PITTSTON — James (Jim) “Sox” Ruane was a community leader and mortician. “Machine Gun Lou” Butera could rack ‘em with the best of them at the pool table. Jimmy Cefalo starred on the gridiron. Shawn Klush still brings Elvis to life and Lori Nocito is a force to be reckoned with in today’s Wyoming Valley.
They all got started in Pittston.
So did supermarket magnate Sandy Insalaco, award-winning chef Biagio Dente, clinic director Gloria Blandina and former police chief Francis “Bunny” Linnen.
And now, they and other Pittston notable natives are a permanent part of the history that weaves itself around this small Luzerne County city for all the world to see.
They are among the faces that can be seen on the five-story mural on the south side of the Newrose Building. The mural itself, a labor of love and municipal honor by artist Michael Pilato and his painting partner, Yury Karabash, is the third largest in Pennsylvania.
The artistry includes nearly photographic portraits of the subjects and the tromp l’oleil effects give the flat brick wall dimension and depth.
“It’s another in the series of ‘Inspiration’ murals,” said Pilato, a State College native. “All my murals are called ‘Inspiration’ because they’re done about people who inspire others.”
That inspiration spread to the community, especiallyt o more than 200 people who gathered near it Saturday evening for the mural’s official dedication. Among those were friends and family members of folks honored with their likenesses on the wall - and a few of the actual honorees.
Pittston resident Ed Ackerman emceed the ceremonies with stories, anecdotes, acknowledgments, thanks and a history of the mural itself.
“Tonight is a dedication of the latest jewel in Pittston,” he said. “This is the latest accomplishment in the Pittston Renaissance.”
The project got its official start in January when city officials put out a call for Pittston residents to nominate anyone who had an impact on life in the Pittston area. Once the names were in, a committee of three narrowed the list to 40 individuals who had an impact on the city and its people.
But more suggestions came in after the work began and now there are 57 faces on the wall. Pilato included himself and Karabash and three images of his daughter, Skye, a young woman who died last year.
This was the first mural Pilato took on after her passing and it became a therapeutic exercise in her remembrance, he said.
Pilato had support from family and friends at the ceremonies, including his mother, Grace, and his identical twin brother, Mark, a sculptor. It is a close-knit family that tries to be present for everyone’s milestone accomplishments, Grace Pilato said.
“I am one proud mother,” she said. “Both of the boys were artists from early on. I knew they would do great things. But now I can see just how that potential worked out. All five of my children grew up to be wonderful human beings.”
The mural offers regional pride for both Pittston residents and folks from the Wyoming Valley and a history lesson for visitors.
Along with Cefalo, Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Charley Trippi has his place on the wall. A member of the “Dream Backfield” for the Chicago Cardinals in 1947, he helped the team defeat the Philadelphia Eagles with footwork – and footwear. The Chicago field was ice-covered for the championship game, and Trippi opted to wear baskball shoes for better traction. He totaled 206 yards in the game, including 102 yards on two punt returns, and a pair of touchdowns. The Pittston High School stadium bears his name.
For baseball fans, there are also Hall-of-Famers. Stanley Raymond “Bucky” Harris, a second baseman for the 1923 Washington Senators, was put into the position as team manager after the team’s fourth-place finish. At age 27, he led the team to its first pennant in 1924, earning him the title of “The Boy Wonder.” He went on to manage in Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia, as well.
He’s on the mural with Hugh Ambrose “Hughie” Jones, known in his prime as the “greatest shortstop in baseball.” His prime was in the 1890s when he was part of Baltimore teams that won the National League championships for three consecutive years. He, too, had a managerial career, notably with the Detroit Tigers from 1907 to 1920, where he became known for yelling “Ee-yah” from the third base coaching box to encourage his players. After baseball, he went on to practice law.
Gene, christened Eugene Michael, Guarilia dribbled a basketball at Holy Rosary High School in the 1940s, then at George Washington University. He showed that practice does pay off when he stopped Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Lakers to help the Boston Celtics win the 1961-62 NBA championship.
Children who grew up in the area remember watching Lois Reed Burns, or rather, “Miss Judy,” when she hosted WNEP-TV’s “Hatchy Milatchy,” giving Captain Kangaroo local competition.
There were artists like Joe Borini, who came to America from Italy in the early 1920s and worked at the Tobyhanna Army Depot to put food on the table. He always dabbled with drawings and paintings, even his own murals of historic Pittston. His works span the globe.
There are newspapermen Richard B. “Dick” Cosgrove and William “Pidge” Watson. There are Bob Conroy and Val D’Elia, founders of the Pittston Tomato Festival, a move by the city’s leaders to bring both fame and civic pride to the small town. The festival will celebrate 33 years of red fun next year.
The city’s current mayor has a spot. So does Paralympian Stephanie Jallen who proves that “handicaps” are simply motivations to alternative ways of accomplishing great things. Visitors will see the late Justin Burns whose short life impacted so many and athletic mainstay Ace Brogna who combines community service with athletics.
Advertising executive, the late Kevin McGroarty, who gained Internet fame with his humor and self-penned obituary, lives on in the mural. There are businessmen, teachers and doctors. Except for the mayor, the absence of politicians is notable.
Mot everyone on the mural was from Pittston.
Esther Tinsley was born in Plymouth, then studied at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing before returning to the Wyoming Valley. She helped establish Nesbitt Memorial Hospital in Kingston and, in 1913, became superintendent of nursing at Pittston Hospital. That’s where her impact made a difference in both nursing care and in the lives of the women she trained, earning her honors, even from the President of the United States.
Even the Brit, William Pitt, who lent his name to the city, has a spot on the wall.
Wilkes-Barre sculptor Edgar Patience, Chicago-born Min Matheson and Penn State’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, born in Brooklyn, New York, had only tangential relations with the city. Patience’s medium was the anthracite coal that came from underneath the city. Matheson was a Kingston resident when she and her husband organized the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Paterno once had a spaghetti dinner in the city while he recruited Cefalo for the Nittany Lions team.
Cefalo, guest speaker for the dedication ceremony, regaled the crowd with stories about his parents, who had a penchant for providing pasta and wine for college coaches who tried to recruit him. His story about Paterno’s adventures in Pittston, told at the coach’s funeral in State College, was one inspiration for the mural, Pilato said.
Cefalo spoke about the teachers, coaches and people in Pittston who inspired him, both on the football field and in his journalism career. He complimented the town on its progress, both preserving old buildings and creating a new landscape.
The mural is one of the first of its kind technologically; Pilato has added an interactive component. Visitors can walk up to the mural with cell phone cameras, tap on pictures and hear words from each of the subjects about their history, their lives or the work they have done to benefit Pittston.
And, this is a never-ending project, Pilato said.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten more suggestions for more images that mean something to the people here, more people to put on the wall,” he said. “I’ll be returning to add portraits over the next years and take on other walls. I like to do reflective murals.”
His plan is to also create a studio in the city to help train other artists and help them to create public artworks as well, he said.
Pilato will remain in Pittston until Sept. 13 where he will add features to the wall, each with meaning and symbolism for the people represented. Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Pilato spends 48 hours straight surrounding the anniversary date painting heroes and, this year, that will be done in Pittston.
“What we have here is something interesting, not just an ugly wall in a downtown,” Pilato said. “It is thanks to the people of the town who came together, raised the funds and made it possible. It is easy to see why Pittston was ranked No. 8 in the Top Ten Art Communities in America.”