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Obituary: Tom Hritz: Crusty Post-Gazette columnist and tenacious newsman

Wednesday, October 20, 1999

By Linda Wilson Fuoco and Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Tom Hritz, the cantankerous Everyman who added the sobriquet "Mayor Smurphy" to the Pittsburgh lexicon, tormented then-Gov. Casey as "His Realness" and shared rollicking stories of true-life acquaintances such as "Rico the Baker," has died of cancer at age 61.

Tom Hritz 

Blunt, opinionated and fearless, Mr. Hritz became a touchstone for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette colleagues wondering what the man or woman in the street was thinking at a given moment. He drove feminists crazy, tortured liberals, debunked "Sparkle Season," and once proposed replacing the American Cancer Society's "Great American Smokeout" with "National Mind-Your-Own-Business Day."

Mr. Hritz died at his Bethel Park home early yesterday, ending a two-year fight with melanoma. While working through bouts of chemotherapy, he continued to write his column, which shifted to the newspaper's South edition, allowing him to work out of a suburban office near his home.

"I always thought of Tom as The Last Angry Everyman," said Phil Musick, a longtime friend and former columnist at the Post-Gazette. "He did battle for the rest of us against indestructible crabgrass and balky appliances and wrong-thinking liberals. Where we would mutter at life's endless irritants, Tom would rail at them."

A tenacious newsman who delighted in facing down politicians, Mr. Hritz stuck to the facts when writing his news stories.

But he had strong opinions about most things and was able to unleash them when John Craig, who had arrived as editor at the Post-Gazette three years earlier, asked him to take on a thrice-weekly column in 1980.

"It's been a grace of the paper for close to 20 years," Craig said yesterday. "He was a unique Pittsburgh voice. One of the things about him was he really represented the majority view on many things."

Majority opinion or not, Mr. Hritz could be merciless. He once called Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht "about as sophisticated as a sidewalk brick."

Residents of Upper St. Clair, a well-to-do suburb, were rankled when he dubbed the place "Uppity St. Clair." He went golfing -- often -- and returned from one trip to inform readers that the golf cart paths at Nevillewood Country Club surpassed most Pennsylvania roads.

Given free rein, Mr. Hritz's columns became a catalog of the things that bugged him -- and many Pittsburghers. His index of grievances ranged from camouflage clothing to court rulings that protected flag-burning as free speech.

Ozone Action Days were a special irritant.

"It's the same damn air we've always had," he explained in August, during an outdoor cigarette break with a co-worker.

Mr. Hritz disliked most safety laws -- "an infringement on what's left of our rights" he called them in a 1993 column. "Someday we won't even be able to drive our own cars unless we're wearing a helmet, a seat belt and a condom."

Mayor Murphy, tormented as "Mayor Smurphy," once dismissed a suggestion that he might forgo a second term and take a post in the Clinton administration as something that would "come from the twisted mind of Tom Hritz."

Allegheny County Commissioner Larry Dunn knew he'd arrived when Mr. Hritz turned his fire toward him. Dunn complained when he was not invited to a Labor Day Parade by unions angry at county budget cuts.

"What did you expect?" Mr. Hritz asked Dunn in his column. "The Jimmy Hoffa Cup?"

"Oh, he did that to everyone," Dunn said. "He didn't play favorites. He's a decent guy."

Bob Casey, the two-term Democratic governor, received special attention. When Casey briefly flirted with a run for the presidency in 1996, Mr. Hritz weighed in with this: "After eight years under the Casey administration, Pennsylvania is lucky that it's still a state."

William Block Sr., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chairman, said, "I knew Tom quite well. I understood his rather acid approach to some situations. I thought he tried very hard to tell the truth as he knew it."

Peter Leo, the Post-Gazette writing coach who was "joined at the hip" with Mr. Hritz, recalled the days he had shared a computer terminal and the column spot on the newspaper's Region page with Mr. Hritz.

"He liked to write, he called 'em as he saw 'em and, even when you felt he was flat out and infuriatingly wrong, it was impossible not to like him. Under that crusty, bombastic exterior beat the heart of a nice guy, shy and generous, and I'll miss him," Leo said.

A native of Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, Thomas Michael Hritz graduated in 1960 from Gannon College in Erie with a bachelor's degree in English literature.

He was a reporter at the Erie Daily Times in 1960-1961 and 1963-1965.

He served in the U.S. Army, 8th Infantry Division, from 1961 to 1963 and was stationed in Germany.

He was hired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in September 1965, starting as a general assignment reporter. Mr. Hritz covered Common Pleas Court from 1966 to 1967 and then urban affairs from 1967 to 1969. He was city hall reporter from 1969 to 1976.

"As a reporter, Tom was versatility personified, doing hard news, features and rewrites with equal skill," said Dick Fontana, a former Post-Gazette reporter and assistant city editor who later became "Rico the Baker," one of the recurring characters in Mr. Hritz's column.

"I used to bake bread and bring it into the newsroom," Fontana explained.

Mr. Hritz wrote feature stories from 1976 until he was given a column.

Tim Menees, a Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist, recalled an evening out when Mr. Hritz displayed his ability to deal with anyone.

"One night, and I'm talking late, after a beer tasting down at Chiodo's in Homestead, Tom was arguing with a large fellow, an ex-steel worker," he recalled. "Things grew animated, and suddenly the man angrily got off his stool and I thought, 'Oh, no, here comes a fight'. The guy took a few steps toward us, then turned around to Tom and said, 'OK! Maybe I am an Aristotelian!'

"Tom had been arguing philosophy," Menees said.

"He was a likable curmudgeon," said Downtown real estate agent Warren Kimball, who became "Dr. Nickolai" in Mr. Hritz's columns. Kimball and his wife socialized with Mr. Hritz and his wife, Suzanne Daschbach Hritz, who died in 1991 of a brain hemorrhage. They had been married for 30 years.

"Tom and Suzanne met in college and they were made for each other," Kimball said.

"It was a long and happy marriage and no one could have taken the death of a spouse harder. He was really never the same after he lost Suzanne."

Suzanne Hritz was a regular in some of the columns that showcased Mr. Hritz's kinder, gentler side. He wrote of her with wit, love and passion, and he continued to write about her after her death, sometimes referring to her as "the late, great Suzanne."

Mr. Hritz was quietly touched by the number of cards he received after writing his April 14, 1998, column announcing that he was taking a leave of absence. His illness had been diagnosed almost a year earlier.

When he returned to work a year and a week later, he never mentioned the cancer again. His column moved to every Wednesday in PG South.

His last column ran Sept. 8.

Survivors include two sons, Patrick, a television producer in Erie, and Michael, a Federal Aviation Administration engineer in Gaithersburg, Md.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Freyvogel-Slater Funeral Home, 112 Fort Couch Road, Bethel Park. A Mass will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. Friday at St. Thomas More Church in Bethel Park. Burial will follow at St. Mary's Cemetery, Bloomfield.

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