No Matter Where You're Going or Where
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.