Hundreds honor Kiski headmaster's life
- Monday, June 09, 2008, By Gary Rotstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John A. Pidgeon was Kiski School headmaster and swim coach.
It may have been testament enough to Jack Pidgeon's influence that hundreds of men donned blazers and ties and sat through more than two hours of speakers discussing him in 90-degree heat in rural Pennsylvania.
But these "Kiski boys," as they're known at any age, related to every word from a succession of alumni, faculty, friends and relatives describing Mr. Pidgeon at a memorial service on the grounds of Kiski School in Saltsburg yesterday.
He died May 12 at age 83, but he will long remain a legendary figure to those who were inspired by him -- and intimidated as well, it was duly noted -- during his tenure as the tough, caring, motivational headmaster of the prep school from 1957 to 2002.
"Kiski, to me, was Jack Pidgeon," said Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose son, Scott, attended the school. "We're lucky we had him that long."
Former students and their companions filled all of 800 seats under a white tent surrounded by the school's track, only fitting because of the many teenagers he pushed to their maximum potential as Kiski's longtime running coach. Some attended the service because it was also the school's reunion weekend, but others were called simply because Mr. Pidgeon's words and actions stick with them so clearly.
"He taught me, and taught all of us, to tap reserves of strength we never knew we had," said former federal appeals Judge Timothy K. Lewis of Squirrel Hill, who said he grew immeasurably due to "the greatest man I have ever known" after entering the school in 1968 as a nervous, 13-year-old black boy.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Sen. Robert Casey were among those quietly present, as Mr. Pidgeon's second wife was Barbara Hafer, one of the state's most prominent female political figures. But he was notable on his own long before that 1986 marriage, from turning a boarding school in 1950s disrepair into one that flourished financially while turning out numerous graduates who became leaders in their fields.
Mr. Pidgeon was remembered as a perpetual presence madly driving a golf cart barefooted around the campus to monitor activities, but taking time to know each student's needs and strengths. He wrote personal letters regularly to their parents to update them on their sons' progress. And when those boys ignored the school's rigid rules of conduct or Mr. Pidgeon's personal ethos, he gave a look, yell or hand upon them they still remember decades later.
His words will live beyond him in a book of his speeches, titled "I Know Who You Are," carried by many of the alumni yesterday. His presence at the school will remain forever, as his ashes are to be buried within a prominent white picket fence along the school's golf course, next to those of William Turley, a longtime friend and faculty member who died in 1999.
Gary Rotstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.