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Jefferson Awards: Cope's quiet crusade

The loud, ubiquitous voice of Steelers' commentary wages a low-key battle against autism

Wednesday, January 06, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Myron Cope is standing on the sidewalk outside the Steelers offices smoking a cigarette, temporarily banished from the press room by the people he calls "the health Nazis."

For 22 years, Myron Cope hosted a sports talk show on WTAE. That ended April 5, 1995, but his work for autistic children goes on. 

A young couple is walking past, hand in hand. Twenty feet on the other side of Myron, they stop and turn around to look at him again, and then they approach cautiously. It's something Cope has seen 500 times. He can almost hear the question: Are you Myron Cope?

Here it comes.

"Pardon me, aren't you Art Rooney?"

"He's dead!" Myron squawks. "He's dead! His statue is around the corner!"

Yoi. Wrong icon.

They knew his face was right out of the Pittsburgh hagiology, but even the millions who do recognize Cope's face and his voice instantaneously are largely in the dark on the most enduring aspect of the Cope legend.

"Myron has an incredible commitment to mentally retarded children and adults throughout our community," Diane Barna, chief development officer at the Allegheny Valley School, said recently. "He's a wonderful, good-hearted human being whose sensitivity and caring for handicapped people is unparalleled. He has touched us all deeply and has taught us we can be successful without losing our compassion and caring."

That's part of what Barna said on the Community Champions nomination form, and it is the articulated culmination of what some special people began to see in Myron in the mid-70s, when his son Danny was diagnosed with autism.

"Very little was known about autism at the time," Cope said as he broke open a muffin in the Art Rooney library. "In fact, people would say to me, 'It must be nice to have an artistic son.' "

Autism is a mental disorder originating in infancy that can manifest in repetitive behavior and language dysfunction. In every 10,000 births, autism afflicts 15 children, five of whom will be severely impaired. There are 350,000 children and adults with autism in the United States.

In the quarter-century since Danny's diagnosis, so many people have been inspired by or directly impacted by Cope's fund raising and advocacy for the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Valley School that his selection as one of eight 1998 Community Champions who will receive the Jefferson Award is merely overdue. The Post-Gazette, now in its 24th year as media conduit for this signature American Institute for Public Service program, is joined with TCI and United Way this year to honor outstanding community servants.


During the Jan. 20 awards ceremony and reception at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze, Cope and his fellow honorees will receive a $1,000 award for the organization of their choice, a medallion and the chance to represent the region at a national awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

"As a result of Myron's efforts, we've become one of the most prominent chapters in the country," said Dan Torisky, president of the Autism Society. "People move into Allegheny County and the region because of the programs we've been able to put in place. But he hates having the spotlight put on it. I wanted to put out a press release about his [charity] golf tournament and he'll say, 'Don't do it. We have everything we need and it's 100 percent efficient.' "

Through his annual charity golf tournament, the Myron Cope/Foge Fazio Golf Tournament for Autistic Children, and the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, which he founded, and through effective, if less conspicuous, work with the Penguins and Pittsburgh and West Virginia universities, Cope has raised more than $2 million in the past 16 years. Since 1975, Cope has donated proceeds from sales of The Terrible Towel, the Steelers talisman he created, to other charities. But in 1996, he donated its trademark to the Allegheny Valley School, making the school the recipient of all royalties from sales of The Terrible Towel and Terrible Towel products (key chains, beach towels, etc.).

To manage all of this on a personal level, Cope initially had to unearth abilities he thought he didn't have.

"I'm a terrible salesman," he said. "My first job out of college was in dead of winter, graduated [from Pitt] at the end of January. I found myself down in Uniontown trying to sell appointments for baby pictures. I went down there with a crew and a crew chief, four or five of us riding in a car and it was two degrees below zero. I made $3. My approach was, I'd knock on the door and the lady of the house would come to the door and the first words out of my mouth were, 'You wouldn't want to buy a baby picture, would you?'

"That answers the question of whether I find it difficult to ask people for money."

But he did and he has and he is all but tireless at it, if mostly because the results of autism so stunned him. It's a condition he describes with a kind of haunted eloquence to this day.

"In laymen's terms, which are the right terms for me, wires get crossed in the brain," he said. "As a result, sometimes, you get kids who have a genius for things like music or math as in the Dustin Hoffman movie ["Rain Man"], but those are the minority of cases. The majority of cases, it's a terrible thing because the kids, their environment affects them unlike us. They have a habit of waving their hands in front of their face all the time. I think it's their way of warding off whatever it is that's bothering them something awful. They scream, seemingly without provocation. They'll bang their heads against the wall.

"They're beset by something.

"Danny [who is now 30] over the years, to my surprise, outgrew those characteristics. It's been a long time since he evidenced those characteristics."

So Cope keeps going. He's planning to personally lobby Gov. Ridge on behalf of the mentally retarded in the near future.

This football season, his 29th with the Steelers, found him bringing the same extreme level of excitement to the job of color commentator, a job he does like no one else ever has or will. Heck yeah, that's a compliment.

The young couple that mistook him for Art Rooney knew he was a person long associated with champions. It should be more evident that Myron Cope is one, too.

The Federation of Independent School Alumnae will donate $1,000 in Cope's name to the Allegheny Valley School.

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