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A mayor remembered

Mayor "Everyman" -- Richard Caliguiri

Wednesday, May 06, 1998

James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Ten years ago yesterday, Dave Matter watched as a small figure haltingly approached the side entrance to the City-County Building.

"He looked awful; he was walking very slowly," Matter recalled of his old boss.

It had been only recently that Mayor Richard Caliguiri started using the Forbes Avenue door, through the offices of former Register of Wills Rita Wilson Kane. For much of his working life, he had started his day around the corner on Grant Street, bounding up the broad stairs to the building's vaulted Romanesque portico.

But weariness imposed by amyloidosis, the disease that for months had burdened his heart, the disease that would kill him before that night had passed, had made it too tough to climb the 10 steps to the main entrance.

A decade later, Caliguiri dominates the steps that once frustrated him -- in the form of the bronze statue gazing down at a worn map of his city under the City-County Building's center archway. And the legacy that the statue represents still casts a shadow over the city that he loved.

The towering likeness captures part of that legacy. The figure is focused intently on a map of the streets of Pittsburgh, streets that Caliguiri first learned accompanying his father on 5 a.m. milk deliveries.

When Pete Flaherty's resignation catapulted him into the mayor's office, Caliguiri would pave more than 100 miles of those streets in a crash public works program that helped cement his election to a full term in the office. Before he was hobbled by his illness, he marched more miles of them in the parades that delighted him whether their routes went through the city center or its farflung neighborhoods.

But the somber, pensive likeness misses a key aspect of the man who died in the early morning of May 6, 1988. Caliguiri didn't brood about the problems that beset any big city mayor.

"Dick always saw the brighter side of everything," said his widow, Jeanne Caliguiri. "He always saw the glass half-full."

"Dick Caliguiri brought a spirit of optimism to government that hadn't been seen for years," said Matter, his close friend and former executive secretary. "He loved his job and he took enormous pride in the city of Pittsburgh."

Jeanne Caliguiri remembers the special pride her husband took in showing off his city when the U.S. Conference of Mayors came here for its annual convention.

"A lot of the mayors, because of our reputation then, didn't even want to bring their wives," she recalled. "But once they came, they loved it."

Yesterday, on a typical Grant Street afternoon, office workers loitered around the base of the Caliguiri statue, some perched on its base as they grabbed a quick smoke. They had only to look up to see other parts of the Caliguiri heritage.

"Mellon (Center), Oxford Center, PPG Place, the new DoubleTree Hotel, those are things that literally changed the skyline of Downtown Pittsburgh," said Matter.

Neither Caliguiri nor his administration built those skyscrapers themselves, of course. Private corporations and entrepreneurs supplied the money and energy that transformed the Golden Triangle. But Caliguiri is universally credited with bringing a spirit of cooperation and civility to the mayor's office that maximized the effectiveness of public-private partnerships.

"He could talk to the corporate types," said his successor, former Mayor Sophie Masloff. "People liked him whether it was the man in the street or some businessman."

That ability to foster partnerships was a civic descendant of the approach to local government promoted by former Mayor David L. Lawrence and corporate leaders such as Richard King Mellon in the post-war era. But it was seen as a contrast to the more confrontational approach of his predecessor, former Mayor Pete Flaherty.

"He was a master at consensus; He was Everyman," said Matter. "He could get along with the persons selling newspapers on the corner as a well as the CEO in an office tower across the street. I don't know anyone who called him Mr. Caliguiri. Everyone called him 'Dick."'

Caliguiri's administration also managed to cobble together the unique public-private partnership that kept the Pirates from fleeing the city when the Galbreath family sold the franchise.

Matter and others bring a sense of deja vu to the current efforts to build new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers. But, he, noted, "The fact that we're even debating the future of the Pirates and the stadium traces its roots to Dick Caliguiri," he said. "If it weren't for him, there would be nothing to debate today."

The Grant Street statue masks another aspect of Caliguiri's record. The map that his likeness studies ends with the borders of the Golden Triangle. But Caliguiri, who lived and died within a few miles of the house in which he grew up in Greenfield, was engaged in the issues of neighborhoods throughout the city. He came to office in the face of persistent urban problems that had proved resistant to the patriarchal, Great Society strategies of the '60s and early '70s.

Some neighborhood and corporate leaders saw as one of his greatest strengths the self-confidence to acknowledge that he didn't have all the answers.

"He allowed some of the control and the responsibility for reviving inner city neighborhoods to devolve from city government to the neighborhoods themselves," said Rick Swartz, director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.

That combination of self-effacement and self-confidence came through in Caliguiri's own assessment of his administration. "I put people of strength and ability around me who know how to do things I can't," he said shortly before his death.

Time softens the edges of controversy, particularly in the public memory of someone who died at the relatively young age of 56. But Caliguiri's skills at consensus did not make him immune from criticism. He pushed through the last major tax increase in the city. He infuriated homeowners with reforms of the refuse system that for the first time forced them to carry their garbage to the curbs. He irked restaurant owners with calls for limits on public smoking.

"He was able to do things that were unpopular that he thought were right because he made a major effort to explain what he was doing," said Matter. "And he was able to draw on the popularity he had built up."

Still, his administration had disappointments as well as accomplishments. As the steel industry hemorrhaged jobs, the city continued to lose population during his administration as it has since the 1950s. He balanced the operating budget, but the city's underfunded pension system continued to be an actuarial time bomb that still ticks.

If Caliguiri were still alive, he would be 66 and, Sophie Masloff thinks, might still be mayor.

Jeanne Caliguiri doubts that. She thinks he would still be serving the city in one way or another, but she doubts that he would have run for governor, an office with which his name was frequently linked in the political speculation of the time.

Jeanne Caliguiri still supervises the amyloidosis research fund established in her husband's memory. She works Downtown as the director of major gifts for the Leukemia Society. She is busy with the present but the memories are never far.

Last week, she was attending a fund-raising dinner for the Catholic Youth Organization, when a woman walked up to her and reached into an envelope for several snapshots of the late mayor with marchers and spectators at the Spring Hill neighborhood's Memorial Day Parade.

"It was nice because we used to always go to that parade as a family," Mrs. Caliguiri recalled. As the woman displayed her photos, she said, "He'll always be our mayor up here."

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