Sunday, October 28, 2018

Memories of Squirrel Hill

The Squirrel Hill mass shooting near Pittsburgh has sickened me. I could spend many paragraphs describing the depth of my outrage, but we all share it as we try to comprehend what has just taken place inside a haven of friendship and fellowship —  the very place many of us seek out for refuge.

Having cut my broadcasting teeth on Christian radio in Gateway Towers, I spent a couple of culturally rich years learning to appreciate the ethnic diversity that is Pittsburgh. WPIT-AM and FM reached the Tri-State area with Christian programming; they still do.

Squirrel Hill brings back fond memories of learning to drive in the city, after having grown up in rural Russell PA. My late husband, Roger, wanted to acclimate me to the busy network of highways. On Sunday afternoons, we would leave our Wilkinsburg apartment and drive to Squirrel Hill to begin. From that historic community, we would wend our way closer down into the labyrinth of one-way streets that used to frighten me; with his help, I became more and more confident, eventually joining the ranks of the most assertive Pittsburgh drivers.

My station manager in the 80’s, Michael Komichak, honored every cultural community-group in the listening region by programming Saturdays to a wonderful array of programs heard nowhere else: The American Slovene Hour, The Ukrainian Radio Show, The Carpatho-Rusyn Heritage Hour, the Slovak Hour and The Blarney Hour, to mention a few. In those days the hosts would pre-record their programs, including everything from polka music to Irish ballads — it was a melting pot of old world heritage, a gathering-in of listeners from every background and country of origin. We aired news from home and music for listeners with roots in Slovenia, Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria. Truly, it was an audio feast of language and music, even if one didn't
understand it all.

I’m sure, if they wanted a spot on the program, the Hebrew community could have done so. That was Mr. Komichak’s heart.

Mr. Komichak looms large in my memory as a leader always looking to fill a need; promoting the surrounding neighborhoods was his idea, and it was not always popular with the folks crunching algorithms and measuring target audiences. After all, they said, ours is a contemporary music format — why put on shows on the weekends that sound so different from our programming Monday through Friday?

But Mr. K kept at it until his final broadcast days in the 90’s just prior to his death. To this day his legacy continues, on-air and in the grateful hearts of the diverse communities that nestle tightly around Pittsburgh.

What happened Saturday at Tree of Life Synagogue has now been tagged a hate crime: lives stolen and families left devastated because of a heart filled with hatred. Let’s pray for the loved ones struggling to comprehend what has happened in Pittsburgh; a city that will continue forward and lead the nation in healing the unthinkable.

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