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Amen Corner: Pittsburgh's oldest old-boy network changes and survives

Group is still a power in business, politics

Monday, July 22, 2002

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Since its founding in 1870, Amen Corner has grown into one of the city's oldest old-boy networks for business, politics and pleasure, not always in that order.

Susan Castriota was the first female president of Amen Corner. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

In its infancy, this fraternity of prominent, privileged men, who included doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians and business leaders, loved to quaff a brew and express their views about commerce and politics.

And they still do, although the old boys have evolved a bit. In the 1980s, women and minorities were invited into the networking ranks. The push to expand and diversify membership has continued and the organization now numbers about 300 members, including its first female president who finished her term last year.

"The group decided to have a renewal of the organization. It had sort of gone a little stale," said Stanley B. Lederman, who served as president from September 1998 through 1999.

They are a casual group by plan, hosting a few formal events a year while encouraging informal discourse.

"We have no stated bylaws, no rules and regulations. We're a free-flowing organization. That's by design, not by accident. The forefathers didn't want to be hamstrung. We are a loosely knit but cohesive organization," said Lederman.

Stepping back in time

Initially, Amen Corner members were known as The Steps because they usually gathered on the steps of a Downtown church or at a pharmacy at Liberty Avenue and Market Street.

As their spirited discussions drew to a close, they would look at each other and say "Amen," meaning that the conversation was finished and it was time to leave, Lederman explained. From that ritual a name was born.

Over the years, these "A-meners" -- who included the father of Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence --wielded power in corporate board rooms and through their endorsements of political candidates made at their annual picnic of politics, traditions that endure today.

They were among the William Penn Hotel's original tenants when the Downtown institution opened in the early 1900s and in the years that followed members carried their own key to a special room in the hotel hung with portraits of every Amen Corner president.

Dolores "Dolly" Branchik of Scott, who handled Amen Corner correspondence on a manual Royal typewriter and served as its executive secretary for 35 years, remembers a chat with Judge Elder Marshall, a past president of Amen Corner.

"He said every candidate elected for state office in the state of Pennsylvania was elected right in those rooms because Amen Corner moved into those rooms when the William Penn was built," said Branchik, who served from the mid-1950s until 1990.

New quarters

When rent at the William Penn Hotel became prohibitive, Amen Corner moved across the river in the 1990s to the Sheraton Hotel in Station Square.

Members of the Amen Corner gather at Liberty and Market for a photograph around 1900. (Post-Gazette)

Now, this "prestigious organization of Pittsburgh tradition" gathers for board meetings at the Rivers Club in One Oxford Centre. The annual holiday party and the judicial reception honoring state and federal judges are held at the Duquesne Club.

Once dominated by Republicans, Amen Corner now strives to be bipartisan. Last year's boat cruise for members featured Congresswoman Melissa Hart, a Republican from Bradford Woods, and Democratic city Councilman Bob O'Connor.

Current president Tim A. Heffner, who is chief executive officer of BioTechnology Corp. of America, believes it is essential to attract people with different kinds of expertise.

One of his main goals is to establish a scholarship program with several local schools, including the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, Carlow College, La Roche College and Point Park College.

"What we'd like to do is give something back to our community and help our local students," Heffner said.

One of Heffner's recruits to the organization is Valerie McDonald Roberts, the newly elected recorder of deeds.

"I think he has been excellent. He is so refreshing and statesmanlike," said McDonald Roberts.

In August, Heffner will captain his 55-foot boat "Acacia" during a ride on the rivers for new members. Heffner, 40, of Wexford, succeeded Susan Castriota, the first woman to serve as Amen Corner president.

During her first meeting as the group's leader, Castriota arrived wearing a heavy silver necklace made by Roberts' Jewelers, once a temple of baubles and now a convenience store on Wood Street.

Bearing the names and years of each Amen Corner president, the necklace -- a kind of Stanley Cup for leadership and networking -- is passed from one president to next.

"I wore that to the first board meeting just to get everybody," Castriota said. "They howled. I had to liven things up for the first meeting."

Dinner conversation

For years, Amen Corner sponsored annual dinners that drew renowned speakers and national attention. Guests ranged from President Gerald Ford to Sens. George Mitchell, who spoke eloquently about the value of education, and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who played the fiddle.

Timothy A. Heffner is current president of Amen Corner. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

But notes of discord sounded in 1967 when Alabama Gov. George Wallace, an ardent segregationist and candidate for president, addressed Amen Corner at the William Penn Hotel.

The phone in Branchik's office rang constantly before that particular evening.

"A couple of them were death threats to me. It was kind of scary. He was such a bigot, George Wallace," Branchik recalled.

The governor's appearance prompted an orderly crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators to sing, chant and picket outside the William Penn.

Republican leader Elsie Hillman boycotted the dinner. So did the late Mayor Joseph Barr, who spent that night addressing a group of 150 African-American youngsters and calling Wallace the country's "No. 1 racist" during his remarks.

John Brosky, now a Superior Court senior judge, also boycotted the dinner because he felt that Wallace was violating a U.S. Supreme Court order to de-segregate public schools.

But Jack McGregor, one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Penguins, couldn't snub the dinner. Then a state senator and a relatively new member of Amen Corner, McGregor had been asked to introduce Wallace.

"The easy thing would have been to say no because Gov. Wallace was so controversial. I cleared it with Elsie Hillman, who was sort of my county chairman mentor."

On that cold April night, McGregor said, "I remember walking through a phalanx of civil rights demonstrators who were chanting and screaming. I made a few caustic comments. I thought freedom of speech, arguably, was a civil right. We had lots of police protection. The demonstrators were civil," McGregor said.

McGregor's brother is Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge James R. McGregor, a senior judge who also remembers that evening.

"We were young and naive. I was very, very nervous. I didn't want to cross the picket line but I wanted to be with my brother," the judge recalled.

In the 1980s, when U.S. District Judge Hubert Teitelbaum became president of Amen Corner, the late federal judge insisted that the group admit women. He nominated Carol Los Mansmann, a young federal judge.

Judge McGregor nominated Elsie Hillman and Rita Wilson Kane, then the national committee chairwomen for the Republican and Democratic parties in Pennsylvania. Hillman and Kane joined and so did Mansmann, who died earlier this year.

The first African-American to join was James Williams, the husband of Doris Carson Williams, who was once a Republican state committeewoman.

When Castriota served as president, the 41st annual judicial reception in March 2001 honored 25 women judges, each of whom received a crystal vase from Supreme Court Justice Ralph J. Cappy.

Castriota, who suggested honoring the women judges, said her membership in Amen Corner has benefited not only her but also her daughters, 14-year-old Caroline Hoag and 19-year-old Bethany Hoag. They attended the judicial reception and got an early taste of networking as they hobnobbed with politicians and judges.

"They're not afraid to meet anybody," Castriota said. "They're not intimidated."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 25, 2002) A story Monday on the Amen Corner incorrectly said former Sen. Bob Dole played the fiddle at an annual dinner given by the organization. The violinist was Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

The story also erroneously identified Elsie Hillman and Rita Wilson Kane as national committeewomen for the Republican and Democratic parties in Pittsburgh. In reality they were the national committeewomen for their respective parties for Pennsylvania. In the same story, we misidentified Doris Carson Williams as the former vice chairman of the GOP in Allegheny County. She was in fact a Republican state committeewoman.

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