September 2001


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Commons Room
A Slice of Campus Life


Me, me, may, may, mah, mah, moe, moe. It’s a sunny, sultry day in Pittsburgh, and the melodic voices of 60 boys echo as one inside Heinz Memorial Chapel. Warming up the Boys Choir of Tallahassee for an afternoon performance, director Earle Lee Jr. is snapping his fingers: one, two, three. “Baritone now,” he says. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah—voices traverse the scale in unison. Breathing exercises now. “Inhale: one, two, three,” he says. Then it’s time for prayer. All heads bow. The chapel hushes.

The 5-year-old Boys Choir is an innovative community outreach project sponsored by the Florida State University School of Social Work. The boys, ages 8 through 19, are recruited from schools in the Tallahassee area. With the motto “No Excuses,” choir members receive intensive counseling and academic tutoring. Since its first member graduated from high school in May 1998, every senior has received a scholarship at a major college or university. Electrical engineering, business, finance, architecture, sports medicine, physical therapy, computer science, and, of course, social work are among the academic majors choir graduates have pursued. The choir had performed the evening before as a surprise for departing social work dean David E. Epperson’s retirement dinner. The 66-year-old Epperson was honored for his 29 year-tenure as dean. Now, before boarding buses for home, the choir would perform an impromptu concert at Heinz Chapel for the University community.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,” the boys sang, a slow, inspirational tune, backed by a keyboard synthesizer, which sounded like an electric piano. The temperature inside the chapel rose as the choir shifted from traditional spiritual numbers to rollicking contemporary gospel music. A drummer joined the keyboard player—thump, thump, thump. The boys began swaying and clapping—tiny kids, some of them looking hardly old enough for first grade. Others performed like bold college freshmen, driven by ideals and certainty of purpose. The audience was clapping now, too. By the last number, the crowd rose to its feet, singing and clapping and cheering. Single file, the boys crisply filed out of the chapel and into the bright sunshine of tomorrow’s dreams. —Kris Mamula

Stepping Stones

When the University decided to replace cracked walkway paving stones around the Cathedral of Learning, it went to the same quarry where the original stones were cut in the early 1930s. Smart choice, too. The stones came from the 300-million-year-old Berea rock formation, located about 40 miles west of Cleveland. Construction projects worldwide have used this sandstone: the John Hancock Building in Boston—the tallest structure in New England; Ottawa’s Parliament Building; Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame; and the Seattle estate of Bill Gates.

American Stone’s Cleveland Quarries opened the same year President Andrew Johnson was battling impeachment charges in the White House. The quarries, which stretch over 1,000 acres, are located in South Amherst, Ohio. Since 1868, some 500 million cubic feet of sandstone has been hauled out of the quarries, brought to nearby finishing plants, and carefully sawed into blocks and slabs. In the early days, the stone was split, sawed, and squared by hand. Today electrical saws, including a new 12-foot circular saw with diamond-tip blade, shape the blocks. Some stones weigh 16 tons.

The superiority of the sandstone is no mystery. The rock that comes out of Cleveland Quarries is far more durable and less porous than limestone, the rock the Cathedral is made of. And at 145 pounds per cubic foot, sandstone is tough stuff that can last a century. After curing, which is essentially a drying process, sandstone is virtually impervious to water, salt, and other chemicals. High silica content—93 percent—accounts for Berea sandstone’s durability. But 70-years of heavy traffic can reduce the strength of the stone to little more than potato chips. In recent years, that’s what happened in several places around the Cathedral.

The Cathedral’s original flagstones were installed over compacted soil just about the time the lawn was first seeded in 1931. In February of that year, students attended classes in the Cathedral for the first time. (It would be six more years until the building was finally declared done.) But in some areas, compacted soil was no match for the rigors of Western Pennsylvania freezes and heavy traffic. Some stones have cracked. Over the next five years, the University is replacing 8,387-square-feet of cracked stone with 2.5-inch thick buff and gray sandstone slabs of varying sizes. Many are in the range of 4-by-8-feet. Where heavy traffic is expected, the replacement stones will be laid atop a concrete base for stability. Generations of students have walked across those old stones on the way to classes—and new careers. Future generations will tread similar ancient stone, once again on the promise of sure footing. —KM

You’ve Got Mail (Everywhere)

Not long ago, Jinx Walton, director of Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD), wondered just what thousands of students did with their time in Pitt’s six computer labs. She reviewed usage stats to determine what applications were used the most.

The answer: e-mail.

Enter a pilot program to free up space in the computer labs for computing students (read: students who need to do research and homework). In September 1999 Walton had her staff set up three PC stations in the student union for one purpose, and one purpose only—e-mail. “Student response to them was extremely enthusiastic,” she says now. “far better than we could have anticipated.”

The experiment led to funding in Pitt’s technology plan for e-mail kiosks in high-traffic areas across campus, from the ground floor of Posvar Hall to Benedum Hall. By early summer, nearly 60 of the kiosks, which look like the offspring of a sleek robot and an Atari Space Invaders arcade machine, were spread across campus. (The futuristic kiosks themselves were purchased from Kiosk Information Systems of Colorado; CSSD then rebuilt and installed old PCs from Pitt’s computer labs.) The goal was to have an even hundred on-line by the fall to meet high demand: By the end of last spring, students (and presumably staff) had already logged in for 200,000 unique e-mail sessions. Says Walton: “They’re used, really, 24 hours a day.”
—David R. Eltz

Teamwork—On and Off the Field

Sometimes your opponent is bigger, stronger, faster—just plain better. That was the case in 1985 when the Pitt girls’ volleyball team squared off for a home game against Penn State, then seventh in the national rankings. “They were bigger than we were,” remembers Cathy Rupp Gordon (Law ’89, Public and International Affairs ’89, General Studies ’85), who played for Pitt. “They had more power, they were better skilled.” Gordon, now an attorney with the Pittsburgh firm of Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, says that being the underdog taught some valuable lessons. “As a member of a team, you very quickly begin to appreciate the value of each player,” says Gordon, who represents corporate clients in civil litigation in the city’s fifth biggest firm. “From the star player to the last person on the bench, everybody plays a role.” What’s more, playing to the best of your ability raises the bar for your teammates’ performance, she says. Despite what appeared to be a lopsided contest that year, Pitt upended Penn State. Gordon and her teammates took those lessons into their academic and professional lives. “Respect excellence in others,” Gordon says, summing up a lesson driven home by her years in college sports, “but never be intimidated by it.”

Miami Dolphins coach David Wannstedt (Education ’76, ’74), former NFL coach Mike Ditka (Arts and Sciences ’61), and former Steelers’ offensive coordinator Joe Walton (Arts and Sciences ’57) are among the Pitt graduates who made careers in professional sports after competing on the collegiate level. But Gordon is one of the legion of alums who used what they learned playing competitive sports in college to succeed in law, medicine, business, and other fields. The parallels between competitive sports and life are plentiful. As a stocky, fire-plug of a kid, Virgil Fassio (Arts and Sciences ’49) says it wasn’t easy for him to make neighborhood baseball teams in Pittsburgh. “I wasn’t a big guy,” says Fassio, the now-retired publisher of Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer. “In order to make a team, I had to try harder.” Persistence and diligence paid off for Fassio, who later caught for the Pitt baseball team and played for semi-pro teams in Allegheny County after graduation.

Gordon and Fassio are both members of Pitt’s Varsity Letter Club, an organization open to alumni who earned a varsity letter in intercollegiate athletics. The club supports Pitt athletics through fundraising and other efforts. This year, Gordon became the first woman president of the club, which was founded in 1931. Since 1961, the club has recognized alumni who have excelled both professionally and in community service with the Awards of Distinction. Wannstedt, Walton, and Ditka are among alums who have been honored in past years. But the club has also recognized those, including Fassio, who pursued careers far afield of sports. This year’s winners will be honored at a reception in the fall. Club director Walt Bielich says the community service requirement for the award is what distinguishes the Pitt club from others across the country. For years, Fassio has been involved in civic and community groups in his adopted home state of Washington. Gordon, too, has been active in community service, including counseling senior citizens and high school students on simple legal matters. Says Gordon, “I find it very natural to pitch in and help wherever it’s needed.” Athletic competition and community service—not as different as they might seem. —KM

The Good Debate

Here is the hypothetical high school David Wolfe does not want to attend: Surveillance cameras pan the hallways. A tinny voice on the intercom orders students to remain in their seats. Armed security guards plod past classrooms. Dogs enter the building; a random locker search is underway. If the dogs catch a suspicious scent from a locker, the principal has the authority to yank the student from class and order a blood test, even if the scent turns out to be a poppy-seed bagel in a lunch bag.

Not that Wolfe has anything to hide. A sophomore at Trinity High School in Washington, Pennsylvania, Wolfe is one of six high school students participating in the first University of Pittsburgh College in High School Argument Forum, before an audience of some 50 peers in Posvar Hall. Pitt’s communication department, in conjunction with area high schools, coordinates the program—giving high school students the chance to explore current issues while earning college credits. The topic of this forum: “Should school safety take priority over student civil liberties?” Wolfe and his fellow students, each group of three taking a definitive side in this argument, have spent a year preparing for today.

At the podium, Wolfe, husky and deliberate, brushes his red-striped tie to his stomach with the steady hand of a young businessman. “In the Bill of Rights,” he says, “order and liberty are not opposed.” He looks at the audience. He is all business—direct, matter-of fact. When security overshadows liberty, he says, students lose their dignity, their lives are not their own. If they do not experience liberty and dignity as children, how can they understand such weighty concepts as adults? he argues. “What are safety and order if we have no liberty?” His peers in the audience, measuring the weight of his remarks, applaud, many obviously agreeing—for the moment.

Dan Kelly has a different view: He believes a good education requires safety. Tall and athletic, Kelly, a senior at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic, stands before the audience with confidence. He leans forward, braces his hands on the podium, and invokes the premise by psychologist Abraham Maslow that humans act to fulfill needs—self-esteem and self-actualization chief among them. Schools with inadequate safety breed an environment of terror. Terror lowers self-esteem. And the process of accomplishment grinds to a halt, Kelly argues. “Fear chases education from the classroom.” If there’s no safety, there’s no learning. “Life is a supreme value in this debate—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in that order,” he says, stepping back from the podium. The crowd applauds loudly. The pendulum of opinion has swung in his favor.

Kelly and Wolfe are wrestling with a fundamental question of American life. They’re also trying to win a debate; student judges are taking notes. In the end, the judges decide, by 7-4, that Kelly’s group makes the stronger argument.

Even so, several commentators, experts on security and liberty who sit to the left of the podium and respond to each student presentation, offer the group careful advice. Rigid in his starched, white uniform shirt, Robert Fadzen, chief of safety for Pittsburgh Public Schools where he is responsible for the safety of 40,000 students in 45 schools, wants as much as anyone for schools to be safe, he says. That said, Fadzen is just as quick to offer a warning: “Take rights away from someone and you take them away from yourself.” —Mark Dragotta

In the Garden

Collision, the literary nonfiction journal launched by the undergraduate students of the University of Pittsburgh, published its inaugural issue toward the end of the spring semester. Here, we present a memoir by Tara Lockhart—just one sample of the marvelous work—stories, poems, photographs, and drawings—that can be found at

It was the summer after my fifth birthday that my father and I worked the garden, our shirtless backs bent under the sun, our brown hair sticking to the napes of our necks in the humid air. We worked side by side, silent for the most part, or humming our own quiet tune. In those peaceful days, I learned a quiet methodicism; working until a small job was finished, listening for my mother’s call from the cool house at lunchtime.

A few weeks earlier, we had begun the growing process. After the land was tilled, my father’s job, I would proceed down row after row, the sandy brown earth separated vegetable by vegetable, marked with white string, and plant. Using a popsicle stick, I would burrow a small hole in the ground, digging until the dirt touched the bottom of my clenched fist that held the stick. Then carefully, from my other closed hand, I would drop a single seed into the hole, cover it gently and pat the dirt firm. Squatting, I would shimmy one foot further down the row and shift my weight so that the other foot, twisting and turning, could slide over to meet it. It was in this way I proceeded, planting peas and tomatoes, broccoli and asparagus, my belly still protruding over the top of my white shorts lassoed with ponies.

In the heat of the day, I would sneak over to the small grove of trees that bordered our yard from our neighbor’s. There, I would lie in the cool grass, imagining it was still wet from the morning’s dew. My arms folded beneath my head, I would nap or daydream, staring up at the clouds through the branches of the trees, slapping the small gnats that came to chew at my legs. I practiced whistling here, hoping to master the talent as my father had. But after a while, I became bored by myself, and ventured back out to the garden, moving in to work next to my father’s crouched body.

Midway through the growing season, he taught me to weed the tomato plants, to smell their heady aroma as I traced my fingers down their soft, hairy stalks to determine what was a weed and what wasn’t. Down low, where I was, the tomatoes were turning red, but if I raised my eyes, I could see the small green knobs dangling from the vine, only as big as a shooter marble. I pulled the weeds out that threatened these small babies using both hands. Rocking back and forth on my heels, I used the strength of my child’s body to root them out. I smiled to myself each time they came out intact, dirt still clinging to their bottoms, before I threw them down into the heap of weeds that would later become part of the compost pile.

As the summer grew warmer and warmer, my father called to me to check on the progress of our growing plants. “Tara, come see the strawberry plants,” his voice rang out, shimmying through the air like insects humming. I walked up the small hill, my bare feet black from dirt. The strawberries had come earlier this year due to the mild spring, but I wasn’t allowed to pick them by myself, for invariably, none would make it back to the kitchen. As I stepped into the patch a snake slithered across my foot, startling me. I jumped back, then looked to my father. “Go on,” he said, smiling. “Just a garter.”

I bent down to get a closer look. It was small and black, laced with green, and had found a shady spot under a particularly leafy strawberry plant. I let my mouth hang open in a round “O,” then, with the tip of my toe, poked at its tail to get it moving on its way and out of my patch. “Go on,” I said. “Beat it.” The snake, with a quick flick of its body, obeyed, darting into the tall stalks of the asparagus.

I stood on the hill with my dad surveying the strawberries, talking about asking mom to make strawberry pie. The hill was the sunniest place in the garden; here, we also planted tulips at the first sign of spring. They grew stately and tall along the crest of the hill, bordering the strawberries in a soldier’s straight row. My dad pointed to the crab apple tree, where the tiny apples that would fall in autumn were just beginning to appear. Now though, there were months of summer left to savor, before the cold would prick the trees, testing them. So we stretched our arms to the sun. My father dragged the back of his hand across his forehead to wipe away the sweat above his eyes. I did the same.

Just then, a car drove by the street that bordered our yard, slowing down to a stop as an older woman craned her gray head to look at us in the garden. I had noticed this brown car twice already today. Each time, the woman gaped out of the window as she drove by.

“Why don’t you put a shirt on that girl!” she yelled at my father. I looked up to see his mouth twitch as she continued.

“That’s obscene!” she shouted. “For the love of God, I can see her nipples! What kind of person are you?” The sun was in my eyes; I lowered my head so it fell on the back of my neck instead. I tugged on the top of my shorts, pulling them up the extra inch they would go over my belly. Then dug my foot into the dirt, rolling it over so that my toes curled underneath, and only the flat top of my instep was exposed.

From the corner of my eye, I saw my father stride off toward the car, his legs long and thin, covering ground fast. I heard him control his snap at the woman, “She’s five,” he said, as she hurried to pull away and turn onto the large road out of our neighborhood.

I turned. Walking past the straight-backed rows of tulips, I made my way slowly down the hill to the pea plants creeping their thin vines over the trellis. I sat on the ground and began to pick the pods that were low-down, opening up their bodies with a slit of my nail, letting the small green peas fall into the dust. I looked up the hill to see my father kneeling to weed the strawberry plants, his back brown in the sun. Carefully, methodically, I placed my black heel on each small pea, grinding it down until its insides burst forth and lay still in the dirt, weeping and exposed.

—Tara Lockhart is a second-year master’s student with a focus in composition.

Shuttle Skuttlebutt

Can you fit the state of Georgia into Pitt’s Oakland campus? No problem—in a manner of speaking.

In eight years of running the current shuttle system, some 8.5 million students, staff, and faculty have ridden University buses. That’s just a little more than the population of Georgia. The shuttle service’s eight routes are not limited to the 132-acre campus. In addition to North and South Oakland, the bus serves nearby Chatham and Carlow colleges as well as Pitt’s Center for Biotechnology and Bioengineering and UPMC Sports Performance Complex, both located along the Monongahela River.

Some other fast facts from the University’s Department of Parking, Transportation and Services:

• Number of riders from the fall semester of 1999 to summer of 2000: 1.1 million
• Number of passengers from the same period a year earlier: 968,000
• Average number of weekday riders: 6,500
• Size of bus fleet: 18
• Average number of hours buses run annually: 41,000

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