December 2001


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Commons Room
A Slice of Campus Life

Early Edition

When Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, long hair, shaggy beards, and streaking passed for political statements on many college campuses. For aspiring journalists returning to Pitt that fall, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes for exposing the Watergate scandals. Articles in the University’s student newspaper were rife with irreverence and spirit, as writers believed they could make a difference—or at worst, have fun trying.

Today, memories of the Nixon administration have faded. Streaking is a result of cheap window wash. A new troop of students—more clean cut—staffs The Pitt News. They recently hosted a one-day reunion for the Watergate-era staff. By 10:30 a.m., about a dozen past and present staff crowded around a conference table on the fourth floor of the William Pitt Union, where the newsroom is located. Yellowing pages of the Pitt News, bound in numerous volumes, covered the table.

Although there was an absence of shoulder-length hair among the old-timers, nostalgia for bygone days—characterized by cigarettes and skipped classes—was prevalent.

“The offices have a different feel,” says Gene Grabowski, vice president of communications for Grocery Manufacturers of America. He spoke with cool precision, leaning back in his chair, his brown hair parted perfectly. “Things are neat and orderly and clean. There are no cigarettes. There’s, like, a feeling that Mom and Dad are here.”

He served on the paper from 1974 to 1976 as both a production and news editor. Dressed in tapered blue jeans and a patterned buttoned-down shirt, Grabowski appeared less radical than he sounded. “What we had was a tremendous amount of irreverence, which I don’t see in the paper today.”

In Grabowski’s day there were, of course, the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War and the draft to be irreverent about.

“Do you remember your draft number?” asks Jess Brallier, Grabowski’s classmate and author of more than 30 books. He smiled as he bunched the sleeves of his green V-neck sweater around his elbows. A wave of brown hair was combed away from his forehead. Brallier worked on the paper from 1973 to 1975, writing a column, “Thoughts on Small,” and serving as the arts and entertainment editor.

After the old staff waxed nostalgic about ex-lovers and annoying the student government, Grabowski leaned forward, narrowing his eyes, placing his elbows and forearms on the table. “Do you consider yourselves going against the grain?”

“We’re trying,” says Shannon McLaughlin, editor in chief.
—Mark Dragotta


Come on, get up, get up, get up, get up,” Nathan James yells. “Stand in a circle!” About 20 elementary school-aged kids let out a shared moan.

The early morning July heat in Pittsburgh has already stretched into the 80s, and the kids undoubtedly are having visions of erupting fire hydrants or romps through city parks. Instead, they are crammed into the basement of the Kingsley Center in East Liberty, practicing for a play that goes into production in one week.

“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” one says defiantly.

“No you don’t,” James quickly retorts. They need to practice. Most know their lines, but still grin and look to James for prompting, afraid their friends will poke fun at them for appearing too eager.

So James begins by loosening them up with stretching exercises. “Look alive,” he says, “shake it out…shake everything out.” And they begin to laugh, twisting their bodies around the perimeter, feeling a little more comfortable.

James is a member of the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater, the city’s oldest African American theater group. This season’s theme is mystery; the group is performing a series of whodunits, tension-filled thrillers based on crime. During the summer Kuntu Repertory Theater wanted to bring the art of acting to the communities.

Through its program, Teaching and Creating Together, Kuntu Repertory Theater is giving inner-city youth the experience of performing a fully-staged production by providing instruction, creating costumes, and designing the set. The play, Nzinga and the Festival of Gifts, is set in 19th Century Africa and confronts issues of class and gender bias.

Some of the children have trouble treating the others with disrespect. One boy turns red as he stands across from a girl he is supposed to fight. He looks back at James, claiming his leg hurts. But when the girl starts taunting him, he grabs his plastic sword and begins to slap it against hers. On cue, they drop their weapons and move into a mock martial arts scene, cartwheeling around the floor. Then, as the script reads, the girl knocks the boy to the floor with a single kick. He rolls on his side defeated, but smiling.

There were a lot more smiles at the Masonic Temple during the play’s two performances. —Edward J. Humes

Tale of the Tape

On a small stage in the biomedical building, pairs of students stand face-to-face with their hands on their partner’s shoulders like middle-schoolers slow dancing. Other students tap their partners’ limp knees. Yet another group explores naked feet.

This is the terrain of sports medicine that 50 middle and high school students had to navigate at the three-day Student Athletic Trainer Workshop, sponsored by the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.

In a back corner of the room, Michelle Cacek, a high school athletic trainer, gives a demonstration at the foot and ankle station. Her shoulder-length brown hair, streaked with blond, slips from behind her ears as she rolls through the evaluation checklist. “Is the pain acute or chronic?” she asks.

Philip Hensler, a high school senior, is her model. He sits on a desk with his black-booted left foot on the carpet and his bare right foot extended past the edge of the desk. Cacek palpates the side of his foot—pinpointing crests of bone and mounds of muscle, tracing strings of ligament. “If you hear a pop, it’s a ligament,” she explains, pushing her hair behind her ear. “Tendonitis is more like a creaky feeling. These are questions you have to ask people.”

Before lunch the students stop at the two other stations: one for shoulder, the other for the knee. After pizza and soft drinks, the students split into three groups for taping exercises.

At the front of the room, Bill Couts, another high school athletic trainer, stands on stage demonstrating the best way to tear the white, fibrous tape. Evidently, it’s harder than it looks. First, Couts pulls three or four inches from the roll, then he pinches the end of the tape between his thumb and forefinger and pulls swiftly down and away. (There is no applause.) With that chore out of the way, Couts demonstrates ankle taping.

Next, it’s the students’ turn to do some taping. “Avoid wrinkles,” Couts says, walking from pair to pair, stopping to answer questions and point out mistakes.

The students are less adept than Couts at ankle taping. Wrinkles and giggles abound—but this, as much as anything else, is a goal of the workshop. Not all students will continue toward careers in sports medicine, according to Jeff Cienik, another high school athletic trainer. In fact, all of the trainers realize many of the students won’t go further than this workshop. Judging by some of the ankle tapings, that might be a good thing. —MD

Tahk of the Tahn

Since meeting my father-in-law six years ago, I have fallen in love with the deceptively charming sounds of Pittsburghese. See, unlike me and my northeastern Pennsylvania roots, my father-in-law is a Piksburgher. He came of age in the still mills. He likes sowerkrat n’at. And he’s helpful: If I need a clean dishtawhl, he will say I can “fine un dahn-in-na woarsh.” So it was with his voice bahncing arahnd my brain that I recently rode the elevator 28 floors up the Cathedral to discover more about the tahk I heard around campus regarding Scott Kiesling’s research.

The Pitt assistant linguistics professor says Pittsburgh—a hodgepodge of ethnicity—is the perfect laboratory in which to ponder how language develops. “No one has really studied Pittsburghese in depth,” Kiesling adds, in the even-handed manner of someone from, say, Bloomington, Indiana (his hometown).

Under the auspices of what he calls the “downtown variable,” Kiesling recently sent 19 undergraduates from his Aspects of Sociolinguistics course into the city to determine just who uses the local vernacular. Students asked people they encountered at bus stops, “where does this bus go?”—knowing full well the answer they’d receive, either “dahntahn” or “downtown.” Students noted the responses and jotted down the respondent’s age, ethnicity, and gender, while guessing economic class on the basis of the person’s dress.

Kiesling’s research model came from The Social Stratification of English in New York City, the landmark 1966 study by linguistics professor William Labov. Labov’s research revealed that members of that city’s upper class were enunciating the “r” in words such as “floor,” where before they had just said “floaw.”

Kiesling’s training taught him that changes in language spread from the working class to the upper class, occurring first in older generations. For his study, he theorized it would probably be younger people who were speaking Pittsburghese. (Obviously, Kiesling is not from around here.) His students discovered from contacts with some 300 Pittsburghers, about half using the local dialect, that older folks speak Pittsburghese more often than do younger people.

“Maybe it’s because [young people here] are conscious of the language,” Kiesling offers as an explanation for the surprising results. “Pittsburghese will spread for a while, then the community becomes aware of themselves being stigmatized.” He hopes to find out for sure. Within the next few years, he plans to conduct the first-ever in-depth study of Pittsburghese.

As for the older Pittsburghers who hang onto their speech patterns—guys like my father-in-law—Kiesling hypothesizes that some people place prestige on the way they talk. They say they speak differently, but never endeavor to change for a reason. “They want,” he suggests, “to show they’re a real Pittsburgher.”

Well, git aht. He might just have summpun ’ere. —David R. Eltz

Touching All Bases

The Pittsburgh Pirates were bumbling through their final long, dreary summer in Three Rivers Stadium when Salome Aguilera Skvirsky came to town. The season was already in shambles. One sportswriter worried the Pirates could lose 100 games by year’s end. Another writer called the players misfits.

Skvirsky, 25, brought some of her own baseball woes to tell, but they were about much more than wins or losses.

Before arriving in August 2000 for graduate studies at the University, she wrote and co-directed an hour-long documentary about the state of Cuban baseball player defections to the United States. The film, Stealing Home: The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball, is airing on public television stations nationwide. Childhood friend Robert A. Clift was co-director. When they first began their Cuban project in 1998, they had only a vague idea about balls and strikes. “It was a research trip. We didn’t know anything,” says Skvirsky, who speaks Spanish fluently. No one there knew anything about them, either. “We had no grant. We had no credentials.”

What they did have was perfect timing. Cuban baseball had tanked. Game attendance for the Communist island’s national pastime was slumping. Their baseball greats were fleeing the country. Defection had a powerful draw: Cuban baseball players earn around $30 a month, plus privileges such as a car. Major league salaries in the United States average more than $1 million. Cuban leader and rabid baseball fan Fidel Castro was fuming. “What’s at stake here,” Skvirsky says, “is the future of Cuban baseball.”

Skvirsky and Clift ultimately secured a $200,000 grant from PBS to produce their baseball documentary. Why Cuba is losing its baseball stars has less prominence in the film than what the defections mean to Cuban pride. Skvirsky wonders whether the ongoing drain of athletic talent isn’t some form of cultural neocolonialism: “Baseball provides a lens for understanding socialism and communism. Our documentary offers no solutions.”

Back in the States, she has resumed her English and film graduate studies at Pitt. “I want to learn to think better, more critically, more completely,” says the Washington, DC native.

Not unlike the sojourn to Cuba, she’s not sure what her next project will entail. —Kris B. Mamula

Underground Lesson

In catacomb darkness, the next stop on the Underground Railroad is Miss Tilley’s attic. But there is a mix-up. Not everyone will fit in the attic. Miss Tilley helps split a group of about a dozen “slaves” into two groups. Hurry, now. There is only room in the attic for one group, she says in an urgent whisper. The second group must go elsewhere. Husbands are separated from wives, children from parents. Wailing and crying fills the dark tunnel, then frantic pleas for quiet. Too late. A pair of bounty hunters discovers all of the escaping slaves crouching in a dark room. Two men are captured; they will fetch the biggest rewards. The other slaves scatter.

The University’s tunnels beneath Holland Hall and Schenley Quadrangle were the perfect setting for re-enacting the Underground Railroad in an event created by Pitt’s Office of Residence Life to educate students about a critical period in our nation’s history. The activity was written, directed, and performed by Pitt resident assistants, who received new identities.

Unlike the student tunnel reenactment chosen for its dramatic impact, the Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was a chain of safe houses that helped slaves from the South escape to northern free states and Canada. Between 1830 and 1860, free blacks and some whites provided escaping slaves with food, clothing, directions, and places to hide, like Miss Tilley’s attic. Played by psychology major and senior Melissa Kobal, Miss Tilley was a 60ish southern abolitionist.

“Get down! Get down!” hisses Shereena Morrow, a freshman urban studies major. Everyone complies. She has assumed the role of Harriet Tubman, a freed slave who returns again and again to help others escape on the Underground Railroad. Dogs are barking. Crickets chirp. A spiritual plays softly somewhere in the darkness. In the shadows of the tunnel lurk runaway-slave hunters. Communications major and senior Zakiya Young plays the part of a pregnant 25-year-old wife. She sobs loudly after being separated from her husband.

Not all of the weeping was an act. Young and Morrow both broke down after early performances in the two-day event. “It was just really powerful,” says Young. “I thought, oh my gosh, my ancestors went through this.” Morrow agreed. “The first time I did it, I cried,” she says. “It was so real." —KBM

The Cyclophanes

Last summer, there were all the usual temptations for goofing off. Hot, sunny days at the beach playing sand volleyball. Nights at some amphitheater listening to the melodic strains of Eve 6 or BarenakedLadies. Colleen Scott wasn’t tempted. She was holed up in the Chevron Building waiting to see if her synthetic compounds designed to bind with proteins would perform as expected.

Synthetic compounds? Doesn’t sound like as much fun as going to the newest dance club.

Scott, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry, explains how she was ecstatic when those pesky cyclophanes (the synthetic compounds) were finally isolated. “When things turn out as expected, that’s one of the joys of being a chemist,” she says. “But most of the time, it doesn’t work out right away.”

Scott nurtured her cyclophanes, instead of having an MTV kind of summer, so she could present her findings at “Science 2001: A Research Odyssey,” the University’s first campus-wide forum highlighting scientific research while showing the fun side of science.

People have misconceptions about scientists, Scott admits. She’s heard the nerd comparisons. She doesn’t care. To her, science is rewarding and fun; it just has a bad reputation because at first it can seem so difficult and complex.

She was especially excited about participating in one of the festival’s poster sessions because it was the first time she presented her research results to an outside audience. “The feedback you get can enhance your project and help you think of things in a different way,” she says.

Scott also attended some of the spotlight sessions featuring faculty discussions on current research. Also participating were scientific heavyweights from across the country.

But this festival wasn’t just about science. The participants also feasted on barbeque and listened to local rock bands. The organizers had hoped to have a battle of the bands for all the scientists with bands, but at least one stereotype seems true—it had to be canceled because they couldn’t find any rock ’n roll scientists —Meghan Holohan

Fulbright Pioneer

The year is 1949. It’s a clear summer day, and Bebe Spanos lies in the grass at her family’s home, sunning herself. The young woman who teaches English at Pitt may not have too many more lazy days like this in Pittsburgh. Already holding undergraduate and master’s degrees at Pitt, she daydreams of studying for her doctorate in London.

Her mother snaps her out of the London fog. An official-looking letter addressed to the sunbather has arrived. The envelope’s return address, the State Department, makes her sit up. The note inside sends a shiver through her body. She has won the Fulbright Scholarship.

Spanos—who later married European sculptor, painter, and poet Nicholas Ikaris—was among the first 25 women to receive a Fulbright Scholarship and was also the first woman at Pitt to get the award. Created in the aftermath of World War II, the federal, all-expenses paid Fulbright fosters international peace through education and cultural understanding.

It enabled Spanos Ikaris to fulfill her dream of studying for her doctorate in London. But by 1953, her euphoria had vanished. Work on her dissertation foundered. Writer’s block was to blame.

“I’m very ashamed to have been here all these years and to have so very little to show,” she wrote January 17, 1953 to her mentor, Pitt English Department Chair Percival Hunt. “I also feel like a fool.” Hunt’s replies to her were patient and encouraging.

The black cloud lifted as suddenly as it had appeared. Returning to Pittsburgh in 1953 after the untimely death of her sister Demetra, Ikaris began writing furiously in the attic of the family’s Squirrel Hill home. In one two-week period that August, she pumped out 1,000 pages for her dissertation. The work soon earned her a doctorate from the University of London. “I think I did Pitt proud,” says the 1943 alumnus.

Spanos Ikaris, now professor emeritus at Kingsborough Community College at the City University of New York, has made her home in Brooklyn for many years. Meanwhile, hundreds of Pitt students followed her lead in winning Fulbrights. Certainly, others will follow. Some will know the frustration Spanos Ikaris battled.

She says she has no easy answer to that problem: “I don’t think I’m qualified to give advice. I’m still learning." —Kris B. Mamula

Pearls of Wisdom

The door to Donald Goldstein’s office stands wide open, inviting the curious. Inside, no space goes unused. Books pack the floor-to-ceiling shelves on a couple of walls. Piles of photo albums, filled with everything from Amelia Earhart shots to Vietnam scenes take up another wall. A miniature guitar, porcelain vase, hat collection, and stuffed Dilbert are squeezed in, too.

Goldstein has been collecting for a long time: 22 years in the Air Force and another 24 years as a Public and International Affairs professor at Pitt.

As for the 21 books he wrote or co-wrote, they are hidden in the corner of his Posvar Hall office, behind a stack of filing cabinets. In the middle of everything is a desk, buried under crates of files, essay booklets, and some Ping-Pong balls in a plastic jar—in the shape of a soldier’s face, complete with ears for handles.

The balls are for students like the one standing outside the door, waiting to make up an exam. The student knows the drill. Goldstein, chomping on an unlit stogie, holds out the jar, just as he does in the classroom. The student draws the ball marked 4, then 27, 29, 7, and 24. Goldstein lays a list of 30 essay questions on a table and circles the numbers the student drew. “Give me four out of the five,” he growls, dropping the “r” like a true Virginian.

It’s not only students who visit his office. Last summer—after the release of the motion picture Pearl Harbor—Larry King Live, the History Channel, and ABC News all stopped by.

“I’m the man right now,” he jokes, but he acknowledges the help he’s had along the way. Shortly after coming here to teach, he received a call from his mentor. Gordon Prange, terminally ill, asked him for help finishing a book—a 3,000-page history of Pearl Harbor.

Goldstein and Katherine Dillon (Prange’s research assistant) condensed the manuscript to 700 pages. The work was published in three volumes after Prange’s death.

“I’ve become a Pearl Harbor expert by default,” he says “Prange made me semi-famous, and many others who remember [Pearl Harbor] have died.” He thumbs through a photo album of Japanese soldiers who bombed Pearl Harbor, one of many treasures not much more than an arm’s length away. —Susanne Devore

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