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Bob O'Connor's Good Name

Saying goodbye too soon to a Pittsburgh mayor

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The text message reached us on the Allegheny River, along a stretch cell phones often don't reach:

Bob died 9 p.m. Friday.

The time was off by about five minutes: Mayor Bob O'Connor passed away from brain cancer on Sept. 1 at 8:55. By then, thanks to a printing schedule shortened by the Labor Day holiday, all but a few pages of this issue of City Paper had already gone to press. But at our rain-soaked campsite Saturday morning, we held at least one key to the mayor's too-brief legacy. In death as in life, for allies as well as critics, Bob will always be … "Bob."

There are politicians you refer to only by their last names — those whose ambitions overshadow who they are as people. And then there are politicians whose last name you almost never use, because connecting with people is one of their ambitions. Bob O'Connor was clearly one of those … even if Pittsburgh barely got to know him on a first-name basis.

He served half a year before being hospitalized with what seemed, at first, a minor illness. The public never saw him again. As a result, our memory of Bob will be fixed in a mid-summer reverie. He will always be that guy with the great hair and the ready smile, cleaning up neighborhoods and preparing for an All-Star game that was Pittsburgh's chance to shine. He didn't serve long enough to become a father figure, with all the good and bad that role entails. He will always be a kindly uncle instead.

In his absence, Pittsburgh is on the verge of a generational shift, and not just because the new mayor is 26-year-old Luke Ravenstahl. (Or even because Bob's deputy mayor, Yarone Zober, was 31.) Both of O'Connor's rivals in the 2005 election, City Councilor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb, are under 50 — young by Pittsburgh-politico standards. The same could be said of council itself, and of many of the candidates likely to run for mayor next time. There are, suddenly, very few Old Boys on the scene.

It's always been easy to smirk at those boys and their gladhanding. But whatever their flaws, they had lessons to teach. Bob O'Connor himself demonstrated the most important of them: It's one thing to dream of the city you want to build, but don't lose touch with the city you actually have.

Some would-be reformers and latter-day Davey Lawrences forget that. Bob never did. Unlike a lot of politicians, his affability wasn't part of some grand political strategy. If anything, the opposite is true: His political strategy was the result of his natural affability. His agenda wasn't long on ambition, but it had sincerity to spare. And in Pittsburgh, that goes a long way.

If you doubt it, you didn't see the handmade signs ("We Miss You, Bob") in the windows around Forbes and Murray avenues. You weren't at the City-County Building this weekend. You didn't stand with a crowd of Pittsburghers, waiting to pay respects to O'Connor's family — who spent hours sharing their grief with Bob's larger family, the city he served.

If you doubt it, you didn't hold the tired hand of Bob's wife, Judy. You didn't look into the eyes of Rev. Terrance O'Connor, which are bright like his father's.

If you doubt it, you don't really know this city at all.

Bob O'Connor's funeral will be held Thursday morning. The Steelers season-opener will be held that night. That might seem like bad timing in any other city, for any other mayor. But beneath Bob's casket, alongside a cluster of American flags and a handful of photographs, someone had left a ballcap celebrating last year's Super Bowl champions. On a bench pushed against the wall was another handmade sign: At its center, surrounded by photographs of O'Connor, were the words "Go Steelers."

New Orleans has its jazz funerals: As the departed is laid to rest, the band abandons the funeral dirge for the music of spontaneous joy. In that moment, the mourners don't abandon their grief; they transcend it. They remind themselves that the death of a beloved community member can bring the rest of the community together. And they make music to ensure that it will.

A Steelers game might be as close to that as Pittsburgh gets. As we face the next day's heartache, anyway, it will have to do.

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