June 2001


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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life

Positively Alive!

Pat Croce sweeps into Lawrence Hall, and it feels as if the entire building were somehow lighter. The president and part owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, a professional basketball franchise, Croce (Health and Rehabilitation Sciences ’77) is a picture of human energy. All of it positive. And infectious.

Tall and thin, Croce wears a stylish pinstriped Canali suit and crisp leather shoes. He does not limp, though by all rights he should. He moves lithely to the foot of room 121, swaggering to the music of the Ambridge Area Steel Drum Ensemble, which belts out James Brown’s signature song, “I Feel Good.” Croce, here on the first day of Pitt’s Discovery Weekend to speak to more than 500 students, rips off his jacket and grabs the microphone and shouts: “I feel grrEATTTT!” It is both a salutation and the title of his new book (Running Press), a motivational treatise that is really a memoir.

Which is all the more fascinating because just 16 months before, Croce, who also happens to be a motivational speaker, wasn’t feeling all that well. In fact, he had almost lost a foot. It had happened one rainy June day in 1999. Forty miles into the start of a cross-country trek on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Croce pulled under an overpass to avoid a driving rain. A fellow biker in his traveling party tried to do the same. But the road was slick. Suddenly the other biker lost control of his bike, skidding into Croce. Croce’s foot was nearly severed from his ankle. What resulted was months of surgery and rehabilitation and pain; through all of it Croce, now age 46, endured with his million-dollar smile.

Later in his day at Pitt, during a tour of the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side, Croce, not in the least self-conscious, will prop his leg on a lunchroom table and hike up his pantleg to reveal an angry red knot on his ankle. The knot is a section of muscle taken from his shoulder and stuffed into his ankle to hold his foot to the rest of his leg. The knot is the size of a softball. “It was much larger,” Croce will say, in his customary positive spin.

And there, in a nutshell, is Croce: He moves mountains to find the lighter side of troubles. Always. Life, he tells the students in Lawrence Hall, is whatever you want it to be. He wanted to be a physical therapist, so he came to Pitt when no one gave him much chance. He wanted to own a franchise of physical therapy centers, so he built a chain of 40 in 11 states—using pretty much his own will alone to achieve that. He wanted to be one of the owners of the 76ers, so he met with and called and cajoled former owner Howard Katz—until Katz relented upon Croce’s 50th call. And he wanted to walk again. So, refusing to take any pain medication but aspirin after the third operation on his leg, Croce worked and worked and worked. At the start of last summer, he couldn’t walk on the beach barefoot; the shifting sands of the Jersey shore offered no stable ground. By the end, he was wiggling his toes in that sand, and walking up to five minutes on a treadmill.

Croce often says there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen; those who want things to happen to them; and those who wonder: What happened? We choose which kind we want to be, he tells Pitt students, adding that they should always bet on a sure winner: “Bet on you.”

As roughly 200 people who heard Croce speak wait in line for him to sign copies of his book, Croce’s words become prophecy. Ryan Minick, a sophomore occupational therapy major who later calls Croce a “great guy” and “down to earth,” eyes a cardboard poster of Croce’s book cover showing Croce, his big smile, and his arms raised as if in triumph. Minick, a muscular young man who, like Croce, is from Philadelphia, finally admits to a staffer that he wants the poster. She happily obliges him. See, says Croce, “If you don’t ask, the answer’s always no.”—David R. Eltz

Pool Party

If you had passed behind Bellefield Hall last fall, you might have noticed metal chutes aiming truckloads of fill through the windows, into the pool inside. It would have been easy to conclude the pool was undergoing a transformation—into a dirt cellar.

In reality, construction workers were just beginning to spend the better part of five months building, essentially, a new pool. They started by filling half of the eastern end, leveling the depth of the 30-by-75-foot pool to four feet. Additions included more than 2,000 square feet of ceramic tile around the pool’s edge and new glass block windows to let in the late morning sun. Even a fancy heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system was installed; it uses the excess heat generated to warm the pool each morning.

Pitt purchased the building in 1985 from the Jewish Community Center, formerly the Young Men & Women’s Hebrew Association. (A plaque at the Bellefield Avenue entrance still bears that name.) The building had served as a hub for association programs since May 1925, including countless swimming championships. At one point, the University wasn’t interested in renovating the pool, which closed in the early 1990s. But after students began to flock to the Bellefield Hall fitness center, opened in 1997, attention turned to remaking the pool.

And so it was that just a few days before the pool reopened in January, workers were ironing shut the seams of the new vinyl liner. A month later, some 100 students on average were swimming laps each day. Apparently, the pool party is on. —DRE

Gimme Shelter

For Josh Winans, Pitt was a place where one could start out majoring in physics and wind up building homes for the needy. How the 21-year-old senior got from the physics classroom to camping five days in a cold, windowless 8-foot-by-11-foot plywood shanty is another story altogether. It all started before Winans, a native of Bangor, Pennsylvania, enrolled at Pitt. “My goals were making money,” says Winans. “I didn’t know any better. Only when I got to college did I see other possibilities.” Those other possibilities included volunteering for the Pitt chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a 25-year-old Georgia-based organization that builds homes for people who cannot otherwise afford them.

Winans says his involvement with the group began last summer after attending a Habitat meeting on campus. The result, he says, was unexpected. “I got done with the meeting and said, ‘Boy, this is a lot of fun.’” Winans says he has always done well in physics, receiving many academic awards. For that reason, grad school and a university teaching career looked inevitable. Still, something was missing, he says. He hungered for more. “I wanted to do something fulfilling,” he says. “Through Habitat, I realized other priorities. Can you swing a hammer? That’s what really matters.”

Winans learned quickly that he could, indeed, swing a hammer. His weekend work with Habitat has included helping build a home in rural Butler County, located about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. The group also broke ground recently on a home in the city’s Hill District.

Which brings us to the plywood shed Winans helped erect last winter. Built on the then-snowy William Pitt Union lawn facing Bigelow Boulevard, the shack had big black letters on the outside that read: “Honk for Habi-Shack.” “It’s a wake-up call to our communities,” Winans says about the shack. “There are people who need help.”

Camped inside for five cold days and nights with several heavy sleeping bags was Winans. Sympathetic friends brought donuts. Winans studied and caught up on his reading, leaving the sub-freezing temperatures only for class. For Winans, grad school and a teaching career are no longer the certainties they once seemed. Instead, he plans to continue swinging a hammer with Habitat after graduation as part of AmeriCorps, the federal program that is the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. The shack was designed to increase public awareness about the need for affordable housing. Winan’s wake-up call could be heard loud and clear.
Kris Mamula

Something Wonderful This Way Come

Don’t look now, but for three weeks this summer Oakland will be invaded by a throng of 60 hormonally-charged, open-minded, Eminem-crazed teenagers cavorting hysterically to the antics of anything remotely zany. This is, you see, creative genius at work.

More to the point, this horde, which we might consider (only for a moment, mind you) as seizing control of campus, is nothing more dangerous than the Young Writers Institute, a project of Pitt’s Western Pennsylvania Writing Project. The three-week-long program for high school kids is as intense as any that adult writers attend. (Actually, the institute hosts the program across southwestern Pennsylvania for some 400 students from grades three through 12, the majority of ninth through twelfth graders converging on Oakland.)

Yes, in just a few weeks, as they have every summer since 1988, these students, perhaps a Truman Capote or a Maya Angelou among them, will engage in sophisticated writing exercises. They might write plays, poetry, short stories. Workshops might explore such adult, and yet appropriately adolescent, concepts as writing about anger, or home and family.

The goal is for each participant to publish two pieces in an anthology by program’s end. But it is the steps these students take along the way that make the program work. With each workshop, these kids come to understand that art is just as much skill and craft as it is genius and boldness. They will become comfortable as writers, perhaps the most important lesson a wordsmith can learn. Once that occurs, the words will begin to sing.

Indeed, something wonderful this way comes. —DRE

What’s in a Name?

Three bands competing in the semi-finals of the 15th Annual Rock Challenge at the Beehive Theatre: Bull Goose Looney, Dead Pressed Flowers, and Charm School Confidential.

Speed Reading

A library and coffee go together like, well, a Cup and Chaucer—the name of Hillman Library’s new ground-floor cafe. But we won’t know who came up with the catchy appellation in the library’s name-the-cafe contest. A pre-law junior, who insisted on remaining anonymous, submitted the winning entry.

The Cup and Chaucer won out over 130 entries, including Book Ends, Due Date Cafe, Study Buddy, Sip & Study, and the Pitt Perk. Hillman’s cafe is the third to pop up on the Oakland campus in a year. Cafes also opened in the nursing school’s Victoria Building (no official name yet) and the law school, christened the Side Bar. Each one features pastries and Starbucks coffee.

In the early 1990s, “super” bookstores pioneered the idea of combining books, java, and homey décor, says University Library System Director Rush Miller. Since then, libraries have begun to look a lot like bookstores. Makes sense, too. The typical superstore stocks 150,000-some books. That’s more books than 85 percent of all the public library systems in the country, according to a trade journal. But don’t look for anyone to confuse Hillman’s checkout desk with the cash register line at a bookstore anytime soon. The stacks in Hillman, just one of 15 campus libraries, alone contain some 1.9 million volumes—nearly 10 times as many as the big book outlets.—KM

Sparkling Beginnings

Even on a rainy Pittsburgh day, the new UPMC Center for Sports Medicine sparkles. It is, of course, brand new. And, although it rose from the rubble of an old steel mill site, the center has the crisp, unblemished feel of a building that needs breaking in. The perpetual sheen from its glass and steel structure doesn’t hurt either.

So when Freddie Fu (Medicine ’77), chair of Pitt’s orthopaedic surgery department, strides into the lobby, looking dapper in a pin-striped suit, flashing his smile and charm, you can feel his excitement. Fu treats patients from all over the world. The legions of autographed sports memorabilia displayed throughout the center are a testament to his healing powers. But Fu, obviously, is just as proud of this gleaming building, 42,000 square feet of state-of-the-art clinical treatment and research.

Rarely does he pass up a chance to show it off.

Fortunate enough to have watched Pitt’s program grow exponentially since his arrival in 1977—at one time the old Sports Medicine Institute occupied a mere 1,500 square feet—Fu wants first to rave about the center’s technology. He opens an office door and sits down in front of a computer and pulls up on the screen a digital X ray of a knee.

Now, Fu says, imagine you’re a soccer player from Argentina, and you’ve had screws put in after surgery on your anterior cruciate ligament—a short piece of elastic tissue that helps keep the kneecap in place—to hold it all together. Now, you’ve had an MRI to see how much you’ve healed.

Fu grabs the mouse and clicks on the image. “You can make it bigger, you can make it lighter,” he says, fiddling with the program’s gadgets. Now, he’s peering at the soft tissue around the knee. Looking at digital X rays, he says, gives him greater insight into what’s happening inside someone’s knee than he ever had with any old X-ray view box hanging in an examination room. The technology also allows Fu to e-mail the image to the patient’s primary care physician in Argentina, so both keep perfect tabs on the healing process.

“This,” says Fu, “is medicine practiced in the twenty-first century.”

Out in the hallway, Fu bumps into a former patient, a stocky fellow who has brought a friend to see the renowned Mark Lovell, head of the Sports Concussion Program. “Hey, how are you?” Fu asks the powerfully built man, patting him on the shoulder, shaking his hand. The man, now a coach for the US national karate team, tore up his knee in 1998 while competing. “Never better,” he answers, smiling.

Fu breaks away and heads down the hall. He points to autographed pictures of his patients: Bonnie Blair, gold medal US speed skater; Greg LeMond, three-time champion of the Tour de France and the only American to win the famous race before Lance Armstrong. Fu gestures to a closed door. The name plaque says it’s the office of Leslie Bonci, “one of the premier sports nutritionists in the country,” Fu adds. Then he’s walking into the rehabilitation center. About 15 people are rehabilitating their injuries on Body Masters exercise machines that look like the hulking skeletons of elephants. Patients nod toward Fu and wave to him. Some declare: “Hi, Doc.”

Fu stops and turns to make a point. In this place, he says, a patient can see a doctor, have an MRI, and receive first-class therapy. Traditional clinics might bounce you from one place to the next like a ping-pong ball. “Everybody’s envious of this,” he concludes, happy to boast that teams of orthopaedic physicians from all over the world visit regularly.

Inside the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, a woman, black suction-cup electrodes attached to joints all over her body, prances like a dancer across a black mat. The electrodes measure muscle activity and send optical images across the room to a computer screen. She is demonstrating just one example of how researchers here can determine muscle function, Fu says. One could, he offers, ask Tiger Woods to come here and hit a golf ball and have an average golfer do the same while researchers study both to determine scientifically why Woods can hit the ball so much better. “There’s so much to be done,” Fu says, leaving the laboratory.

Back in his office Fu waxes philosophical in a lounge chair. “This place has a lot of history,” he says, looking out across the Monongahela River. With the downtown Pittsburgh skyline and upper campus in the distance, one can ponder the slabs of steel that were made at this plot of land. “This was the key to American industry,” he says.

And now this place is part of something different: It is emblematic of a new Pittsburgh and the new University of Pittsburgh and its world-class medical community. Oh, and there’s one more thing, adds Fu—bragging rights. “This is something that nobody else has.” —DRE

Healing Arts

Lin Wei-Lee relates the persecution of the Chinese in a civil war of the 1930s to the shooting rampage that left five people dead and another critically injured last year near Pittsburgh. Poetry is the bridge. Wei-Lee, a 38-year-old Pitt doctoral student in English literature, is inside a cavernous nightclub. Some 200 people have turned out for this benefit poetry reading. The crowd is hushed, the atmosphere solemn. Occasional strobe light flashes expose a stark black brick and steel plate décor. Ideal place for edgy music, but not tonight. Flickering in the darkness are dozens of tiny white votive candle flames, chapel-like. On stage, eyes shut tight, pan flutist Bao-hui Chen finishes the last note of “Amazing Grace” in little more than a whisper. The poetry begins.

Wei-Lee was among six writers to read in a January benefit for Sandip Patel, a victim in a shooting rampage in 2000 that left five dead—a Jewish woman, one African-American and three Asian men. Ethnic hatred fueled the shootings, police say. Joining Wei-Lee at the benefit, entitled “Bust-A-Myth,” were Geeta Kothari, Victor Damian, Jennifer Dobbs, Kristin Naca, and Brandon Som. Each is either a Pitt student or staff member. Raising money for the 24-year-old Patel, who was paralyzed in the shooting, was the first goal of the benefit. The second was to take a look at how Asians have been stereotyped in our society.

Lin Wei-Lee is the last to read. Her voice is gentle, her words powerful. She tells the story of a Chinese woman who killed her newborn baby rather than risk discovery by communists as she fled Nanjing in a crowded boat. The poem was born in a story that Wei-Lee’s grandmother told about a childhood friend. “I saw her one morning before dawn, and she was pregnant,” Wei-Lee’s grandmother said. “When I saw her again the next night, she was no longer pregnant. And there was no child.” From her poem, Wei-Lee reads: At that time / all I knew was that the currents would carry her baby—our golden spirit sentinel—/ to where the river of golden sand ends /Perhaps, the only one amongst us to reach the sea.

From a hospital bed across town, Patel will see tonight’s event on the 11 o’clock news. The bullet spared little more than his ability to draw breath. “None of us are immune to these things,” says Wei-Lee, who is executive director of the Asian Society of Independent Artists. The nonprofit group produced the reading, which was co-sponsored by the arts advocacy group Sun Crumbs and the Pitt Program Council. Planned are other events. Art is the healer, the spirit longing to be free. —KM

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