July 2005

Pittsburghers Celebrate America
No Matter Where You're Going or Where You've Been,
America is a Great Place to Be

by John Fries

Like most people, I can look back and recall numerous times when what it means to be an American was impressed upon me in one way or another.

During the early 1960s, when my family lived in Uptown and I was in first grade at the former Epiphany School, I remember our teacher wheeling a large black and white television set into our classroom. In those days, we were learning from the pages of books, and the notion of any type of multimedia-based instruction was still several years off. It was a rare occurrence to bring a TV into the classroom. Apparently, something important was going to be broadcast.

The teacher positioned the cart in front of the room, plugged the set in, turned it on, let it warm up for a minute or so, and fiddled with the rabbit ears a bit to try and conjure a clear image. In a few minutes, we saw what the big deal was. A man was in outer space. We learned that he was called an astronaut. And, he was an American!

Many years later, in 1980, I was fresh out of Duquesne University and using my journalism skills and brand new communications degree on the set of a music video program that served as a kind of local counterpart to a relatively new phenomenon called MTV. We spent most of our time taping interviews and show opening and closing segments backstage at the Civic Arena and Stanley Theater. As the program's co-host, my role was to interview musicians and singers before or after they played their concerts.

One of my many memorable experiences while doing that show was a post-concert interview I conducted backstage at the Arena with Ted Nugent. Onstage, Sweaty Teddy was very much the rock and roll wild man, all cranked volume, unruly mane of hair and screaming guitar.

Offstage, after the concert, he was very friendly and accommodating when he sat for his on-camera interview, and extremely articulate throughout. At this time in our nation's history, America was dealing with the strenuous situation that involved several of our fellow citizens being held hostage in Iran. For his part, Nugent, an unabashed patriot, was passionately outspoken both onstage and off about how privileged he was to be an American. He said that that he'd traveled all over the world and had been to a lot of countries, but had never seen freedoms anywhere that are even close to what we have in the United States.

Nugent is one of many Americans I've encountered or interviewed over the years who have verbalized strong feelings about our nation and speak with pride about what makes the United States such a great place to live. For this article, I spoke with a number of Pittsburghers who, for reasons of their own, are also proud to live in the greatest nation in the world.

Rick Sebak -- Capturing the American Experience for TV
Many people consider WQED-TV's Rick Sebak a local treasure, a reputation thatŐs well earned and well deserved. Sebak, a South Hills native and Swissvale resident, creates the television shows that remind us what it means to be Pittsburghers -- and Americans.

As the writer, producer and narrator of such programs as "Kennywood Memories," "Things That Aren't There Anymore," "Stuff That's Gone," "Holy Pittsburgh," "The Strip Show" and many others, Sebak takes us with him as he explores interesting people, places and things located throughout out our region.

He shows us things we may have seen a million times, but never really looked at closely enough to appreciate. He introduces us to people with whom we may have a passing familiarity, and makes us want to know them better, visit their establishments and become friends with them. He also makes us nostalgic for a sweeter time by showing us how good it feels to connect with the simpler side of things. Strip away all the stuff that makes life complicated, and you have the guy down the street who has an interesting hobby or unusual story to tell. To quote John Mellencamp, ain't that America?

It's apparent when you talk with him that Sebak really loves his work, an observation he's quick to confirm "If I didn't have this job, I'd want it desperately," he says with a laugh.

Sebak gives new meaning to the term "well traveled." By staying far off the beaten path most of the time, he gets to experience the richness of the American fabric in ways many of us don't, no matter how many frequent flier miles are listed on the statement. His opportunities to create national programs that focus on such quintessentially American topics as diners, beaches and hot dogs have afforded him unique, fascinating experiences and interactions all across the map.

"One of the things I like to celebrate in my shows is the freedom of movement," says the affable Sebak. "We can choose to take a detour, or take a back road instead of the main road. When you do, you realize that surprises are everywhere, and we have the freedom to explore them. This is a crucial freedom that we take for granted. It's part of our pursuit of happiness, and is so much a part of being an American."

Sebak also notes that the people he meets along the way make the journey worthwhile. "If you're friendly and inquisitive, you can find things out. People want to share things, and I'm usually asking them about things they really enjoy -- and that puts me at an advantage."

He refers to the "incredible depth and richness of the American culture that I get the opportunity to explore." He finds a sense of place, he says, in every city, town and neighborhood he visits. It's in out-of-the way landmarks and mom-and-pop stores. "You see that everyplace isn't the same."

Sebak's travel log is about to add yet another American destination. Soon, he will be making a trip to Alaska at the invitation of a high school friend who now lives there, to shoot a segment for his next national program. As always, the subject is both familiar and fascinating. "It's about cemeteries, and it will debut in October," says Sebak.

Dan Onorato -- Living the American Dream
You can stroll through any Pittsburgh neighborhood and hear the same story told in countless ways, and, often, in immigrant dialects. My parents...or grandparents...or great grandparents came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their back and a few cents in their pockets.

The North Side is made up of several such neighborhoods populated by good, hardworking family-oriented people who grew up there, married, and raised their children. They often live as extended families with several generations under the same roof. Both family and nationality bonds are strong. These people also make great neighbors; they develop strong, lifelong friendships with others on the block and everyone knows everyone else.

Marshall-Shadeland, where Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato was born and raised, is such a neighborhood. Today, he lives just a stone's throw away, in Perry Hilltop, and his children attend St. Cyril's grade school. It was apparent when we spoke that Onorato cherishes his roots.

"I'm living the American Dream," says Onorato. "It's the typical family story. My grandfather came here from Italy, my dad worked in the mills and my mother was a schoolteacher. I became a lawyer and an accountant. It's an American success story to go, in two generations, from being immigrants to holding a key leadership position in the county." What makes it even more remarkable is that no one in Onorato's family had previously held a political position.

The work ethic with which Dan was raised served him well when he decided to become a public servant. Prior to becoming chief executive, Onorato served as Allegheny County controller. Before that, he ran for, and was elected to Pittsburgh City Council. Through an aggressive door knocking campaign that put him face to face with thousands of North Side residents, he won that election by a mere 187 votes.

According to Onorato, his role as chief executive provides him with the opportunity, on a daily basis, to experience what he believes makes America a unique and special place for everyone. "The biggest thing about America is the unbelievable freedom we have," he says. "As an individual and as a member of the government, we can challenge leaders and engage in debate. When I was running for chief executive, I took part in lively debates and talked about my vision for the region."

Those who follow regional government know that Onorato has put his money where his mouth is by aggressively challenging the status quo and providing an action-oriented approach to leadership. Sure, he may sometimes raise the eyebrows of those who want things to stay as is, but he's gained a lot of respect from people in both major political parties who applaud his vision and leadership.

"One of the great things about America is that anyone can do what I did," he says. Challenge things you don't agree with and propose ways to make things better."

Rose Somma Tennent: Giving Patriotism a Voice -- and Action

Listeners to the Quinn and Rose morning show weekdays on 104.7 FM are highly familiar with Rose Somma Tennent's patriotism. She's very pro-America, passionate about her beliefs, and unafraid to speak out on issues she believes deserve attention. Over the years, she and her on-air partner, Jim Quinn, have built a strong and loyal listener base, a base that has been growing since the show went into syndication a while back.

A second-generation American whose "grandfather came to the U.S. by himself, on a boat from San Rufo, Salerno in Italy," she, like Dan Onorato, is living the American Dream. When asked about what makes this country great, she is quick to respond.

"This is a country of opportunity, where you can still do what you want to do. However, some people are envious because of our success" She also adds that she's concerned about what the country will be like in the future when her son, David, is older. "Will he have the same freedoms we have now?"

As a frequent traveler abroad, she views our freedoms as among the advantages we enjoy in the United States that don't exist in other countries. "I'm going to Italy this month, and I love visiting there, but it's different than here. One example is that their healthcare system is inferior to ours. I've also been to third world countries and have seen things that made we want to kiss the ground when we landed back home in the United States."

Like many Americans, Tennent feels strong compassion for her fellow human beings and is dedicated, in a major way, to helping others. Last fall, when Pittsburgh was hit by heavy storms and flooding literally ravaged Sharpsburg and other communities along the Allegheny River, Tennent immediately sought ways to help the people whose homes and business had been damaged or destroyed.

"I live in the South Hills, and my house was one of two in our neighborhood that had water damage," she says. "Our neighbors helped us. They were wonderful. Then, I was watching TV and saw the situation in Sharpsburg, and how bad things were there, and I wanted to get involved."

"People make this country," she says. "As Americans, we roll up our collective sleeve and get the job done."

That's just what she did in Sharpsburg. Reports that some funds raised for victims of September 11 didn't make their way to the victims' families made her a little leery about doing something that involved fundraising. But, still, something had to be done.

"I contacted Network of Hope, a community and faith-based organization, and grilled the executive director," she said. "I could see that they were good people. So, during a broadcast, we raised more than $100,000 to help the flood victims."

As appreciated as that gesture was, it was only the beginning for Tennent. For three months, she would do her morning show each weekday, then go to Sharpsburg to provide hands-on help. She also encountered many other people who were there to help, and considers that a living embodiment of the American spirit being there when others need you.

She's also doing her part to reach out and develop friendships with people from other nations. During the upcoming 2005-2006 school year, Tennent, her husband and son will be a host family for Giorgi, an exchange student from the Republic of Georgia.

"Not only will Giorgi get the real experience of what it means to live in American, but it will also demonstrate the truth about the United States, not what the overseas media might be reporting as truth."

Buzz Nutley: National Pride is a Laughing Matter
For as long as he can remember, Buzz Nutley's goal has been to make people laugh. For pretty much his entire adult life, the Brookline-born stand-up comedian and comedy writer has been doing just that -- on stage, in clubs, on the radio, and in the pages of such magazines as Reader's Digest, to which he's a frequent contributor of jokes.

He's opened for such heavy-hitters as Chris Rock, Bobcat Goldthwait and Louis Anderson, and his material has been used on The Tonight Show. He's also written several screenplays, one of which won five acres of land for him in Taos, New Mexico when it was designated a winner at the prestigious Taos Film Festival.

This past spring, he celebrated turning 41 by launching the Midlife Crisis Comedy Tour, which he currently co-headlines with three nationally renowned comics. The tour opened in Western Pennsylvania, and is now slowly making its way across the U.S.

Like others profiled in this article, Nutley believes he's living the American Dream. It's a great country, says the patriotic Nutley, because you can make a joke about the president and not suffer the consequences you might in another nation.

Seriously, though, he adds, "America is a land of dreamers and innovators, and that will always be what makes us different than other countries. After all, we were founded by people who were risk takers who were not afraid to pursue their dreams."

Nutley knows America well, having logged thousands of miles in his road-worn station wagon. He's seen his share of back roads, diners and more roadside attractions that he can recall. He's also quick to point out the beauty of the American landscape that can only be seen from ground level.

It's a life that keeps him on the go, but one that provides a living for him, his girlfriend Kim, and their four children back home in Shaler. He's a very dedicated family man, he explains -- in many ways a neo-Ward Cleaver who attends soccer games and school functions. He's just not married because he's "deathly afraid of the words "till death do us part.'"

Comedy, however, is in his blood, and he recently left a full-time position with an office supplies company to devote his professional self more fully to his art. "Being able to go on the road and tell jokes for a living is an amazing part of Americana," explains Nutley. "And, to be honest, stand-up comedy is an American art form. We, as a country, are really great at laughing at ourselves."

Speaking of Americans and laughter, Nutley has, for the past several years, held a job that affords him the opportunity to infuse his material with patriotism: he regularly writes for Soviet-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff, with whom he's also toured. Known for his "What a Country!" catch phrase and deep guffaw, Smirnoff's act centers on his experiences growing up in the Soviet Union and the wonderland of opportunities he and his parents found when they reached our shores.

Nutley writes for Smirnoff's act at the comedian's theater in Branson, Mo. He also served as creative consultant on "As Long As We Both Shall Laugh," Smirnoff's one-man show that opened in 2003 on Broadway, later toured the U.S. (with a stop in Pittsburgh) and aired as a WQED-TV pledge night special. "Yakov has this image as 'the Russian comedian,'" says Nutley, "but in his act, he tells stories that make Americans proud to be Americans. When people leave his theater, they're in love with America again."

Nutley, like many Americans, often leads or takes part in humanitarian initiatives to help his fellow citizens; among them, producing and hosting Comedy Relief, a benefit held at various venues around the Pittsburgh area, to help people who are hungry.

Nutley says he's proud to be an American. "We will fight for the underdog and protect freedom around the world," he says. "Mostly, though, I am in awe of our soldiers who, day-in and day-out, risk their lives for freedom."

Mike McGann: USA Unique for Many Reasons
Mike McGann grew up in East Liberty, Lawrenceville, Shadyside and Penn Hills. Today, the veteran broadcaster is WJAS Radio's afternoon drive personality.

He believes that the U.S. is unique for a number of reasons. "Besides being the economic leader, military watchdog, and the shining example of freedom, the quality of life is higher than anywhere in the world," he says. "The USA is the one place on earth where people know they can fulfill their dreams."

He's also very patriotic. When asked what makes him proud to be an American, McGann simply quotes a country music star who has already said it all. "As Lee Greenwood said, 'I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free and I won't forget the men who died and gave that right to me.'"

In comparing the Unites States with other nations, McGann goes on to say that, "there are only a few that rival America for its standard of living, medicine, education, and freedom. Of all of those that are similar, Canada and England are perhaps the closest. Americans, however, do not appreciate what they have. Everyone needs to spend time in a Third World country -- and not at a resort -- and see the abject poverty conditions under which most of the world now lives. Then they would all appreciate how good we have things here."

Like others interviewed for this article, McGann says he's living his own version of the American Dream. "I'm the son of a millworker," he notes. "I grew up and became a corporate VP for a while. I own my home, eat well, have good medical treatment available when I need it, enjoy life and can go anywhere I want to at any time. Isn't that the American experience?"

Ed Becker: Freedom and Geography Make America Special

Ed Becker leads a few different lives. By day, he's a web designer at Mellon Financial. When at home after work, the Valencia resident goes online to interact with people around the world through the Polyarteritis Nodosa (PAN) Research and Support Network, an online community he voluntarily established several years ago to help patients with rare autoimmune diseases, and the physicians who treat them.

In his spare time, however, Becker is an outdoors enthusiast whose idea of a great weekend is one spent hiking or biking. He takes off to the woods or the mountains, usually with his camera in tow. That way, he gets to do two things he loves: explore nature and capture it on camera. His stunning images are often reminiscent of those seen in National Geographic; not surprising, since one of his heroes is legendary photographer Ansel Adams.

"The size and unique geography of the country makes the United States unique to me," says Becker, who has explored the terrain in several states. "We're not mainly one type of geography, but there are enough mountains, seashores, forests, deserts, cities and more to please most everyone."

America is a great country, he says, because each of us has "the ability and freedom to become a great success or great failure. The freedom to fail is wonderful because it keeps you on your toes and demands a lot of work to avoid it. The freedom to be successful is equally great because you always get a second chance."

Becker graduated from Point Park College (now University) and initially thought about pursuing a career in the media. However, early experiences pushed him in another direction, and he's glad to have had that opportunity.

"In three years after college," he says, "I had the opportunity to learn what I could do and what I shouldn't do in terms of my career. In other countries you might not have the same freedom." He views the United States as a land populated by great people. "I think that, despite what you may sometimes see or hear, most Americans are basically decent, honest, hard-working individuals."

He also believes that the story of how our Constitution was created is one of the best ever.

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