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Obituary: Robert R. Lansberry: Authentic Pittsburgh character who couldn't get his mail

Friday, June 11, 1999

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Imagine what was going on in Robert R. Lansberry's mind.

He had been carrying his black-and-white sandwich boards around his neck for years, since he first felt the silent mind-controlling radio waves sent by the CIA in the 1970s. In the beginning, he protested by sending the government letters, but when he started to suspect that the feds -- through their agents at the U.S. Postal Service -- were censoring his mail, he took his protest to the streets.

Though his signs -- which Mr. Lansberry wore Downtown and at most big public events citywide -- said lots of things over the years, a usual target was U.S. Rep Bill Coyne, D-Oakland.

Coyne was a federal official, after all, and he hadn't cracked the mail censorship case, let alone the greater CIA conspiracy underneath it.

Then came the parade.

Mr. Lansberry was there as usual with his signs, getting the message out, and who should come walking down the street but Coyne himself, at the head of a large group of marchers. As the group got closer to Mr. Lansberry, he saw they were federal employees and letter carriers at that.

Imagine.

"Get me my mail!" Mr. Lansberry yelled.

After a quarter century as a grizzled fixture of city life, Mr. Lansberry, of Stowe, died yesterday morning of pneumonia after a long battle with cancer, said a spokeswoman for the VA Medical Center in Oakland. He was 69.

Mr. Lansberry, a former sailor and grocery store owner, wore his first "Why Can't Lansberry Get Mail" sandwich board during the 1978 Three Rivers Arts Festival. He had been writing protest letters to the government for years, questioning everything from CIA mind control studies to the price of milk, but he switched to the placards after sensing the mail censorship.

The tip-off, he said to anybody who'd listen, came when his sympathizers said they had been sending him money through the mail, but it didn't arrive.

So he took his message to the streets, marching along Grant Street and other crowded places with the two white placards strapped around his shoulders for 12 to 14 hours a day. Afterwards, he'd stop by a Smithfield Street tavern for his customary six bottles of Rolling Rock.

The routine didn't change but the messages did. They ranged from the lengthy -- STOP THORNBURGH MAIL THIEF. ASK MAYOR CALIGUIRI ABOUT BIOFEED SLAVES, TORTURES, GUINEA PIGS, POSTAL THEFT -- to the shorter and more declarative, such as the MURPHY IS A RAT and COYNE SUCKS placards he wore the last few years.

In 1990, Pittsburgh police arrested Mr. Lansberry for obscenity for wearing a sign saying Coyne "suks, socks, scuks." Though he had deliberately misspelled the word to stay out of trouble, a city magistrate agreed the message was obscene and sentenced him to 25 days in the county jail. (He spelled it correctly in the last few years and no one seemed to mind.)

Coyne so rankled Mr. Lansberry that he spent his entire life savings ($610) to run against the incumbent congressman in the 1992 Democratic primary, and got 13,871 votes to Coyne's 44,616. The day after the election, he explained his loss with a new sign: ELECTION WAS FIXED.

The anger at Coyne started after the former Pittsburgh city councilman entered Congress in 1980. Mr. Lansberry told Coyne's staff he wasn't getting mail. They checked with the Postal Service, found nothing amiss, and told him so.

Thereafter, Mr. Lansberry's growing anger at the federal government became associated with one man: Coyne. The congressman knew Mr. Lansberry was troubled and brushed the placard campaign off.

"It's very bad to hear he passed," Coyne said yesterday from Washington, D.C. "Obviously, it was not the easiest life to have to live."

In 1983, a year after the loss to Coyne, Mr. Lansberry ran in the Democratic primary for Allegheny County Clerk of Courts. It was another losing effort, but he got 33,880 votes in the countywide race.

Mr. Lansberry advised his fellow Downtown habitues to adopt his tactics. At the corner of Smithfield and Fifth Avenue -- a Lansberry stomping ground, and the big leagues of Downtown eccentricity -- he insisted to Ron Sicilia, the bellowing lunch-time street minister, that sandwich boards were the way to go.

"He told me many times to carry a sign, but it wasn't my style," said Sicilia, who's stood at the corner, yelling, for 18 years.

Nearby, Mr. Lansberry made one of his best friends, Jim Selelyo, who first met him 30 years ago at his Four Seasons Floral stand. He'd talk about the silent radios that control the mind, politics, how he loved traveling -- he'd been to Hawaii, Germany, Cancun and spent several summers protesting in Washington, D.C. -- and how he missed his three kids.

Mr. Lansberry honestly believed his messages, Selelyo said.

"He was a very, very educated individual, and claimed the post office stole his mail because they didn't want him to pursue his cause," he said. "If everyone was as honest as Lansberry, you'd never need police."

Mr. Lansberry grew up in Morningside and graduated from Peabody High School in 1948. He graduated from Penn State with a business degree in 1952, joined the Navy for four years, then came back to the area for jobs with IBM and Westinghouse. In 1956, back from Korea, he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent, county Elections Department records show.

He lived in Plum in the 1960s, opened up two grocery stores, Lansberry's General Store and the Manor Village Market, and owned properties in Highland Park and Penn Hills.

In 1971, Mr. Lansberry started writing his letters. In 1974, his wife tried to confine him to a mental institution, he told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Tom Hritz. Soon after, he left her and the children and moved Downtown, sometimes sleeping outside and sometimes paying rent with his Social Security and pension checks.

In 1977, he started living Downtown in the Edison Hotel, then over the years moved on to McKees Rocks, the South Side, Lawrenceville, and finally Stowe.

In 1978, at the beginning of his crusade, he registered again as a Democrat. He rarely missed an election and cast his last vote in November, when esophageal cancer forced him to stop marching.

He left no funeral arrangements, or addresses.

Mr. Lansberry's ashes will be interred in the military cemetery at Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County.



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