Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of


When I walked into the Eisman-Prussin Room, a small banquet room in Pitt Stadium, I found the tables there crowded with men--students in Tshirts, waiting for their chance to join Pitt's football team.

The men came in various shapes and sizes, ranging from big to really big. One heavyset student with a crew cut rested his elbows on his knees. Another young man, wearing a Grateful Dead shirt, folded his lean, wiry arms over his chest. A third student, with a slick moustache and biceps as thick as Easter hams, chatted in hushed tones with the man next to him about the pleasures of lifting weights at Trees Hall gym.

These young men and I had gathered in response to an advertisement that Coach John Majors had placed in The Pitt News. In the ad, the coach called a meeting for anyone interested in "walking on" to the Panther team. I had expected the men to raise their eyebrows--maybe even to laugh at me--when I walked in and took my seat among those who hoped to play for Johnny. But to my surprise, despite my 5' 3" stature and my blue sleeveless dress, no one looked askance at me. The reason, I soon understood, was a nervous camaraderie that pervaded the room. No one--not even the young man with the Easter ham arms--was sure enough of his own prospects for making the team to voice doubts about anyone else's chances, even mine.

The truth was that I had come as a reporter, to write a story about the men who would be Panthers. But why should I confess this to them? This was my chance to learn what it really felt like to try to make it onto the team.

For 10 minutes or more, we all waited together in tense, unnatural quiet. Then recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti finally arrived, a man with dark hair and a sober demeanor. At the sight of him, we all drew deep breaths, relieved that he had turned up, but also sorry somehow. In some ways, we would have been just as glad to go home and forget the whole thing. Instead, we got up out of our seats and followed him out onto the sidewalk and around to the football office in another part of the stadium. He told us to go inside and line up in the corridor to wait for one-on-one interviews.

Behind me in line, some of the students began to converse. A tall, sandy-haired man and two shorter men traded stories of disaster: balls fumbled, quarterbacks sacked, and--worst of all-- horrendous accidents involving mangled limbs, fractured bones, and internal bleeding.

In my efforts to look like a credible linebacker, I listened in on this bone-crunching conversation, taking care not to show any signs of alarm. After all, the tales of disaster I was hearing had a legendary quality. The catastrophes always seemed to have happened to some distant third party, someone's friend's cousin or someone's cousin's friend.

The prospective walk-ons who stood a little closer to Cignetti's door, however, were imagining disasters that might befall them. A round-faced man with close-cut hair and his tall, thin friend, who wore a baseball cap, were speculating about just how badly their interviews with Cignetti might go. It was important, they both agreed, to maintain composure during the face-to-face. Then, out of the blue, the man with the round face switched into a pantomime. He pretended to be in Cignetti's office, cracking under the pressure. In mock panic, he pounded his fists against his legs. The man in the baseball cap shook his head and laughed quietly.

From where we stood, we could watch each man at the front of the line as he stepped into Cignetti's office alone. If he came out of the office, turned right, and disappeared down an interior staircase, that meant he had been invited to practice with the team. More often, the man turned left and came back down the corridor, shaking his head and avoiding eye contact.

The man with the round face, having regained his dignity, explained to me that he had hoped to join the team last year, but that he had been forced to take time off from school to earn some money. "The coaches know me," he said, with all the assurance he could muster. Yet the jokes he made betrayed a fear that by now the coaches had forgotten him. He was imagining worst case scenarios. "Coach'll probably say to me, ' What was your name?"' He giggled, but then held up his hand. He had thought of something even more impersonal that the coach might ask him: "No, no, he'll just say, 'What's your social security number?"' As we moved forward in line, I began to wonder what further stories of disaster the men would tell as we drew even closer to Cignetti's office. Were there even greater anxieties to be revealed?

If there were, I never found out. As we neared the office threshhold, the men instead fell dead silent. Preparing themselves for their interview, they withdrew into their private thoughts. I suspected that they were overcome with nervousness. But as for me, I was feeling something entirely different. I felt great. In fact, my spirits were soaring. I had achieved something significant already. Unlikely football player though I was, I had passed almost all the way through the line unchallenged. And maybe, just maybe, I could make it onto the team after all. I could picture myself out on the field, leaping weightlessly to pluck a 50yard pass from the air and then sprinting toward the end zone for a touchdown.

And who knows? Maybe I would have made it--caught that pass, made that touchdown--if only I had made it into Cignetti's office for an interview. Finally, it was a secretary in the football office who cut short my collegiate football career, recognizing me for the reporter I was--n~ot the receiver I might have been. She spoke to me with a smile. But all around me, men flinched, hearing the words they all feared and half- expected, afraid for one brief moment that she was talking to them when she leaned toward me and said, " You can't be here to try out for the team. "

I stepped out of line and walked slowly back down the corridor, consoling myself with the thought of just how close I had come. Besides, basketball season is just around the corner.--Laura Shefler

It's late summer at McConnell's Mill State Park in Portersville, Pennsylvania, about 45 miles north of Pittsburgh. A young boy, maybe seven or eight, disengages from his mother's side. He saunters around the old, now-silent mill, stopping at the various grinders and bins and tools on display. He inspects the water- turbine machinery, the belts and pulleys and axles that once drove the mill's entire operation. He strolls over to the roller mills that used to crush the grains into flour and meal. At one point, the boy reaches toward a tin canister that once ferried processed wheat to the flour mill on the next floor.

"No, Raymond," the mother's voice calls, seemingly out of nowhere. "Don't touch." The boy pulls back his hand, clearly disappointed.

It's hard not to have a sense of longing for what was once here--pulleys and belts and activity everywhere. Despite the helpful park officers and the descriptive signs and the carefully preserved machinery, the old mill is, well, just that--preserved. The history of this once-thriving business seems remote somehow, as if it speaks a language we cannot understand.

Except for a fire in 1867, the mill was in continuous operation for 76 years. Powered by water from nearby Slippery Rock Creek, the mill turned out bag after 50-pound bag of wheat, buckwheat, corn meal, and animal feed for distribution all over the country. In fact, if bad economic conditions hadn't forced its closure in 1928, who knows? The mill might still be active.

That's what's missing here--action. The roaring water outside, the thick beveled gears on the turbines, the huge grinding wheels--all of it inspires a sense of sheer power. But it's a power, alas, that's found now only in the imagination.

Things weren't always this quiet. Anxious to preserve the facility, Wilson and Company, the last operators of the business, sold the mill to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1946. A state grant in the 1960s was used to rehabilitate the mill, especially to buttress the building with concrete supports so that grinding demonstrations could be offered to the public. The demonstrations were regular shows for more than 20 years.

Then things really started to shake--literally. The combination of water turbines and pulleys and gears made the whole mill vibrate and shudder. The grinding demonstrations finally ground to a halt in 1990. Not surprisingly, cracks were found in the concrete supports.

To stop the moving and the shaking, some movers and shakers in the McConnell's Mill Preservation Association --including Charles Collins (Arts and Sciences '63), whose home abuts McConnell's Mill State Park--approached Pitt's Engineering School for help. The school said yes. It was, after all, a perfect match for the engineering curriculum-- "a chance to understand the nature of engineering problem-solving, " says adjunct professor John Oyler, quoting from the school's bulletin.

So far, the project has included four teams from the school. In 1993, two groups of mechanical engineering students, led by chair Michael Kolar, inventoried the mechanical equipment in the mill and evaluated the soundness of the building structure.

This year, Oyler oversaw a team of civil engineering students--five specializing in structural engineering and three in water resources--to continue plans for restoration. The structural contingent was charged with devising a plan to redesign the 13 concrete pillars above the foundation, while the water resources team was responsible for coming up with a way to rehabilitate the turbine system, which drives both the grindstone mill and some of the bucket elevators that transport grain throughout the mill.

"It was a term-long project," Oyler explains. "The premise for the class was this: Pretend we're part of a small civil engineering firm that is bidding for a contract to perform this work for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources. The DER has very strict bid procedures for estimating, budgeting, project planning, scheduling, and document preparation." The class also maintained a computerized project schedule, and generated a group of computer-assisted drawings of the mill's infrastructure.

Turns out that the project wasn't "pretend." The students' final bid package was submitted to the Pennsylvania DER's western regional office. Their case study has provided the Commonwealth with the technical specifications necessary to solicit engineering bids for the work. "I'm satisfied with the final package," says Oyler, who owns his own engineering firm. "I'd feel comfortable bidding on this myself."

"We're very pleased with the students' results," says Charles Collins. "We're looking forward to securing the necessary funding and getting this project going and starting the grinding demonstrations again. "

When bids will be solicited and the work begun is anyone's guess. But even finishing the bid package, Oyler explains, provides invaluable experience. For instance, redesigning the 13 foundation pillars meant surveying every existing beam and column and calculating the loads and stresses each must withstand. By examining the dynamic forces, Oyler and his class began to understand why the pillars failed. "The concrete supports weren't too forgiving," he explains, and then forgives his explanation. "Forgiveness is not a technical term. It just means that the columns couldn't take the horizontal loads generated by the turbines, and over time they cracked." To illustrate this, Oyler describes a folding card table. "You can push down on an unstable card table, and it'll stay upright. But put a little force on the side, and it will fall. That's why card tables have braces on top of their legs that snap in place." For the McConnell's Mill project, the students needed supports that were forgiving, stable side-toside, and historically accurate. The students recommended replacing the concrete with 10" by 10" Pennsylvania oak timbers, braced at the top for added sturdiness.

The water resources team faced a different challenge. The mill race from the creek is filled with silt. Their re- design of the "taintor gate" (which works like a shut-off valve) and the "trash rack" (which keeps debris from floating into the turbine pit) had to include clearing out the silt. Half a century ago, the silt would probably have been discharged en masse into the creek. Modern environmental laws, however, required that the students specify that the runway be dredged instead of simply flushed.

But the course wasn't all engineering, at least not the analytical, number-crunching kind. Writing the proposal took up one-fifth of the term, Oyler estimates, and it was worth every minute. "If I could add up the time that was wasted on projects I worked on because people failed to communicate," he says, then shakes his head. "You have to be able to explain what you mean." Oyler has held his professional engineering license for more than three decades, yet his courses also stress liberal-arts components such as writing and public speaking. "If people don't know what it is you want or what you're proposing, then the engineering part won't really matter. You won't be understood."

If, by chance, the students' plans are put into action, then Oyler and his class will be understood--not only by the contractors and engineers and laborers who rebuild McConnell's Mill, but by children like Raymond, who will finally enjoy actual living history, something more than just their imaginations.--Mark Collins

Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of