 1960s. For the North Sider teenager whose family owned the Pittsburgh Steelers, every weekend ended in disappointment. “I always used to say growing up I hated Sundays, because it meant the Steelers would lose and I had school the next day,” recalls team president Art Rooney II. But in 1969, the boy’s grandfather made a fateful decision. Founder Art Rooney Sr. had picked every coach in his team’s 36-year history, yet not one had delivered the “Chief” so much as a division title. This time, he let his son decide.


photo courtesy pittsburgh steelers

Thus it was that Dan Rooney flew to Miami to meet with Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator Chuck Noll the day after Super Bowl III. Noll thoroughly impressed Rooney with his intelligence, determination and knowledge of the Steelers roster; two weeks later, he was hired. At the introductory press conference, a reporter’s question about coming to a “city of losers” was quickly swatted down by the new head coach. “Geography has nothing to do with winning,” Noll said. “Winning is a product of work and attitude.”

Journalists could be forgiven if they doubted his ability to deliver. The Steelers were coming off a two-win season, playing at Pitt Stadium and training in ramshackle quarters at the South Park fairgrounds while waiting for Three Rivers Stadium to be completed. “The general viewpoint was, here’s the next victim, the next guy who’s going to come in and say it’s going to be all better,” says Michael MacCambridge, author of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work.” “And he’s going to be replaced in the next year or two.”

On his first full day at work, Noll rejected Notre Dame quarterback and Butler native Terry Hanratty, considered to be the scouts’ favorite, and instead picked North Texas State defensive tackle Joe Greene. (The nonplussed Hanratty fell to the Steelers in the second round anyway.) At training camp that summer, the coach left an immediate impression on his future Steel Curtain linchpin. “This isn’t a good football team, and most of you aren’t going to be here when this is a good football team,” Noll bluntly told the players at their first team meeting. When one of them chuckled at the coach’s insistence that their ultimate goal was a Super Bowl, that player was summarily traded.

Noll’s dogged insistence on fundamentals seemed to pay off in the 1969 opener, with the Steelers upsetting the visiting Detroit Lions. Then they lost all 13 of their remaining games. “I would question what we were doing,” Greene recalls of his frustrating rookie year. “Mentally, in my own mind, I would question why we kept doing the same thing when it wasn’t working. But it never changed.”

The Rooneys, however, didn’t question. They knew Noll’s grand strategy: build up the team with talented young players such as Greene and mold them into champions. At the season’s end, Dan Rooney tried to give his coach a $10,000 bonus check. Noll resisted; he later had to be cajoled into cashing it. He insisted he hadn’t earned it yet.

As Steelers fans know, he soon would.

{May 1, 1969}


photos courtesy wqed

MISTER ROGERS GOES TO WASHINGTON

“I could tell he was nervous when I watched it. I could hear the nervousness in his voice.” — JOANNE ROGERS

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” had only been on national television for one year, and already it was in trouble. Soon after his 1969 inauguration, President Richard Nixon started looking for budget cuts. One tempting target was a $20 million appropriation that his predecessor had championed to establish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The new entity would foster development of a nascent national network of non-commercial TV stations — including WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, home of Fred Rogers and his children’s program.

So the gentle architect of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe was deployed to the Senate Subcommittee on Telecommunications on May 1, 1969, to justify his existence. There in the hearing room, locking eyes with the no-nonsense Democratic chairman, Sen. John Pastore of Rhode Island, Rogers went off-script.

He discarded his prepared notes and, with quiet yet impassioned zeal, told Pastore of the “neighborhood expression of care” his show provided preschool viewers each day. In closing, Rogers recited a song he had written for the show, based on a question a child had asked one of his puppets: “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?”

Pastore confessed he had goosebumps. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million,” he said, grinning broadly.

Video of Rogers’ testimony went viral again in 2017, when funding cuts loomed again in Washington. Its lasting power is no surprise to Maxwell King, retiring head of the Pittsburgh Foundation and author of “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.”

“For decades, that particular video clip has been taught in business schools around the country as an example of extraordinarily effective marketing,” King says. “I don’t think Fred thought of himself of doing any marketing that day; he was just trying to convince people that public television was a good idea. But it comes across as effective selling because it is completely authentic.”

Sitting next to Rogers at the Senate hearing that day was Dr. Bernard Mallinger, a local optometrist who had appeared on the show and given the host an eye exam. Mallinger was in Washington to testify as to the specifics of how young children process electronic and visual stimuli. He and his wife had become friends with Rogers through their mutual involvement in a Lawrenceville child development research center run by psychologist Margaret McFarland, a key mentor to Rogers and consultant to the show.

“I was there as a technician, sort of,” Mallinger says. “I was surprised at having been invited. And I soon realized that whatever anybody else had to say, Fred just overwhelmed them all.”

Watching her husband testify on TV back home, Joanne Rogers detected something few viewers might notice. “I could tell he was nervous when I watched it,” she says. “I could hear the nervousness in his voice.”

Though her husband passed away in 2003, for Joanne Rogers, video clips of the hearing and his show, along with last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the soon-to-be-released feature film starring Tom Hanks as her husband, make it sometimes appear as though he isn’t actually gone.

“He is so available to me in so many ways,” she says. “He almost seems to be there.”

{July 7, 1969}


photo: shutterstock

CITY OUTLAWS SEX DISCRIMINATION

“It shows that you can make change locally that goes nationally.” — ELEANOR SMEAL

When the local chapter of the National Organization for Women picketed the Pittsburgh Press in March 1969 for printing separate help wanted ads for men and women, the editor rolled out a tried-and-true tactic: mansplaining.


photo: pittsburgh press

John Troan wasn’t prejudiced against women: “I married one,” he said. The paper laid out a table with coffee and doughnuts for the “gals,” as its news story referred to them, though they stubbornly declined the offer. Press workers on lunch break turned the protestors’ organization name into leering chants — “We want women, NOW!” and “NOW, wow!” — and offered to help carry their signs.

Such patronizing responses were nothing new to the women. They had seen the eye-rolling before, such as when six of them had ignored “men only” lunchtime restrictions the previous autumn to claim a table at Stouffer’s restaurant in Oakland. And they were determined to get the last laugh.

Four months after the Press protest, the local NOW chapter succeeded in getting Pittsburgh City Council to add sex to the ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on race, creed and color. The chapter then brought a formal complaint to the city Human Relations Commission that sex-segregated want ads — common in newspapers at the time — were discriminatory, keeping women in lower-paying jobs. The commission agreed and ordered the Press to desist.

The newspaper countered that the order violated the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press. It continued printing separate male and female want ads, but added a disclaimer stating that while “most jobs generally appeal more to persons of one sex than the other,” a female job seeker shouldn’t assume that just because an employer posted a position in the male job section she couldn’t also apply.

Pennsylvania courts rejected the Press’ argument, so the paper appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1973, the justices ruled 5-4 to uphold the state courts, and the Press and other newspapers across the land abandoned male and female want ads. By that time, the woman who had led the Pittsburgh protests had a new job. Wilma Scott Heide, a nursing educator and cofounder of the city’s NOW chapter, was elected president of the national organization in 1971.

“It really put our chapter on the map as equal to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and the other big chapters, because this chapter was able to get results,” says Patricia Ulbrich, a sociologist and filmmaker chronicling the feminist movement in Pittsburgh. Ulbrich recently produced and directed a documentary short, “Changing the Want Ads,” about the local activists’ successful crusade.

Two more Pittsburgh feminists, Eleanor Smeal and Molly Yard, would succeed Heide at the helm of the National Organization for Women over the next two decades, further cementing the Steel City’s importance to early feminism. Smeal remembers getting the phone call about the Supreme Court victory during a state NOW meeting at Robert Morris College and shouting the good news to everyone.

“It shows that you can make change locally that goes nationally,” Smeal says. “It’s inspiring that so many of these women at this time gave so much of themselves to make it a better world for women everywhere.”

{August 27, 1969}


photos: shutterstock

PROTESTS SHUT DOWN CONSTRUCTION SITES

“In every man’s life there should be a supreme moment, and this is mine.” — NATE SMITH

When the balloon first hit Alma Speed Fox in the face, she assumed it was full of water. Another protestor quickly informed the Pittsburgh NAACP executive director that she was soaked in urine.

 

For three straight days in August 1969, protestors choked city traffic and picketed the construction sites of Three Rivers Stadium and the U.S. Steel Building, demanding that qualified black workers be hired there. In reply from the scaffolding above came hot rivets, firecrackers and urine-filled balloons.

“It didn’t shock me. I felt mad,” says Fox. “I tried to go across the street to get myself a cop, but there were people with more sense than I did who held me back. A cop would probably have thrown me down and beat me up.”

Scores of protestors were injured by police in the protests that week, and more than 200 were arrested, including several who lay down in Grant Street that day to block construction vehicles. One was Nate Smith, a former boxer who had once traded fight tickets to get his own union card. In 1968, Smith launched Operation Dig, a program to train minority workers on heavy machinery so they could benefit from the city’s construction boom.

Robert Pease, then head of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, accompanied Smith to the Operation Dig training ground that winter and provided federal funds to help pay for the dump trucks, graders and backhoes. “It was pretty impressive,” he remembers. “I went down into the mud and went up into the machines and rode with the men. They were obviously happy at what they were doing.”

That June, when the first class of 67 black men and women graduated from Operation Dig, Smith remarked: “In every man’s life there should be a supreme moment, and this is mine.” But by August, frustrated that qualified black operators still weren’t getting jobs, Smith, Fox and thousands of supporters took to the streets. Fearing a rekindling of the previous year’s Hill District riots, Mayor Joe Barr finally prevailed on the bosses to shut down major construction sites through Labor Day and negotiate.
Talks would drag on into January, but the worst of the tension was broken. Smith and other leaders finalized an agreement with the unions to train and enroll 1,250 new black members. In the end, only about half that number got construction jobs, but it was at least an improvement. “Black men getting high-paying jobs would not have existed at that time without that program.”

“I know a bunch of black people who are electricians, carpenters, heavy equipment operators — I married an ironworker,” says Renee Smith Clark, the oldest daughter of Smith, who died in 2011. “He opened the door. He almost kicked the door in.”

She shares her father’s boldness. Smith Clark was one of more than 40 Black Action Society students at Pitt who occupied the university computer lab in January 1969, demanding more minority students and faculty, plus a Black Studies department. She remembers that her father, who never finished high school, was not pleased. “He asked me, had I lost my mind? He said, that’s not why I sent you down there.” Years later, Smith Clark would hear her dad yelling at her again — but this time it would be, “We love you, sweetheart,” echoing from across the auditorium as she took the stage to accept her doctoral degree.

{September 29, 1969}


photos courtesy robert morris university

RMU BECOMES A FOUR-YEAR COLLEGE

“I like to say that in the next 50 years, Bobby Mo is going to go ‘Bobby Pro.’ ” — CHRIS HOWARD

Today, Robert Morris University is a bustling Moon Township college, with nearly 5,000 students strolling the grounds, NCAA Division I basketball and football teams competing for conference championships, and brand-new academic buildings situated on 230 rolling acres.

 

It’s also celebrating the 50th anniversary of becoming a four-year college — a far cry from when it was founded in 1921 as the for-profit Pittsburgh School of Accountancy, which operated out of Downtown hotel rooms and enrolled just 26 students in its first year.

That name stuck until 1935, when the school was renamed the Robert Morris School of Business, in honor of the Founding Father from Philadelphia, whom RMU President Chris Howard describes as completing “a colonial hat trick.” Morris was one of only three men to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. A keen businessman who was the Superintendent of Finance during the Revolutionary War, Morris also became one of Pennsylvania’s first senators and bought millions of acres of frontier land.

In addition to its new name, the school added an applied business and secretarial studies division — and from that point on, its growth snowballed. In 1959, the school purchased its own building at the intersection between Fifth and Sixth avenues to accommodate its growing enrollment. In the early ’60s, the school formed the NFL’s first cheerleading squad (the Steelerettes), became a nonprofit institution and bought the land for its current location: 230 acres in Moon that were once the summer home of Oliver Kauffman, a philanthropist and department store magnate.

Fifty years ago, the school hit another milestone, becoming Robert Morris College and offering four-year bachelor’s degrees in business administration. It became Robert Morris University in 2002 and now also offers master’s and doctoral degree programs in subjects including information sciences, engineering and nursing and health systems.

Its president credits the school’s rapid growth to the spirit of the city. “Robert Morris University is the story of Pittsburgh progress,” says Howard, who was hired in 2015. “We went from being a for-profit specialty school to a doctoral university — that’s evidence of the can-do attitude of this community.”

In its early days, he adds, RMU — or “Bobby Mo,” as it’s affectionately nicknamed — was a place where steel workers and coal miners could come to transition into new careers as accountants and financiers. As the city has evolved from its industrial beginnings, RMU has changed with it.

“We have always been, and always will be, there to support the Western Pennsylvania region and beyond,” Howard says. “I like to say that in the next 50 years, Bobby Mo is going to go ‘Bobby Pro,’ through engineering, nursing, finance, technology and teacher education. We’ll be an engine for those professions in the 21st century.”
—Megan McDonald

{November 12, 1969}


photos courtesy pittsburgh ballet theater

PITTSBURGH BALLET THEATRE IS BORN

When Nicolas Petrov started teaching ballet in 1967 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, a teenage girl from Carrick named Jordeen Ivanov was the only kid in his class. Six years later, she would be a professional dancer in his Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, pirouetting into the arms of handsome Soviet defector Sasha Filipov as the pair performed “Romeo and Juliet” on the grand stage at Heinz Hall.

“To have pulled it off, it was like the Olympics,” Ivanov, now Ivanov-Ericson, remembers.

Petrov and his wife, Marion, were professional dancers in Paris when they took a three-year contract to start a ballet program at the playhouse in 1967. Financial instability nearly ended it all a year later, until Point Park College bought the struggling playhouse and hired Nicolas Petrov to head a new college dance department.

During a visit to New York, he met with the renowned French ballerina Violette Verdy. She suggested he invite her to appear as the Sugarplum Fairy when his students performed “The Nutcracker” that winter. Attendance was so good that Petrov decided to start a professional company. He called on Loti Falk, a prominent arts patron, to assemble and chair its board of trustees.

The new Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s first show, a mixed program of dances, was held at the playhouse in November 1969. The next winter, the company put on “Swan Lake” at the Syria Mosque, with Verdy returning along with the New York City Ballet’s Edward Villella in the principal roles.

“Here was Pittsburgh seeking to start a major ballet, so I was really happy to add something to what they were trying to achieve,” recalls Villella. “They were not of the caliber of the New York City Ballet, but you have to start somewhere, and Nicolas was a great old pal.”

Petrov now laughs when he retells the story. “Swan Lake” sold out, he says — even the restricted-view seats — while earlier that same season the visiting American National Ballet and legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn could only fill half the house. “I was very proud,” he says. “But I was false proud, because the tickets were bought by all the parents of my school and all the friends of Loti Falk, which was one third of the rich people in Pittsburgh.”

The company moved to its new home at Heinz Hall the following year. Later in the decade, frictions between Falk and Petrov sparked into open conflict; he formed a new company at Point Park, where he taught until his retirement. But the two reconciled long before Falk’s death in 2015, and Petrov takes great pride in the ballet company they launched 50 years ago. It now boasts 32 professional dancers, and in 2016 it opened a gleaming $6.5 million annex to its studios in the Strip District.

“We’ve done a lot to bring great art to the city and also to be ambassadors of Pittsburgh in our travels around the world,” says Terrence S. Orr, the ballet’s current artistic director, a former principal dancer for vaunted companies in San Francisco and New York. “It has a wonderful reputation. No matter where I go, people know about Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.”

Also turning 50 this year …


Pittsburgh Dance Council
Now part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, this presenting organization brings top dance companies from around the world to perform for local audiences.

WDVE-FM
Taking its call letters from the dove of the peace movement, this station rules the ratings with ’70s and ’80s rock hits and a legacy of lunacy from its morning show hosts.


FORT PITT MUSEUM PHOTO BY RACHELLYNN SCHOEN

Fort Pitt Museum
A key attraction of Point State Park, this collection of Colonial-era exhibits and artifacts has outlived the actual fort, which stood from 1759 to 1792.

Children’s Theater Festival
What began as a Junior League performing arts series for children has grown into an annual festival introducing kids and families to live performance.

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