Nor’easter in New Ken?

Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I joked in a prior post that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, I received a new camera for Christmas. The camera arrived on Krampusnacht. I tested it today during our first snowstorm of the winter.

I actually took these photos several hours ago. We have even more snow right now. The snow is still falling.

Alcoa Aluminum Smelter in Voodoo Brewery’s Beer Garden. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

You should see above a photo of the Alcoa aluminum smelter that now sits in Voodoo Brewery’s beer garden in New Kensington.

This relic sat for decades at Station Square in Pittsburgh. (Station Square is a dining and shopping district along the Monongahela River, directly across said river from downtown Pittsburgh.)

The property owner at Station Square no longer wanted it.

Now, Alcoa actually plays a role in New Kensington’s history. HUGE role.

So, a month ago, crews moved this smelter 20 miles to the beer garden on Fifth Avenue, New Kensington.

Pittsburgh’s loss. Our gain.

Here’s an article from the Trib about the Alcoa smelter if you want to read more about it.

To be honest, I have eaten out at Station Square many times. I went there for boat trips on the river when I was in high school. This smelter actually stood next to the dock that we used for these trips. I don’t remember EVER seeing the smelter during my trips to Station Square. I’m sure that this was because Station Square just had so much other things to see. Also, because back in the olden days, I wouldn’t have actually cared about an Alcoa smelter. I never had any interest in industrial history when when I was high school. (The only reason that I remembered Henry Clay Frick was because Emma Goldman’s boyfriend shot him during the Homestead riots.) I never cared about Alcoa until I met Jonathan Woytek and he brought me to New Kensington.

Now that this smelter sits down the street from my house, I am sure that I will have plenty of opportunities to check out the smelter as I sip on my Voodoo beer. Maybe take a few selfies in front of it.

Not now, of course. We are living through a snowstorm and also a global pandemic. But soon.

Catoris Candies, Fifth Avenue, New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
This block is caddy-corner from the Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

“Todays [SIC] Gonna Be Great”

I looked through my laptop for photos that will cheer you.

I found this photo, saved in my Lightroom folder on May 10, 2019. I think that I actually took the photo earlier that spring on my smartphone.

Shelter at Gateway Center Bus Stop, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Spring 2019. This is a photo that I took of a Phipps Conservatory advertisement posted on the side of the bus shelter.

In the pre-Covid days, on most days, I waited in front of one of the Gateway Center buildings to catch a bus home from Pittsburgh to New Kensington.

In the spring of 2019, the bus shelter at my bus stop featured an advertisement for weddings at Phipps Conservatory. This ad featured a couple dressed as a bride and a groom, standing in one of Phipps’ exhibit rooms. The copy on this ad read as follows: “THE POWER TO plan a better future.”

Above the photo of the “groom,” somebody put a sticker on the bus shelter glass that said, “Todays [SIC] gonna be great.” I assume that whoever placed the sticker on this glass intended for it to look like a thought bubble from the groom.

I snapped a photo of the bus shelter with the Phipps ad and the comical sticker placement so that I could text it to my husband and his family. I thought that they would all get a kick out of it. Later, I realized that I could see reflected in this same glass the building where I worked. So, I kept the photo saved on my laptop.

I don’t know anything about the photographer who took the original photo for the Phipps advertisement, or about the advertising firm that created the copy.

I actually majored in Advertising and Public Relations in college. I ended up working in the Property and Casualty insurance industry because that was where I found my first post-Walmart, post-Americorps job. However, from what I understand per my school’s alumni magazine, some of my classmates pursued actual advertising careers in Pittsburgh. So, maybe one of my former classmates worked on this ad campaign.

Let me tell you about this bus shelter. When I waited for my bus home, I faced the far west part of Liberty Ave. This bus shelter stood on my left. If I were to walk past this bus shelter, I would reach Point State Park. If I followed the path in Point State Park that leads to The Point, I would walk past the footprint of Fort Pitt and eventually reach the actual point where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers join to form the Ohio River. This used to be considered as the “Gateway to the West” before St. Louis became the Gateway to the West. In fact, you could boat from Pittsburgh’s Gateway to the West until you reached St. Louis’ Gateway to the West. Lots of people, some famous and some forgotten, actually did this. Pittsburgh’s Gateway to the West is a very short walk from the Gateway Center bus shelter where I waited every day for my bus home to New Kensington.

So, when I waited at the Gateway Center bus shelter, I had Gateway Center buildings both in front of and behind me. If you look at the bus shelter that I posted, you can see the Gateway Center T station. (The “T” stands for “train.” This is part of the city’s light rail system.)

One time, I stood directly across Liberty Avenue from the site of this photo, and I heard “Jenny, Jenny.” It was my aunt – my mom’s sister – and my cousin. They were in town for the Three Rivers Arts Festival. We hadn’t planned to meet up. They had no idea that I worked across the street from this bus station.

Another time, I stood across the street from the scene of this photo and I ran into a cousin from my father’s side of the family. It turned out that her favorite coffee stand was located in the same building where I worked.

I haven’t been to this bus station, or this block, or this downtown since Covid changed everybody’s life.

I used to visit Phipps Conservatory several times a year. I haven’t been there, either, since Covid changed everything. My last trip to Phipps occurred in January or February 2020. That time, I laid on the floor to take a photo of an exhibit hanging from the ceiling. Then, I tried not to grasp the handrail when I walked the stairs down to the ground floor, even though I actually needed it. How many germs did it hold? I had just recovered from some mystery bug that had kept me sick and coughing for the past month. Weird. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have laid on the floor that day.

Thank you for reading this blog. Todays [SIC] gonna be great.

Happy Krampusnacht and Happy Feast of St. Nicholas

My husband’s co-worker once told my husband that our Married Life blog (www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com) was the most G-rated thing that he ever read. The Parnassus Pen might or might not be G-rated. I just want to keep my readers entertained.

I’m going to type today’s blog post from memory. If you want to read the actual stories, you can go to Wikipedia.

Today (December 6) is the Feast of St. Nicholas. St. (Saint) Nicholas was a European bishop. According to one legend, St. Nicholas travelled past the home of a very poor family. The family had no money to afford dowries for their three daughters. Since the daughters would have no dowries, they would not be able to secure husbands. The girls’ only career option at this point was sex work. The daughters hung their stockings outside of their house at night. St. Nicholas placed gold coins in each stocking. Thus, the girls could now afford to purchase husbands. The girls would not have to become sex workers after all.

The college that I attended, St. Vincent College in Latrobe, was founded by Benedictine monks from Bavaria. On the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, we dorm residents placed our shoes in the hallway outside of our doors overnight. The dorm prefects filled our shoes with bags of candy.

(I used to explain to people that a “prefect” was St. Vincent’s version of an R.A., or Resident Assistant. Then, the Harry Potter books introduced the concept of prefects to its readers. So, now I don’t have to explain this so often.)

The night before the feast of St. Nicholas, December 5, is Krampus Night or Krampusnacht. Krampus is a demon who drags poorly behaved children off to Hell. You know how some parents use Elf on a Shelf to try to convince kids to be good in December? Well, in olden days, parents used Krampus for this purpose. Folkore describes Krampus as half-goat, complete with cloven hooves and horns. Some versions of the Krampus story are super racist.

I’ve joked with Jonathan all weekend that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, Jonathan ordered me a new Nikon for Christmas. The camera just happened to arrive on December 5. I already owned a Nikon. However, this is a newer, much more lightweight Nikon model. You see, pre-Covid, I commuted almost every day to my employer in downtown Pittsburgh. I sometimes brought my camera to work with me so that I could photograph anything that I found interesting. I didn’t do this every day because I found my camera to be a bit heavy when I also carried my purse, my laptop, and my lunch.

Usually, whenever Jonathan or I get a new piece of photography equipment, we take it to Phipps Conservatory to experiment with it. I don’t think that we will make it to Phipps this year. So, here is a winter scene that I took in early April 2013 in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.

Happy Krampusnacht and Happy St. Nicholas Day!

The Christmas Concert from Hell

Allegheny West, North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jonathan Woytek

I intended to blog this month about the Revolutionary War soldiers from Western Pennsylvania who wintered at Valley Forge from 1777 – 1778. However, “Winter at Valley Forge” doesn’t radiate sunshine and warmth. A lot of people that I love are pretty sad this month. Anyway, I don’t think that I can tell you much that you can’t just learn from a five second Google search.

Jonathan and I toured Valley Forge once. We watched the movie at the visitors’ center that was basically footage from a 1977 re-enactment. (I could tell because the “soldiers” wore eyewear from the 1970’s.) We walked around the entire National Historical Park. Jonathan photographed Washington’s headquarters. Maybe next winter, I will post some of Jonathan’s Valley Forge photos. My sister K. got married right down the road from it, so this is what we did before the rehearsal dinner.

In the meantime, if you really want to read about soldiers from Westmoreland County who served during the Revolutionary War, go read my blog post about Lochry’s Defeat.

So, Christmas time always reminds me of the music programming at Berlin Brothersvalley School District. My four sisters and I all graduated from Berlin. The entire district consists of three buildings connected by a tunnel. The entire school district has one auditorium that everybody shares. My poor mom and dad sat in this auditorium every December for over three decades, watching their kids perform in various holiday concerts. Sometimes, they attended multiple concerts in the same month!

It’s a really long story, but the school district’s Christmas music programs in this auditorium began in either kindergarten or first grade. Then, all four of my sisters and I were in Christmas programs for either band or chorus for elementary, junior high, and high school. Keep in mind that there is a nine-year age gap between me and E., and a 13-year age gap between E. and O. So, I started elementary school over thirty years before my sister O. graduated from high school. That’s how my parents got stuck sitting in Berlin’s only auditorium every December, for over three decades. (This doesn’t even count all of the spring concerts and musicals, and all of the hours and hours and hours that my parents spent watching K. and I perform in the high school marching band.)

The thing that makes me feel so guilty now is that I NEVER PRACTICED my clarinet on my own. I got away with this because my school was so small that the music teachers basically took every warm body that showed up for all of the rehearsals. I am so sorry that my parents had to sit through so many concerts (and football games and parades) in which I played the clarinet so poorly.

Remember when I said that my parents sometimes watched their kids appear in multiple performing arts events in the same month? Well, that’s because all of the bands and choruses from the elementary, junior high, and high school each had their own separate events. Except for one December.

Berlin sits on top of a mountain in Somerset County. One winter, the weather was so bad all December that everybody’s separate events got cancelled. Multiple ice storms or something.

So, Berlin Brothersvalley School District combined all of the rescheduled holiday music programming (band AND chorus) from grades 4-12 all together on one special evening! Seriously. The entire combined holiday concert was four or five hours long. I wish that I was making this up. I’m not.

Well, what do you think happens when you fit an entire school district’s worth of families into one auditorium to watch every single band and chorus student from grades 4-12 perform? Do you think that the entire audience sits there quietly? Do you think that the audience stays for every single musical group’s entire performance? Do you think that audience members who do need to cut out early take care to be quiet in the hallway?

If this were the game show Jeopardy!, I would say, “What is none of the above, Alex?

My high school band director, Mr. B., was PISSED that this entire school district’s worth of families in grades 4-12 did not sit quietly for the five hour Christmas Concert from Hell.

Mr. B was so upset that on the very next school day, he made the entire high school concert band get into groups and brainstorm lists of concert etiquette. Then, he made all of the groups get together and compile one master list of concert etiquette.

Then, at the beginning of every single performing arts event held at Berlin for the rest of my high school career, a student had to come up on stage and read our master list of concert etiquette to the audience.

Mr. B. also made sure that our master list of concert etiquette was printed inside every paper program for every musical event held at Berlin.

Years after I graduated from high school, I returned to the school to watch a musical in which one of my younger sisters performed. The master list of concert etiquette that I helped to compile after the Christmas Concert from Hell appeared at the very front of that event’s program.

Now, I can’t even go to see something at the Benedum without mentally tsk-tsking whenever I see or hear somebody violating the giant list of concert etiquette that Mr. B. made us create. For instance, one time I went to see the muscial RENT. The woman sitting next to me pulled a sandwich out of her enormous purse and ate it in the middle of the show while the lights were down and people were singing. At the Benedum. The place with the $100+ tickets. (Disclaimer: Maybe she had blood sugar issues. Who am I to judge.)

The concert etiquette disaster at the Christmas Concert from Hell happened long before everybody and their dog owned smartphones. So, maybe the audience’s behavior would have been even worse if the Christmas Concert from Hell had happened (pre-Covid) in 2019.

At the time, I thought that Mr. B. made us band members write the giant list of concert etiquette in order to teach all of us kids a lesson. Now, looking back, I think that the concert etiquette list was directed at the parents, at all of the adults who didn’t set a good example that night.

(But also: a four-or-five-hour concert, featuring every music student from grades 4-12? Really?)

I can’t wait until the Covid crisis ends so that I can go back to judging other people’s concert etiquette behavior at live performances. In the meantime, I sit here and think about the Christmas Concert from Hell. Those days were the good old days.

Omni William Penn Hotel

Omni William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA, November 2019

Up until mid-March 2020, I commuted into downtown Pittsburgh almost every weekday to my job. I now telecommute for this same employer from my dining room in Parnassus.

My employer’s Pittsburgh office is several blocks away from the Omni William Penn Hotel. The hotel was built in 1915-1916. Omni purchased it in 2001. So, for the rest of this blog post, I will just refer to this hotel as the “William Penn.”

One morning in November 2019, I walked to the Starbucks that is located inside the William Penn (and which opens into the hotel’s lobby), and then I sat in the lobby with my coffee and enjoyed the hotel’s holiday decorations.

This was less than a week before downtown Pittburgh’s 2019 “Light Up Night.” The hotel’s hardworking staff decorated the lobby ahead of this event. I watched many Starbucks customers pull out their smartphones and take photos of the gingerbread house built to look just like the William Penn’s facade. So, I too took a smartphone photo. I didn’t think to take photos of anything else in the hotel lobby, such as the enormous and fully decorated tree.

I expected that this November or December, I would once again walk to the William Penn for a coffee break and holiday decorations.

Just for reference, here below are the only photos that I took of the William Penn’s actual facade. I took these photos on December 13, 2011. Occupy Pittsburgh camped at Mellon Green, across the street from the William Penn. Wikipedia tells me that BNY Mellon filed in court on December 12, 2011, to end the encampment. So, the local news coverage from this filing must have inspired me to walk from my workplace (a financial services job) up to Mellon Green to sight-see the people who were protesting financial services industries (and the people who worked there). I did not actually interact with anybody “residing” in this encampment. I assume that many of them were away at class (Pitt, perhaps?) or their own jobs.

Mellon Green and the Omni William Penn Hotel, December 13, 2011
Mellon Green and the Omni William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh PA, December 13, 2011
Mellon Green with the Omni William Penn Hotel in the background. Pittsburgh PA, December 13, 2011

Bonkers Political Story Out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania

I lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for a few years out of college. I graduated from high school in a tiny town about one hour south of Johnstown. After college, the very first job that I found that included health insurance was in Johnstown. So, I stayed there for a few years until I was able to find a much better paying job in downtown Pittsburgh.

I actually went to Johnstown about once a month each month or so while I was growing up. Johnstown had the closest mall and the closest new release bookstore. We couldn’t order books off of Amazon because that’s how old I am. So, my mom drove me to the bookstore in Johnstown every time that a new Baby-Sitters Club book came out. I was in my high school’s marching band. We travelled to Johnstown to perform at football games and at the Halloween parade. My sixth grade class visited a bunch of the famous sites connected with the 1889 Johnstown Flood for our spring field trip. (You know – the site where the South Fork Dam burst, the flood museum in Johnstown, and of course, the cemetery where many of the flood’s over two thousand victims were buried.)

This story isn’t about all of the people who died in the Johnstown flood. This story is about ANOTHER calamity in Johnstown that killed a bunch of people in the 1800’s. I just learned about this particular calamity this month. I think that this is because Johnstown has just experienced SO MANY tragic mishaps.

This story is bonkers.

Anyway, in 1865, the Civil War ended and John Wilkes Booth assassinated President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, became the new POTUS. Things did not go well for Andrew Johnson.

In 1866, Johnson took a “Swing Around the Circle” train trip. He was trying to convince people to like him better. In September 1866, Johnson’s train stopped in Johnstown, between his route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

Thousands of people showed up in Johnstown to see Johnson and the Civil War heroes whom he (allegedly) pressured to travel with him. Maintenance staff in Johnstown built a viewing platform over an old canal for the spectators.

Hundreds of people stood on the platform.

The platform collapsed. Many spectators fell about 20 feet.

Several spectators were killed.

The train moved on to the next stop WHILE THE RESCUE AND RECOVERY WERE STILL IN PROGRESS.

Now, I don’t have the talent or the patience to write about Andrew Johnson. Especially not for a blog post here. Especially not on Thanksgiving Eve, while I have several shots of whiskey in me. That’s why God created Wikipedia on the eighth day!

When I was a kid, I read a children’s historical fiction novel about Andrew Johnson that I either found in a used book store or else I found in the back of a classroom. I think that it was called “The Tennessee Yankee” or else “The Yankee from Tennessee” or something. The book made Johnson out to be a hero. However, everything else that I ever read about Johnson after this pretty much called him a jerk. People are complicated. The American Civil War was complicated. Reconstruction was complicated.

I never had anything THIS exciting happen to me when I visited or lived in Johnstown. One of my co-workers from Johnstown told me that her ex-husband went to see Sting at the Johnstown War Memorial. Sting – ALLEGEDLY – performed so poorly that night that the crowd threw their beer bottles at him when he sang “Roxanne” for twenty or thirty minutes. So, that’s an exciting thing that happened in Johnstown – to somebody else – during my lifetime.

The Old Stone Tavern Needs to Have Its Own Ghost

So, for a few years now, I’ve casually followed the efforts of local preservationists to purchase and restore the Old Stone Tavern, aka Elliott’s, in Pittsburgh’s West End. Daniel Elliott, or perhaps somebody else, built the tavern / inn during the late 1700’s.

I took an interest in the tavern because it appeared in Agnes Sligh Turnbulls’s historical fiction about late 1700’s Western Pennsylvania. (Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and she wrote several books including The Day Must Dawn and The King’s Orchard.)

In The King’s Orchard, the protagonist, James O’Hara (an early Pittsburgh business leader and also philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather) lived for a while at Elliott’s while he established himself as a fur trader. Also in Turnbull’s fiction, the famous / infamous Colonel William Crawford and Simon Girty drank at a colonial Pittsburgh tavern that I believe may have been based on Elliott’s. Daniel Elliott himself appeared in Turnbull’s fiction.

Turnbull’s historical fiction also referenced either a Pittsburgh innkeeper or Pittsburgh store owner named Sam Semple. I haven’t yet figured out whether Semple’s establishment later became Elliott’s, or if these were two different operations.

I can’t ask Turnbull about Sam Semple and his connection to Elliott’s because she published The Day Must Dawn in 1942 and The King’s Orchard in 1963. She passed away in 1982. She is buried in her hometown of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania.

Everything that I know about the preservation of Elliott’s Tavern came from Wikipedia, the preservationist group’s Facebook page, and the first articles that appeared when I Googled “old stone tavern Pittsburgh.”

For instance, here is an article that appeared in Pittsburgh Magazine in December 2019:

Reviving History: The Fight for the Old Stone Tavern

The last post of the “Old Stone Tavern” Facebook page showed a February 2020 date. It detailed a fundraiser held that same month in order to raise money to purchase the building.

Less than a month after this Facebook posting and the fundraiser, Pennsylvania’s governor shut Pennsylvania down due to Covid-19.

So, will Elliott’s ever open as a tavern again? I wonder. If currently open restaurants struggle right now to stay open, who knows what will happen to a tavern that closed years ago?

I’ve never looked into becoming involved in the tavern preservation group’s fundraising efforts. My husband and I have enough frustration trying to preserve our own 1890’s house. For instance, this past weekend, Jonathan transplanted a baby Japanese maple tree that was growing into our house’s foundation over to a different part of our yard, and the tree didn’t get blown over in the next day’s giant windstorm. This was a major accomplishment in our house restoration. I don’t need to get my heart broken over a 1700’s tavern.

That said, I’ve thought about Elliott’s and compared it to what I know about the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford. I’ve come to the conclusion that Elliott’s needs to have its own ghost. Or ghosts. Or, at least, ghost stories.

I’ve heard that you can purchase “ghost in a bottle” kits on the internet. I think that these are all Caveat Emptor deals, though. What if the ghost that you ordered turned out to be a woman who had unpopular opinions about things?

On a more serious note, what if the ghost was one of the Native Americans slaughtered in the Gnadenhutten Massacre of 1782, or else one of the Native Americans slaughtered by Colonel William Crawford’s men, or else one of the Native Americans who received a smallpox blanket from the soldiers at Fort Pitt?

You never know what you’ll actually get when you order a ghost online. Also, a preservation group can’t purchase ghosts for a building that it doesn’t currently own.

Most of the articles that I read emphasized the tavern’s role in colonial and very early American history. I read about more recent (1870’s and Roaring Twenties) history that happened there; I’d love to blog more about that later.

Thanks for sticking by my side on this blog. I’ve blogged before about the tavern, but I owed you an American history post.

Stay healthy, and talk to you later.

Contest Winner Loot

I am so excited to receive my prize in the mail today from the Nina Sadowsky’s flash fiction writing contest that I won last month. To be honest, the card from Nina Sadowsky congratulating me for my winning entry is the item that I value the most from this package.

I accidentally wrote this story. Back in September, I saw a tweet about a flash fiction contest based on the theme of “lies.” This theme reminded me that back in the summer of 2018, I was under the impression that my mom’s cancer treatment was actually working. Then, this turned out to not be the case at all. Am I casting shade? Nah. Anyway, based on this memory, I wrote my award-winning story in one sitting. I submitted it a few hours before the deadline ended.

I have my writing notebook open in front of me now. On Saturday, February 1, I attended the in-person event “Time Management for Authors with Nicole Peeler.” Per my notes from that date, I gave myself permission to never again attempt to write fiction because I don’t actually enjoy writing fiction and I have never enjoyed writing fiction. I resolved to concentrate instead on non-fiction.

Per the next page in the notebook, I see that I attended the live, in-person event “Point of View with Lori Rayder-Day” on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

Both of these were held in an event room about the size of a high school classroom in the basement of the Oakmont Carnegie Library. For each of these, maybe 20, or 30, or 40 of us sat at several long tables. I didn’t pay much attention to the crowd size because I had no idea that these would be the last in-person meetings that I would attend for months or maybe years. Nobody at this event wore face masks because, at that time, public health officials told us that masks were not necessary and were actually harmful to the public good.

I don’t think that I social distanced. i don’t think that I even know what social distancing was on March 7, 2020. I tried to stop myself from sneezing at least once that afternoon.

Before “Point of View” began on March 7, an officer from the writing club that sponsored these presentations announced that she had just attended an official “Covid-19 Prevention Training” at her workplace. She asked if anybody in the room displayed Covid symptoms. She also asked if anybody in the room had just returned from Italy or China.

The, the “Point of View” seminar began.

During the course of this, I volunteered that William Faulkner used first person plural Point of View in “A Rose for Emily.” I also gave away the spoiler for “A Rose for Emily.” Oops! I maintain if you are enough of a glutton for punishment to put on real clothes and attend a “Point of View” workshop on a Saturday, then you already know that Emily kept her dead boyfriend’s body in that bed with her for 40 years or whatever.

Pennsylvania’s governor shut the commonwealth down due to Covid a little over a week later.

These were the last two writing workshops that I ever attended in person.

Next month, I am going to take a class about family memoir-writing over Zoom. I purchased the class reservation from a local bookstore that offers virtual writing workshops. The instructor also teaches nonfiction writing at a Pittsburgh university’s MFA program. I already read, front-to-back, two of the books listed on the class syllabus. I am excited about this class and I might possibly blog about it. I might possibly write a family memoir about life in Western Pennsylvania.

Since you, dear reader, just put up with reading this, my next blog post will be about Pennsylvania history.

Here’s my call to action: If you enjoy (or hate read) my blog, please share it with others would would also enjoy (or hate read) it.

Two Degrees from “Love You Forever”

This is a story about somebody going through life as the sibling of a well-known author.

The subject of this story is somebody whom I respected in the brief time that I knew him.

At the same time – well, I find it tricky territory to separate what I know about people and what I know about their famous siblings.

For instance, I learned through Adam Selzer’s “Mysterious Chicago” website that the Chicago grave of Charles Dickens brother, Augustus, identifies him as being the brother of Charles Dickens. It says right on his tombstone “Brother of Charles Dickens.”

In another story, my own sister K. blogged here about the time that she sat next to Elizabeth Gilbert’s sister, Catherine, at a library conference lunch. Catherine Gilbert Murdock is a writer, just like her sister Elizabeth. However, K. spent the lunch trying not to bring up how much she enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s books.

(K. and I are just two out of our own family of five total sisters, and we both know about going through life being compared to one’s siblings.)

So, here’s my story:

Once upon a time, I spent four years as a student at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Back in those olden days, all students – even full-time students – paid tuition by the credit. So, a full-time semester of 18 credits was more expensive than a full-time semester of 15 credits. As a result, I personally was very conscious about not taking any more course credits than I absolutely needed to graduate. I guess that some of my fellow classmates felt the same way. Maybe this led them to complain about taking “unnecessary classes.” Or else, I just gave my fellow classmates too much credit for the reasons that they whined. (Pardon the pun.) Maybe my fellow students just moaned about taking “unnecessary classes” because it resulted in more schoolwork for them.

Anyway, back in those olden days, all freshmen were required to take “Exploring Religious Meaning.” Half of the freshmen class took it in the fall, and half took it in the spring. After the scheduling department halved the freshmen class, they divvied us further into several sections for this class.

I took “Exploring Religious Meaning” during the fall semester of my freshmen year at Saint Vincent College. I had Father Nathan Munsch, O.S.D., as my instructor for this class. O.S.D. is the abbreviation for Order of Saint Benedict. Fr. Nathan was both a Roman Catholic priest and also a Benedictine monk. The Saint Vincent community included a Benedictine monastery and many Benedictine monks taught at the college.

I took this class during my very first semester at college. I was under the impression that this was the very first semester of college ever for many of my classmates as well.

From what I understand, Fr. Nathan taught at least one other section of “Exploring Religious Meaning” that fall. This is important.

Now, several weeks into the semester, at least one person complained to the Saint Vincent College administration about Fr. Nathan’s “Exploring Religious Meaning” class. I don’t know if the complainer (or complainers?) came from my section of the class or another section of the class.

So, we had to spend at least one entire 50 minute class period in an “airing of grievances.” We had to explain what made us unhappy about the class. A debriefing. My big takeaway from this bitch session was that many of my fellow classmates “covered this exact same material” in their classes at their Catholic high schools. So, my big takeaway was that many of my fellow students were just a bunch of ex-Catholic school whiners. Or, maybe they disliked having to pay Saint Vincent for this course content after their parents had already paid their parochial high schools for similar wisdom.

(I graduated from a public high school. In full disclosure, some of my fellow classmates for “Exploring Religious Meaning” had graduated from the same Catholic high school at which my future husband graduated and at which both my future husband and my future mother-in-law taught years later. My future husband possibly graduated from high school with some of my “Exploring Religious Meaning” classmates.)

Fr. Nathan explained that “Exploring Religious Meaning” was a core requirement needed to graduate for every bachelor’s degree program at Saint Vincent.

Life moved on.

Then, a few weeks later, Fr. Nathan started class by saying something to the effect of, “Well, you might have heard some rumors. So, I want you to hear what really happened directly from me.”

Fr. Nathan’s “Exploring Religious Meaning” students had attempted, once again, to get him in trouble with The Dean.

Fr. Nathan said something like, “Let me start by telling you the story that I told the other section of this class.”

So, we learned that Fr. Nathan Munsch had a brother – Robert Munsch.

Robert Munsch wrote the children’s book Love You Forever, as well as several other children’s books. My parents owned a copy of Love You Forever. The plot of one episode of the television show Friends involved the book Love You Forever. I maintain that Love You Forever is a famous book.

(To give this a local connection, author Robert Munsch was born in Pittsburgh.)

Fr. Nathan explained to his sections of “Exploring Religious Meaning” that his brother Robert wrote “Love You Forever” in the aftermath of a heartbreaking tragedy in the Munsch family.

Then, Fr. Nathan said something to the other section of “Exploring Religious Meaning” to the effect of – wait for this:

Sometimes, you just feel like flipping the middle finger at God.”

And then –

Fr. Nathan flipped his middle finger at that particular classroom of freshmen college students.

Somebody reported this to The Dean.

So, that’s why Fr. Nathan was in trouble again. Because he had gotten caught up in the emotion of his family’s grief in front of a classroom full of eighteen-year-olds.

I don’t know of any other incidents that happened to either section of this class.

I finished the class with an A because I am a Totally Stable Genius. Or because Fr. Nathan was an easy grader. Either one of those.

I graduated four years later.

Fr. Nathan continued to teach at the school.

Today I opened my mail to find a booklet from Saint Vincent College. The purpose of the book was to ask for money. I flipped the book open to the centerfold. I saw – two photos of Fr. Nathan Munsch teaching class! Also, three paragraphs about his current health challenges.

I only ever took one college course taught by Fr. Nathan. However, seeing the photos of him brought me back to the time that he made himself vulnerable to his students in speaking about his famous brother and about their family’s experience with grief.