A while back I had a piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on my complicated feelings about my late headmaster from Kiski School, Jack Pidgeon. As was the case in some of my favorite essays, “On The Headmaster’s Passing” was created in a flood of emotion that surprised me. I realized a few things from writing the piece, not the least of which was that I regret not having visited the old man more since I’d left the school.
So I was a bit unsure about what sort of a response I’d get from my story on Mr. Pidgeon. Some former students had a keen dislike for the man, in many cases because he’d thrown them out of our all-boys boarding school. Others have said he was too hard on them, but I don’t know. I often think that part of the problem with America and the world is that more men don’t stand up and tell people when they are out of line. If that sounds sexist to you, then you don’t understand what I’m saying. Driving down the street in lower Wilkinsburg, some idiot throws his McDonald’s trash in the street, while waiting at an intersection, yet nobody says anything. Young boys run wild without fatherly supervision, trying to one-up each other with bullets and false bravado, yet the right people don’t reproach them, or show them a better way. A president seemingly justifies a costly war in a faraway land, and almost no politician makes a peep about it until long after the fact.
Whether or not you agree with my politics, you may agree that people need to know how to behave correctly, and with dignity. Not enough of this sort of “breeding” is being taught, and consequently, we’ve become a nation of whiners and crybabies: My dad hit me in anger. The headmaster was too hard on me. Nobody’s given me a job; I earned every one on my own.
Mr. Pidgeon didn’t settle for excuses or wallowing. He once told me: “Jonathan, get in a better mood.”
Now more than ever, we need a slew of Jack Pidgeon-type tough guys to instruct rambunctious young men on how to behave. And we also need such men to teach the young men how to be tough, but not self-pitying.
I’ve kind of gotten off-track. I began this post in part to reprint some of the wonderful comments I received in emails from P-G readers. To start with, I was relieved to get the first response around 9 a.m. on the morning the story ran, from Mr. Pidgeon’s youngest, his son Kelly, who’s a friend.
“All I can say is…WOW!” Kelly wrote.
I was both relieved and complimented by his note.
Then Dave “Hollywood” Conrad, another Kiski School grad of 1985 (as is Kelly), gave me a shout, heartily approving of the piece in a manner that is unprintable here. He also tried to give me a new nickname, “JD.”
Sorry, Hollywood, I do the naming around here.
Then Kiski boy David Harouse, who I remember from the football team and who graduated in 1983, I believe, sent a kind note:
“Great piece. I had the privilege of having lunch with Mr. Pidgeon last year, and speaking with him as late as March. You are on the money, center bullseye.”
It was good to know that others fondly recalled Mr. Pidgeon’s tough approach, and approved of how I’d described it.
My old music teacher and Glee Club director Mary Vlahos sent some sweet thoughts, and it was actually the second time she’s emailed me about an essay I’ve written for the Post-Gazette. She wrote:
“Well, you’ve done it again with your writing and how pleased Jack would be at how well you write. By the time I had finished reading your article I was in tears—again. We will miss him… Keep on writing, Jonathan.”
Hearing from Mrs. Vlahos was, in a way for me, the psychological equivalent of receiving an “A.”
Barrister Hal Ostrow also was kind enough to send a note:
“I’m a Kiski grad (1992), and I found your column over the weekend to be moving and comforting. I had a similar relationship with Mr. Pidgeon; I spent four years at Kiski, and didn’t get to truly know him until having him for senior English. In the seven years of college and law school that followed, I didn’t have a single professor who came close to intellectually challenging me and stimulating me as Mr. Pidgeon did. I have only seen him a handful of times since I graduated, though we did write to one another and speak from time to time. I am kicking myself for not going to visit him when I was in Pittsburgh last month…Thanks for writing and publishing your feelings on his passing. I’m sure it was helpful for you, and I know it was for others.”
Talk about Wow! That was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about anything I’ve written. We journalists simply hope that our writing will occasionally make an impact, and we seldom hear from readers regarding their feelings on any of our stories. Realizing that I was able to bring a bit of solace to some of the other grieving members of the “Kiski family” was comforting to me. But I was just one of many people in the media who were commenting on Mr. Pidgeon’s death. Steve Blass, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, published a nice letter to the editor in the P-G:
“I was out of town when Kiski School Headmaster Jack Pidgeon passed away, thus this late letter.
I had a baseball camp at Kiski because of Jack. I tried to run it in a fashion that Jack would feel good about. I also tried to soak up as much as I could the way that Jack Pidgeon dealt not only with his students but everyone he came in contact with.
I have never met a more consistent, principled man in my life. I also have never met a man who enjoyed a good laugh or a good story more than he did.
Jack Pidgeon touched my life and I am better because of it. I think I speak for a lot of people.”
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had a nice story on Mr. Pidgeon, including this gem of a quote:
"I had known Jack since he was my swimming coach at boarding school in 1950. He was a lovely and very kind man, and will be sorely missed," said Tribune-Review owner Dick Scaife.
On Sunday, May 18, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette even included a nice editorial obit on Mr. Pidgeon on its editorial page:
“THE KISKI SCHOOL in Saltsburg was founded in 1888 and is one of the oldest all-boys college prep boarding schools in the United States. A good part of that history was dominated by one man, Jack Pidgeon, headmaster for 45 years, starting in 1957. From a humble background himself, Mr. Pidgeon by dint of character and intelligence became a prince of education and a revered figure to legions of boys. Mr. Pidgeon, 83, husband of former Pennsylvania auditor general and treasurer Barbara Hafer, died Monday of complications of Parkinson's disease. The school community is not alone in mourning its most influential leader. Rest in peace, Jack Pidgeon.”
The Indiana Gazette also had a lengthy and well-researched story on Mr. Pidgeon, and I’m sure I’ve missed numerous other stories that were written about him. One of the most interesting emails that I received on my P-G article on Pidgeon came from David Wolfson, a Kiski boy from way back:
“I just read your obituary for Jack Pidgeon, and I thought I would say thanks for your all too accurate remembrances of him. I was in the class of ’61 (his first graduating class) so I got to watch the whole thing happen. And, oh yes, he caught me spitting on the floor. Thanks for clarifying that; I had no clue why he went so ballistic.”
I was a bit taken aback upon learning that David Wolfson didn’t know Mr. Pidgeon’s mother had been a cleaning lady at Andover. It made me wonder if Jack once had been much more sensitive and class-conscious, nearly revealing his working-class roots. Back then, when he was a young teacher and headmaster in his early thirties, Mr. Pidgeon wasn’t telling students that his mother had been a cleaning lady at Andover.
One of the neatest emails I received regarding my essay on Jack came from someone who never met the man. Tim O’Brien, of Tim O’Brien PR wrote that he was reminded to write to me after reading Steve Blass’s letter to the editor. Tim wrote:
“This is to say that I never knew Mr. Pidgeon, but reading your article about him was a very nice piece and it helped those in my position to gain a quick appreciation for the man. Now, I wish I had met him, so I guess your piece achieved its goal.”
I have not mentioned all of the comments that I received by email, but I must admit that I was more than satisfied with the response from readers. Thanks to all of you writers, professional and not, for chiming in on the life of a great man.
Photo of Jack Pidgeon courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.