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Obituary: Mike Ditka: Aliquippa resident, father of Saints coach

Sunday, November 15, 1998

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mike Ditka, the Western Pennsylvania legend who coaches the New Orleans Saints, will try to win a game today in memory of his father.

The elder Ditka, also named Mike, died Friday at Villa St. Joseph nursing home in Baden. He was 80 and had lived in Aliquippa for the past 57 years.

Town residents say Mr. Ditka, an ex-Marine, retired railroader and longtime local union president, was every bit as tough and headstrong as his famous son.

Mr. Ditka was a legendary character in Aliquippa, where he was known for his crusty ways, his simple tastes and his strong values.

Young Mike offered many times to move his father and mother, Charlotte, into a spacious new home, but Mr. Ditka preferred to remain in Aliquippa's Linmar section, a collection of rowhouses that were converted from public housing to affordable first homes for the town's blue-collar families.

Mr. Ditka bought his home in Linmar through the program and raised his four children there. He also spent a quarter-century as treasurer of the Linmar cooperative that made this slice of the American dream possible for just about anybody with the will to work for it.

The joke in Linmar was that you could see your neighbor when you opened the medicine cabinet, but the neighborhood was just fine with Mr. Ditka. Townspeople said he never showed interest in material possessions.

"There was nothing flashy about the old man," said Frank Marocco, a friend of young Mike. "He could have driven a Lexus, but he was content with his old Ford. He could have worn a gold watch, but he didn't. When he went to visit Mike in New Orleans, he complained that the house was so big he got lost coming back from the bathroom."

If Mr. Ditka cared little about property, he focused mightily on instilling ambition in his children.

"He gave his kids expectations," said John Evasovich, another contemporary of young Mike. "His expectations were that his kids would be the very best they could be and that they would fight as hard as they could at everything they tried."

Some say Coach Ditka's ferocity and unwillingness to lose with grace are an outgrowth of his father's demanding code. Others say Mr. Ditka tried more than once to control young Mike's volcanic temper.

Aliquippa residents still tell of the time Mr. Ditka had to save his second son, Ashton, from young Mike after a heartbreaking loss on the baseball field. The boys were playing together, Ashton in center field, Mike at catcher. It looked like they were about to win a nerve-wracking game against a good opponent, but Ashton turned victory into defeat by misplaying the last out. Young Mike was so enraged that he sprinted to the outfield and chased Ashton over the fence and into the streets.

As town legend has it, Mr. Ditka and Charlotte bolted from the bleachers to save the younger boy from a beating.

"The old man always laughed when he told that story," Marocco said.

For the record, Ashton Ditka survived the day and went on to have a standout athletic career at Bucknell University.

Mr. Ditka was aware that far more attention cascaded on young Mike, an all-American at the University of Pittsburgh, all-pro tight end for the Chicago Bears and, in 1985-86, head coach of a Bears team that went 18-1 and defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

But Mr. Ditka never brought up Mike or his achievements. Other people, of course, frequently did.

"He was very proud of his kids, but he never showed it," Marocco said. "He would never elaborate about Mike when people talked about him. He would just say thank you, and then he would always mention the other children, too. If somebody talked to him about Mike, he always made sure he mentioned all four."

Gino Piroli, 72, retired Aliquippa postmaster, agreed that Mr. Ditka resisted the ultimate parental temptation -- bragging. "He wasn't the type who would walk around saying, 'I'm Mike Ditka's father."'

Talking was not something Mr. Ditka excelled at, especially with strangers. When a Chicago writer came to Aliquippa to interview him about the world champion Bears, Mr. Ditka was at his cranky best. The writer, aware that he was meeting a curmudgeon, began timidly. "How's Mike?" he asked, thinking an innocuous question might break the ice.

"How the hell should I know," Mr. Ditka shot back. "You're the one who lives in Chicago, aren't you?"

Mr. Ditka's roots were in the no-nonsense towns of Western Pennsylvania. He was born June 23, 1918, in Carnegie. He left home, like most boys of the time, when World War II broke out. Mr. Ditka served in the Marine Corps.

After the war, he went to work for the Aliquippa & Southern Railroad. The line serviced the factories in the booming mill town of Aliquippa and the industrial areas around it.

Mr. Ditka was president of Local 1432 of the Transport Workers of America for 31 years.

His marriage to the former Charlotte Keller lasted almost twice as long as his union career. They married 59 years ago.

In retirement, Mr. Ditka spent his mornings playing gin and drinking coffee with longtime pal Elmer Marocco, Frank's brother. In the afternoons, he liked to duck into a neighborhood bar for a beer and some needling about young Mike's famous temper, which seemed to explode on television screens each autumn Sunday.

Young Mike will coach today against the St. Louis Rams. Then he will come home to Aliquippa to bury his father.

"I know Mike must be devasted by this," Piroli said. "I know he has a ballgame. I don't know what we will do."

In addition to wife, Charlotte, and young Mike, Mr. Ditka is survived by sons Ashton of Warren and David of Dallas; daughter Mary Ann Stowe of Dallas; two brothers, Walt of Carnegie, and Alex of Las Vegas; and one sister, Mary Solomon of Bowie, Md.

Friends will be received from 7 to 9 p.m. today and 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at Darroch Memorial Chapel, 2640 Mill St., Aliquippa, where the funeral will be at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday. Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Center. Burial will follow in Sylvania Hills Memorial Park, Rochester.

"He believed in discipline and in respecting people," Frank Marocco said. "In his own way, he was a coach, too. He molded his children to be great citizens."

Staff writer Cristina Rouvalis contributed to this obituary.

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