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Air Pollution Hotspots Around the World

Walk through Donora anytime today and you’ll have to work hard to imagine what the deadly 1948 smog might have been like. You have to divorce the sparkling clean air in Donora today from your mind, block it out completely, to even begin to imagine the worst days of the smog that October.

In that way Donorans are fortunate, more so than residents in a host of cities around the nation and the world. In 2017, for instance, nearly 3,000 people in five areas of California died of pollution-related illnesses. In Pittsburgh, there were 232 deaths, and in Chicago, 120. Nationwide, there were 7,140 more deaths from air pollution in 2017 than in 2010.

Europe has its own hotspots, starting with Italy’s Po Valley. The Po River runs from the western Alps nearly straight across Italy’s northernmost section to the northern Adriatic Sea. Throughout the valley lies a huge swath of polluted air (below), stuck there by the Alps to the north. The pollution stems from home heating fuel and vehicle emissions more than industrial sources.

Aerosolized pollution in northern Italy

Southern Poland also suffers from extreme air pollution, largely from coal-fired power plants and the burning of wood, a remarkably common way for residents to heat their homes.

Air pollution over Krakow, Poland

Pollution in Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Turkey all have markedly high levels of particulate matter in their air. Perhaps the worst pollution, though, is in South Asia, which houses 18 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, including cities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Air pollution in Karachi, Pakistan

According to a March 12, 2019 study published in the European Heart Journal, air pollution can take as much as two years of life from anyone exposed to it. “To put this into perspective,” says Thomas Münzel, German cardiologist and one of the study’s authors, “this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, Smoking is avoidable, but air pollution is not.”

As much as the world learned from Donora in ’48 and London in ’52, there remains much work to be done. Let’s hope we do it soon.

Donora’s Legacy Still Felt Today

EcoSense for Living recently posted to PBS an excellent video on the Donora smog tragedy and how air pollution continues to affect people throughout the world. The Donora section highlights environmental epidemiologist Devra Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, a book exploring not just the Donora smog but also numerous other areas of pollution. It’s a great read, give it a look.

Secrets of Donora’s Forgotten Cemetery

We tred carefully through the brambles, weeds, and bushes devouring a hillside cemetery in the north end of Donora, Pa. We step from one small monument to another, making our way as close as we can, without a machete, to the largest monument, the one marking the grave of Capt. John Gilmore. Gilmore was a well-off steamboat captain and coal mine owner who served in the Civil War.

Mark Pawelec walks along some original trolley tracks in downtown Donora.

My guide this day is Mark Pawelec, a key, long-time member of the Donora Historical Society and a veritable fount of information on the town. He is showing me this aged, overgrown, nearly forgotten cemetery. In an era of decreasing burials efforts have been made here to restore the cemetery, most recently those of Donora councilman Dennis Gutierrez (above, right), spurred on by one of Capt. Gilmore’s descendants, Clifford Gilmore (above, left). Read about those herculean efforts here.

Civil War veterans, infants, accident victims, and a host of other area residents from the turn of the 20th Century are buried here. Here are some of the more interesting observations from a 2015 document outlining the internees, compiled by Dee Turek Bryner, a descendent of the prominent early Donora family, the Ammons. Dee combed through funeral records, court documents, death certificates, obituaries, and some of his family’s ledgers to provide a treasure trove of data.

Civil War Vets

Ten Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery have been identified. Others may be buried here as well, but it seems no data remains to prove it. Here are four of those veterans.

  • Phillip Kern, 67, husband of Martha Brown, died April 10, 1914 from “dropsy.” At that time dropsy meant just swelling and didn’t indicate a cause. Today it’s called edema. At 67 years old I suspect Mr. Kern died from heart failure, which causes edema of the lower legs.
  • James Boyd, 75, son of William and Frances Whitney, member of the Ringgold Cavalry Company E, died Feb. 1, 1905 from “general debility.” Old age.
  • Jacob Baldwin, 53, died Nov. 27, 1894 from “paralysis,” a term probably referring to a stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA). Other diagnoses are possible, certainly, but CVAs in those days were common — and unfortunately still are.
  • Another Baldwin, Nathaniel, 64, also died of “paralysis,” succumbing Jan. 6, 1901.


Infants and children have always been uniquely vulnerable to disease and birth defects, and at the turn of the century that was especially true. Here are a smattering of the youngsters buried here.

  • The Ammon family suffered several losses, including Amanda, 19; Amanda Christa, 13; and two children named Benjamin Frank, one of whom died at 1 month and the other at 6 months. Records indicate a cause of death for only one, 6-month-old Benjamin, who died of hydrocephalus, commonly called water on the brain. We know today that hydrocephalus can have a number of origins and in many cases can be successfully treated.
  • More than 25 children were stillborn. Others died as a result of prematurity. Most premature infants at the time died at or shortly after birth.
  • One infant, Thomas Malie, is listed as having died of marasmus at age 8 months, 2 days. Marasmus is a protein malnutrition common in areas of extreme poverty.
  • A significant number of children died of childhood diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), meningitis, Bright’s disease (now called nephritis, an infection or inflammation of the kidneys), measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria.


Many people in the late 1800s and early 1900s died as a result of one kind of trauma or another. Donorans interred in Gilmore Cemetery died from these and other traumas:

  • Drowned, fell out of boat (45y)
  • Suicide by drowning in Monongahela River (35y)
  • Crushed to death, train (8y)
  • Homicidal, drowned in wash boiler (3m)
  • Shot by brother (19y)
  • Burned to death by 2 boys throwing matches (11y)
  • Accidentally shot by brother (4y)
  • Suicide, carbolic acid (61y)

Just Guessing Here

Record keeping before the mid-1900s left much to be desired — and guessed at. Here are several causes of death, exactly as listed, and my best guess at what each actually meant.

The Curious Case of Stanley Sawa

This post was updated Feb. 14, 2020, based on information obtained from Stanley Sawa’s son.

One of the first stories I heard about the Donora smog of 1948 concerned the football game between the Donora Dragons and the Monongahela Wildcats on Saturday October 31. Donora lost the game 27–7, a disheartening loss to be sure. As I heard it, one of Donora’s star players, left end Stanley Sawa, was called off the field by a loudspeaker announcement and told to return home immediately.

According to the story, which also appears in numerous published accounts later, Sawa ran down the hill to his home at 601 5th Street, rushed in, and asked the neighbor who greeted him, “What’s going on? Why did you make me leave the game?”

“It’s your dad,” the neighbor replied. “He’s in there with the doctor. It doesn’t look good.”

The story ends with Stanley being too late, his father having already died. A truly sad tale if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

According to a contemporaneous account in the November 1 Daily Republican, most likely written by Allen Kline, Stanley Sawa scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, after Monongahela had replaced many of its starters with second-string players.

Nowhere does the account mention any player being pulled from the game, though in a well-known article in Collier’s the following year, author Bill Davidson, who would go on to become one of the most recognized Hollywood writers of the late 1900s, announcements were in fact made. “During the game several spectators collapsed and were carried away,” Davidson wrote, “but the cases were too scattered to attract much attention. The public-address system kept announcing the names of persons who were wanted at home ‘because of an emergency.'”

A search in The Daily Republican and the Pittsburgh Press shows no mention of any Sawa in any smog-related story from 1948 to 1960. Information that has just come to light proves that Sawa, in fact, did not get called home and indeed played the entire game that Saturday, aside from times he might have been pulled out to rest.

Stanley’s son James read this post recently and told me, “I discovered another family whose son was called home during the middle of that game and whose father had passed away, but it was definitely NOT my grandfather.” Stanley’s father, Joseph Sawa, had actually died the previous year, succumbing to a heart attack on Oct. 11, 1947.

Mystery solved

However, Joseph had suffered a stroke about a year before he died. Jamie told me that his dad, Stanley, had been called home at that time, in 1947, from a football game he was playing in. Jamie told me that one day he and his dad were driving by the old high school. “I remember that my dad said, ‘I got a call in the middle of a game, that I had to go home because my dad had come home or he’d had a stroke.’ And we were driving as he was narrating this story. He’s like, ‘I’m running up these streets in my cleats, in my football uniform, to get home.'”

And so the mystery is basically solved. The curious case of Stanley Sawa seems to have been a real-life example of the children’s game Whisper Down the Lane. People concatenated two separate incidents — Joseph Sawa’s stroke in 1947 and his son having been called home from the 1948 “Donora-Monongahela Smog Bowl” to tend to his ailing father — into one story that was far more exciting but also utterly inaccurate.

But wait, we’re not finished. Was someone playing on the Donora Dragons football team that day in 1948 actually called home for a death? Although no first-string players seem to have been called home, might a second-stringer been called home and newspapers either didn’t pick it up or attributed it later to Stanley Sawa?

If you have information that would shed light on this question, please contact me.


Stanley Sawa, by the way, joined the Air Force after high school and served in Korea. He attended California State Teachers College, now California University of Pennsylvania, and earned a bachelor’s in education. He earned a master’s degree from Duquesne University and a principal’s certificate from UPitt. He went on to became principal of the Butler Area Junior High School, where he remained until passing away from kidney failure at age 54 on Feb. 6, 1985.

Stanley Sawa as he appeared in The Daily Republican March 25, 1956, announcing that he was starring in the play, “Time Limit,” presented by the California State Teachers College Players.

I Have a Publisher!


Yay! University of Pittsburgh Press has agreed to publish Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town! I am absolutely thrilled that Sandy Crooms, Editorial Director at UPitt Press, and I will be working together to bring the book to fruition. Sandy came to UPitt from Ohio State University Press in 2013 and now not only directs the acquisitions department but also signs in environmental studies, urban history, and African American history.

UPitt Press is considered a leader in books on the environment and has published such titles as Explorations In Environmental History, by Samuel P. Hays; Listening To The Sea: The Politics of Improving Environmental Protection, by Robert Jay Wilder; and the 2018 Drue Heinz Literature Prize–winning The Dogs of Detroit, by Brad Felver.

I am delighted and honored to join this prestigious university press. Now, to write the book!


I Have an Agent!

I am thrilled to announce that I have signed with Bookends Literary Agency for my book Silver Lining: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town. My agent, Amanda Jain, and her team will represent my proposal for the book to publishers and work with me to gain a publishing contract. At that point I can move fully forward with finishing my research and actually writing the manuscript.


Why I Don’t Read Books Anymore (But Still Love Them)

I’m a big-time word guy.

I have been an author, editor, and publisher. Words are my life.

I grew up reading books. I loved The Hardy Boy books as a kid and read a flock of them. (Flock of books? bevy? gaggle?) I read Dr. Seuss to my daughter and still read them to my granddaughters. My absolute favorite was Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, though that’s not terribly germane here. I’ve read big, thick books (McCullough’s Truman, for instance) and little bitty books (Elie Wiesel’s brilliant Night, as an example).

But I no longer read books.

I should clarify. I don’t read book books. You know, books on paper. I read on a Kindle Paperwhite only and have done so now for several years. I am one of millions of people, I suspect, who have stopped reading print books and have gone fully to e-books, and I won’t apologize for it.

Probably the main reason I stopped is because of my elbows. I’ve had a number of soft tissue problems in both elbows over the years, and holding a book for long periods causes too much pain. It’s much easier and less painful to hold a Kindle.

Beyond that, though, I find that the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers offer too many advantages to ignore.

  • Forget your glasses? Make the print larger.
  • Don’t know what a word means? Look it up right then.
  • Like to read more than one book at a time? Go to your Library and open up another book. Go back and forth anytime you want.
  • Enjoy reading large, 1000+ page books? The e-reader weighs exactly the same for any book you read.

There are drawbacks to e-readers, to be sure. For instance, I miss the clarity of photographs and illustrations in paper books; they just don’t show up well in an e-reader. I don’t think this will be a problem once the technology catches up, and I’m sure it will.

See? No title or author. Ugh.

Mostly I miss the sort of automatic knowledge you get of a book’s title and author. With a print book, you see the title and author every time you pick the book up or put it back down, so it’s always fresh on your mind. On an e-reader, though, the title and author are, if not hidden, at least indistinct. I wish Amazon (for the Kindle) did more to address this issue.

Other than that, I’m a complete e-reader devotee. I will continue to bring my Kindle wherever I go and read whatever I want wherever I am.

I will be this guy, only without such a creepy grin.

Or this guy, except without such massive eyebrows and a strangely specific beard trim.

Where Did the Smog Victims Live and Die?

Now that we know who died in the Donora smog and when, let’s look at where they lived.

Except for Thomas Short, who died at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital, all victims died at home. Shortly after the smog, in early 1949, the Division of Industrial Hygiene conducted detailed studies of the event, including data about each victim. It then developed a map of victims’ homes (below) to determine whether there might have been a pattern to the deaths; there was none.

Nevertheless, knowing where each victim lived — and died — can be instructive in itself. First, the map indicates by its incompleteness how difficult gathering data must have been in those first weeks and months following the smog. Several locations of victims’ homes are inaccurately placed on the map, which apparently had been hand-drawn for this use. There is also a rather significant mapping error: the addition of a road (see arrow at bottom), a road that seems not to have ever existed.


Second, the map shows how widespread the affected areas were, with victims coming from the southernmost areas including Cement City to the more northern area, near the Zinc Works. It also shows numerous victims across the river in Webster and its upper environs.

Third, and perhaps most important, looking at the midsection of the town, think of how many of those victims and their families must have known each other. They lived within blocks of one another. Most either worked at the mills or had spouses or children who did. They visited each other’s homes, enjoyed events together, came across one another almost daily as they walked up and down the hillside or along McKean Avenue, the main thoroughfare. And their deaths must have made an indelible impression on everyone who made it through the smog. I wonder even now how many residents who lived through the fog were affected by what today we call survivor guilt and who asked themselves over and over for years thereafter, Why not me?

Yes, it’s just a map of places where people died. But when you look more closely, it is so much more.

When Did Death Fog Victims Perish?

Updated with new information 11/10/2018

Ivan Ceh came from Rieka, a seaport city on the northeast coast of the Adriatic Sea, in what is now Croatia. He emigrated from there in 1902, eventually settling in Donora in 1903. He worked at the wire mill in town, and he died at his home, on Fifth Street, just up the hill from Saint Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church.

Jane Kirkwood, known by everyone as Jeanie, hailed from Wishaw, Scotland, a scraggly suburb of Glasgow, emigrating at age 39 in 1911. A widow, Jeanie also died at her home, at 121 Ida Avenue, in the middle of Donora’s famed Cement City.

Ceh and Kirkwood were the first Donorans to die in the Donora Death Fog of 1948. At least 18 more followed, most of them the same night. Ceh died at 1:30 AM from sudden heart failure, Jeanie at 2:00 AM of asthma. Both of them died on the deadliest day of the smog, Saturday, October 30, 1948.

They most likely did not die at exactly those times, though. Chaos during the smog made more specific determinations all but impossible. Hundreds of residents that weekend experienced severe breathing problems, and from early Saturday morning to early Sunday morning, doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and undertakers worked around the clock to deal with the sick, dying, and dead. The local hospital, Charleroi-Monessen Hospital, was inundated with patients from Donora. Physicians and coroners working in such conditions would have used the closest approximation possible for a time of death.

Vintage photo of Charleroi-Monessen Hospital

Times of Death

The graphics below show the official times of death for each victim, as shown on the death certificate.

Donora smog deaths from noon Saturday to last confirmed death on November 8

Criteria for Timetable of Deaths

The smog killed far more people than the 20 shown above. Thousands were sickened during the smog, and untold hundreds are reported to have died later as a result of the smog’s lingering effects. Local, state, and federal agencies at the time used their own criteria for determining the official list of victims. They generally used an end-date of Sunday, October 31.

Historians at the Donora Historical Society (DHS), however, have used other criteria for identifying the last death. They generally have been more flexible than the Government and have listed people who died during or shortly after the smog. I have chosen to use DHS’s approach.

Here are my criteria for whether a person should be included in the list of victims:

The person’s death must be directly associated with the smog, through either a physician’s or coroner’s reported cause of death or through contemporaneous, reasonably reliable third-person reports.

The death certificate, when available, must indicate some kind of cardiopulmonary disorder as a primary or secondary cause of death. Typical disorders for an event like the Donora smog would include asthma, pneumonia, heart attack,  heart failure (sometimes called “cardiac asthma”), and so forth.

The person must have died either during the smog (October 26 through the afternoon of October 31) or within a reasonably short time thereafter.

If a person died after the afternoon of October 31, the death certificate must indicate that the person died as a result of the smog, or alternately, by a condition that could reasonably be considered to have been smog-related.

Individuals living outside Donora, Webster, and their immediate environs will not be considered unless it can be determined with a high degree of confidence that the person spent a significant amount of time in Donora or Webster during the smog even though they might have lived elsewhere. Those individuals must also meet the previous criteria.

The following individuals are sometimes listed as victims, but as far as I have been able to determine they were not: Clifford DeVore, George Hvizdak (Weisdack), Ruth Jones, John Poklemba, Mary Rozik, and Alice Ward. They died too long after the event to qualify. I have also confirmed that Steve Faulchak, sometimes listed as being a victim, did not die in or from the smog.

The Acceptable Boundaries of Racism in 1940s Donora

Charles Stacey, PhD, talks often of life in Donora in the late 1940s. A retired educator and superintendent of schools, Stacey now serves as a kind of living historian of the era and of the deadly smog that changed so much, both in Donora and in the nation as a whole. When you ask, Stacey also talks about the way blacks and whites interacted back then.

Dr. Charles Stacey talking with a visitor to the Donora Historical Society

“As I look back on it, race relations in Donora were strange,” he told me one day. “For instance, we went to school with black kids, played with them on the playground. They were on all the athletic teams. They were in our classes in school, and so forth. But if they went into Isaly’s Dairy Store up here, they could buy an ice cream cone, but they’d have to take it outside to eat it. They couldn’t sit down. When they went to the movies, there was a section where the black people had to sit.”


Stacey is right, race relations in the town were indeed strange, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone much, apparently not even black residents. Marvin Preston, 81, remembers well how he and his friends loved to roller skate and how they could skate only on certain nights at certain roller skating rinks. “We had a skating rink up in Belle Vernon called the Piggy Wiggy,” Preston recalls. “Everybody used to go to the Piggy Wiggy.* One interesting thing about that was, there was only one night we could go, that blacks could go.”

Piggy Wiggy allowed blacks to skate on Wednesday night, Preston says; Pittsburgh on Monday, Uniontown on Friday. Black teens would just rotate around. Preston didn’t think much about the arrangement at the time, “We knew where our boundaries were,” he explains. “I had a really good life, did everything I wanted to do. We had the same places that they [whites] had, so it didn’t make any difference. I had no desire to go to any of their places.”

Many Donorans, including Preston, remember few, if any, overt racial conflicts back then. “We all got along,” says Dmitri Petro, 83, a physician who grew up in Donora and who still sees patients at his McKean Avenue office. “Black kids in my neighborhood were part of our ‘7th Street gang,'” he says, referring to a group of kids who regularly played together. “Everyone seemed to get along okay. We never had any hostility in Donora.”

No hostility perhaps, but there were certainly unspoken social canons. High school dances were, on their face, integrated, but blacks and whites knew they weren’t supposed to dance together. Preston once tested that unwritten rule. “There was one white girl,” he remembers. “I think we were sort of sweet on each other. I don’t know. Anyways, I did ask her to dance, and she said yes, and the next day everybody had a heart attack. I was called into the office. My mother told me I had lost my mind. It caused a lot of confusion, believe me.”

Although Preston wasn’t punished, the girl was. “This young lady was banned from any activity except going to school. She had to go to school, and then go directly home.”

Lesson: Get back behind those boundaries.

Only in one place, says Preston, could black and white students intermingle. “I think the only common place we had was Pete’s Poolroom.” Pete’s was a hotspot for teens with little else to do at night in the small town. It was there, in a now empty area between 4th and 5th Streets, that teens of any color or nationality could come together without fretting about whether some authority figure might suddenly barge in and bring the hammer down.

Whether the more subtle, “acceptable” racism that existed in Donora in the 1940s and 1950s was better or worse than the more overt racism so maddeningly prevalent today is not for me to say.  I will say, though, that even with the extreme diversity of nationalities present in Donora at the time, people of all shades and persuasions seem to have got along rather well, in spite of it all.

* Piggy Wiggy was a miniature golf course located on Route 906 in Belle Vernon. Robert and Barbara Tyber bought the site in 1950 and converted the course into the Riverview Skating Rink, which locals continued to call the Piggy Wiggy

Social Life in 1940s Donora

For decades during the mid-1900s a Chamber of Commerce sign at the Donora town line read, “NEXT TO YOURS THE BEST TOWN IN THE USA.” Donorans found an odd pride in being a second-best town, no matter where a visitor came from. Perhaps that was to be expected. The town didn’t originate naturally, as a place people moved to because they liked the area or as a natural outgrowth of an urban area. No, it originated because industrialists in Pittsburgh thought it would make the best spot to build steel and zinc mills.


Those mills attracted people from around the world. The first sale of lots in Donora occurred on August 30, 1900, a day that brought “a great rush of people” to the area, with home sales totaling $225,000 that day alone. People came from Kansas, Alabama, Ohio, and West Virginia. They came from Poland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Scotland. They were Roman Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal. They were hard-working, adventurous, and determined. They were proud to live in Donora and proud of where they came from, and to maintain that pride they formed vibrant social clubs.

Social clubs began forming in the United States during the mid-1800s and continued throughout the next century. Women’s clubs, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and National Consumer’s League, found their calling in working toward social change at a national level. Men’s clubs tended to focus on exercise, sportsmanship, and social development. Those clubs, like today’s country clubs, tended to attract wealthy individuals, as did the much more elite city clubs, such as the Union League Club in New York City, which catered to moneyed men in oak-walled, richly carpeted rooms lined with billiard tables, liquor cabinets, and sterling-silver cigar ashtrays. Or the even more elite South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on Lake Conemaugh, in western Pennsylvania, a summer club for the likes of Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and the club that, through gross mismanagement of a dam on the property, caused the historic Johnstown Flood of 1889, which killed more than 2,200 people.

Union League Club, NYC

Then there were the more fraternal societies, such as the Masons, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (and the Improved, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, an Elks-style organization for black Americans). All told about 5.5 million Americans belonged to one club or another by 1900.

In Donora, as in thousands of cities and towns across the country, a different kind of club emerged, a kind that focused on a sense of community, belonging, and support for local interests. Some clubs were based on religion, others on ethnic similarities. The strong ethnic diversity in Donora led to the development of a Slovak club, Rusin (Russian) club, Spanish club, Clan Grant (for Scottish men) and the Broomie-Knowe Lodge of the Daughters of Scotia (for Scottish women), as well as Sons of Italy, the German Political and Beneficial Union, the Croation Club, and St. Dominic’s Mens’ Club, a club for Roman Catholic men.


Along with those clubs, 17 churches sprang up between the town’s founding in 1901 and 1920. The town’s population by then had swollen to more than 14,000, a period of remarkable growth for such a small area. Supporting that growth were clothing stores, banks (the Mellons led the way on that front), restaurants, a movie theater, lumber mill, post office, fire and police departments, and a host of other enterprises. Donorans were a busy lot, always scheduling this activity or that and always walking up and down Donora’s famously pitched stairs to meetings, parties, and parades.

Header image: John Carson, longtime member of Donora Elks Club, at bar shortly before the club closed for good in August, 2018

Answering Proust’s Questionnaire

The questions here are from the second questionnaire he developed, the one when he was 20. I thought it might be a fun exercise.

Your most marked characteristic?

Well, I’ve got a lot of forehead.

What do you most value in your friends?

Sense of humor

What is your principle defect?

I’m too sensitive to the opinions of others.

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

Any condition in which you are completely helpless and dependent on the assistance of others.

What would you like to be?

Smarter, quicker on the uptake, and better at math.

What is your favorite color?

A nice cobalt or federal blue

What is your favorite flower?

Bird of paradise

What is your favorite bird?

Great horned owl

Who are your favorite prose writers?

David McCullough, John Steinbeck, Candice Millard, Walter Isaacson

Who are your favorite poets?

Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden

Who are your heroes in real life?

John Lewis, Malala Yousafzai, and the activist students of Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, especially Emma Gonzales and Cameron Kasky

Who are your favorite heroines of history?

Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and Rosalind Franklin

What are your favorite names?

Jack, Aniela, Finley, and Harper

What is it you most dislike?

Dishonesty, coconut, and anyone who thinks that the stumbling dotard in the White House is the right person for the job

What historical figures do you most despise?

Hitler, Pol Pot, Charlton Heston, and Charles Manson, and yes, I realize that Heston didn’t slaughter anyone, but jeesh he was a dick.

What event in military history do you most admire?

The assault on Pointe du Hoc by Rudder’s Rangers on D-Day. Spectacular bravery.

Rangers climbed this cliff under unbelievably heavy fire.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?

I would like to not drop things so much, is that a natural gift?

How would you like to die?

Painlessly and by most anything except a stroke

What is your present state of mind?

Largely content but horribly worried about what those absolute dunderheads in Washington will do next

What is your motto?

Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Why I Write

I have been writing now — officially, professionally, occasionally happily — for 35 years, and I don’t believe I have ever, until now, committed to paper exactly why. So, let’s have at it.

I write to clarify what I think and why I think it. And because I find other people’s stories so fascinating, I write nonfiction. I have never been particularly adept at making up my own stories, which saddens me no end. Over the years, though, I found that I have a modest talent for telling real-life stories in a clear and I hope compelling way. Like all writers I gain enormous pleasure from those brief moments when a clever turn of phrase or a particularly memorable sentence bubbles to the surface from who knows where. Those are the moments that keep me going and that I wish I had more of.

And, there you go.

Could Donora Happen Again? Here in the US?

The American Lung Association (ALA) recently released a report on air pollution throughout the United States, and despite Pennsylvania’s history in dealing with air pollution — starting in Donora, of course — there remain areas in the state still showing up on the ALA’s Most [Air] Polluted list. The Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area ranks eighth, in fact, in annual particle pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas and tenth in 24-hour particle pollution.


Certainly there have been strides made in the nation’s ability to combat air pollution. The greater Pittsburgh area, which once served basically as “Air Pollution Central” due to the many steel plants there, has seen continued progress (right) for many years, as have most cities throughout the U.S. We need to remain fully committed to this path to attain truly clean air.


Unfortunately the current administration seems bent on doing whatever it can to undo the progress the nation has made. From redefining the definition of soot to rolling back dozens of environmental rules and regulations to literally ignoring pollution science, the EPA is regressing and endangering the health of millions of people, not to mention the health of our planet.

So, could Donora happen again? Here?

Absolutely, and probably sooner rather than later.

Added 10/27/18

“A clean and healthy environment is the single most important precondition for ensuring good health. By cleaning up the air we breathe, we can prevent or at least reduce some of the greatest health risks.”

— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, MD, Director General, World Health Organization

Staying Calm in the Face of Trumpism

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a link to a press release from her company that explained the company’s position on how the current administration is handling immigrant families at our nation’s borders. The release said that the company “does not support measures that discriminate against any group or limit our ability to hire the best talent for our business.”


A mutual friend of ours then responded with a comment essentially calling out the statement as typical liberal overreaction to a basically nonexistent issue. Well, I went off on him, and it wasn’t pretty. The “current administration,” which is the nicest way I can think of to say, “those cruel, spineless, worthless ass wipes in the White House,” has made a complete mess of how we deal with immigrant families coming across our southern border, legally or illegally. (At this point, ICE makes no such distinction.) The issue has become a hot-button topic for me, and I reacted swiftly to his post and, I admit now, meanly.

Just a few days later I was presented, apparently by cosmic fate, two items that have given me a new perspective on how Facebook and other social media have helped to make compromise nearly impossible and how I, in turn, could make my role in protesting obscene policies more effective, rational, and humane.

Cosmic Item #1

The first item was a TED video from a remarkable young man, Dylan Marron, a digital creator who examines social issues in new and illuminating ways. The video, “How I Turn Negative Online Comments Into Positive Offline Conversations,” came to me at just the right time, when I was internally fretting over the string of comments with my friend, let’s call him Garry. My mind was arguing that I was right, but my gut wasn’t so sure.

Dylan talked about the number of hate comments he receives almost daily, and how he decided to engage with as many of his haters as he could — by phone. Most of the people he contacted agreed to speak with him, though some didn’t. Of those he spoke with, most seemed to him quite different than their comments might suggest. For example, at the end of a conversation with one of the commenters, Dylan asked, “Did the conversation we just had make you feel differently about how you write online?”


The commenter responded, “Yeah! You know, when I said this to you, when I said you were a ‘talentless hack,’ I had never conversed with you in my life, really. I didn’t really know anything really about you. And I think that a lot of times, that’s what the comment sections really are, it’s really a way to get your anger at the world out on random profiles of strangers, pretty much.”

Dylan came away from this project, as did I and, I suspect, many others, with a clearer understanding of empathy in these fraught times. He said, “Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. Empathizing with someone who, for example, believes that being gay is a sin doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to drop everything, pack my bags and grab my one-way ticket to hell, right? It just means that I’m acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me.”

Those words, “empathy is not endorsement,” panged my gut, and I realized that I don’t have to feel so angry at Trump Supporters-slash-Hilliary Haters, that I can recognize their humanity while also disagreeing completely with their views. It’s as if I now have a cognitive tool I can use when faced with similar situations: Empathy is not endorsement. Yes, I like it.

Cosmic Item #2

The second item that affected me rather deeply was an opinion piece in the Washington Post, called “Maxine Waters shows why the Sarah Huckabee Sanders-Red Hen story is extremely important,” by Aaron Blake, senior political reporter for WP’s The Fix. In the piece he talked about the now infamous Red Hen brouhaha, the one in which Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely ejected from a DC-area restaurant. He called the responses by many on the left “valid and understandable,” but also “simplistic.”


He posits that “the Sanders-Red Hen situation has unearthed (or perhaps vivified) a growing sentiment in our society. It is seen in liberals and opponents of President Trump who are done with playing nice. It is apparent as the Democratic Party gradually sheds Michelle Obama’s declaration that ‘When they go low, we go high’ and trading it for ‘We fight fire with fire.’ It is borne of frustration and a lack of results after abiding by the norms of political discourse while Trump and his allies run roughshod over all the old rules.”

The Left is in new territory, here, and we’re not sure what to do. We’re going through a watershed moment in American history, and we’re finding many issues that need to be discussed, debated, and worked through. How we on the Left deal with friends on the Right, not only on social media but also, and more important, in person, will come to define not only our relationships with others but also how we will function in our rapidly-changing society. It’s a tough time, and I have no idea how things will turn out, but my gut says that, for me, Michelle Obama’s path is the right one.

And so, to Garry, I apologize for my tone, for reacting so forcefully, and for not being open to an actual conversation. And to everyone else whose political views vary so much from my own, I will do my best to take the high road with my commentary and to listen as closely as I can to opposing viewpoints.

But so help me, if that Cheetoh-headed nutjob does just one more evil, uncaring, knuckleheaded thing, I swear to God I’ll…

Deep breath. Hhhhhhmmmmm.

I. Will. Remain. Calm.

For now.

Gotta LUV That Spam!

Do You Know Any of These Donora Smog Victims?

I need help. I’m currently working on a book about the Donora smog event of 1948, and I want very much to present the most accurate list of the smog victims ever published. Three people are sometimes listed as having perished in smog, but I believe they were listed in error. I have identified the individuals I believe were the primary victims, those who died during the smog or very shortly thereafter.

However, just in case, might you or someone you know be able to provide any insight into any of them?

  1. Steve Faulchak
    I haven’t been able to find much of anything on anyone named Faulchak having anything to do with Donora. I believe the spelling of the last name is inaccurate, but even when I try numerous alternatives I come up empty. If anyone knows who this might have been, please do let me know.
  2. Ruth Jones
    I have found a variety of Ruth Joneses who lived in or around Donora in the 1940s. For instance, there was a Ruth Jones who was born in February 1921, died January 11, 1949, and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery. That might be the one I’m looking for, but I’ve also found a Ruth F. Jones from West Eagle, PA, who was born possibly March 13, 1902, or possibly sometime in 1905. She died April 25, 1949, and is buried in West Newton Cemetery. If you have information on either of these people, or other Ruth Joneses from the area who might have been a smog victim, please let me know.
  3. Alice Ward
    As you might imagine, there have been many Alice Wards in Pennsylvania, several in Western PA. The only Alice Ward who seems to fit the Donora smog scenario, however, is someone born September 1, 1879, in Wales, with the apparent maiden name of Catherine Dyson. She was married to Thomas Jones, died at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital on March 26, 1949, and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery. If you can provide more information on this Alice Ward or any other who might have been connected to the smog, please let me know.

I much appreciate any help anyone can provide to shore up a complete, accurate list of Donora smog victims.

Please email me at or leave a comment below.


The Life and Death of a Smog Victim

Susan Gnora, known by most as Susie, got up that morning and ironed. What she ironed is unknown, though most likely she ironed her husband’s white work shirts. Perhaps she ironed shirts most mornings, like other Donora wives whose husbands worked at one of the mills along the Monongahela River. That particular morning, Friday, October 29, 1948, was extremely foggy. Looking back we recognize the 29th as the fourth day of what we now call the Donora Death Fog, but at the time it was just another foggy day in Donora.

Susan was having trouble breathing that morning, but she kept ironing nonetheless. She also had a headache that wouldn’t go away. She had never had a health problem before, aside from a twisted ankle when she was young, and she had no history of asthma or other lung disease. Yet on this foggy day a woman who had survived the births of 14 children struggled for breath. Her family gathered at her home throughout the day. Susan’s husband John worked all day at a coal mine in Monessen and didn’t get home until about five o’clock. He found his wife painfully short of breath. She told him, “I no feel good.”

Neither Susan nor John spoke English well. John couldn’t read nor write, and in all likelihood Susan couldn’t either. John depended on his energetic wife for everything, from fixing his lunch everyday to using his every-two-week paycheck to manage the family’s finances. She paid all the bills, and when one of her children needed cash, she gave them whatever the couple could afford.

Throughout the day Friday Susan had found herself so weak that she couldn’t complete even the simplest tasks. Her alarming weakness stemmed partly from the lack of oxygen in the air and partly from the dangerous effects of pollutants she had been breathing. The air in Donora that week had become increasingly thick with noxious gases, including carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide, all menacing gases in high concentrations.

Coal Burning Power Plant

The air also contained tiny particles, or nanoparticles, of such metals as zinc, lead, and cadmium. Those nanoparticles had been blown into the air from the steel and zinc mills along the river, particles that joined the coal dust already in Susan’s home from the family’s coal-fired Heatrola. The coal dust, plus the various types of nanoparticles in the Donora air, were breathed in not just by Susan but by everyone else who entered the house or who lived in Donora. The nanoparticles found their way into the deepest parts of the lungs and then into the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, there. Alveoli allow inhaled oxygen to pass into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream to be exhaled.

When a person is at rest, about ten ounces of oxygen, and about the same amount of carbon dioxide, pass into and out of the bloodstream through the alveoli every minute. During exercise that amount can double. In Donora that horrible weekend, those ten ounces or so contained an unhealthy amount of noxious gases and harmful nanoparticles. On entering the lungs, all those pollutants caused an inflammation of the alveoli, which prevented the normal amount of oxygen from passing into the bloodstream and the normal amount of carbon dioxide from passing out through the lungs.


The lack of oxygen in the blood is most likely what caused Susan to become weak, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood most likely prompted her headache. Other cells in the body also became inflamed and couldn’t perform their own particular functions as well as they should have. As a result Susan’s heart rate increased, trying to push more oxygen to the brain and other organs that needed it most. Her kidneys couldn’t get rid of as much waste as they should have, and so poisons began building up in her bloodstream. All of her body’s energy was being used to keep her heart, brain, and lungs working, and unless Susan was taken to a smog-free area right then, and given oxygen, she would die.

Her family had no idea how serious her condition was, though, until it was too late. Her son, George, said, “I didn’t realize it was that bad. I thought it was just one of those things that would blow over.”

Susan spent most of Friday night sitting on the edge of the bed, her head bent to her chest, her breathing becoming ever more labored. Speaking became too difficult, and sleep was out of the question. Her daughter, Elizabeth, called every Donora physician in the phone book, but they were all busy, out on house calls. She was finally able to reach Dr. William Rongaus, who arrived sometime between 9:30 PM and midnight. Rongaus drove to the Gnora home in extraordinarily thick, black fog. He gave Susan “a hypodermic,” probably epinephrine, to help open Susan’s airways and improve her breathing. He also left a few pills, most likely theophylline, a drug used to treat asthma and other breathing conditions. Susan didn’t want any of the pills, and the prescription Rongaus left behind was never filled.

Old glass syringe with brass hub needle

When Rongaus left the Gnora home, Susan’s son-in-law, Rudolph Crafton, told him, “Any man who would drive a car [in that fog] would have to be a magician.” To which Rongaus replied, “I’ll manage somehow.”

Susan’s condition worsened overnight, and by 8:30 the following morning, Susan Gnora, a 62-year-old, five-foot, previously healthy, hard-working, Hungarian housewife “a little on the plump side,” with only a fourth-grade education, was dead. Susan became the ninth person to die from the smog. At least ten more souls would perish before rain and a bit of wind arrived that Sunday morning to clear away the fog and let the people of Donora breathe again.

2018 Oscars Fashion by Someone Who Knows Almost Nothing About Fashion

My wife and I watch the Oscars every year, and we chat about which dresses and tuxes we like and which we don’t. She knows waaay more about fashion than I do. I know virtually nothing except that I can identify a wide variety of women’s shoes. (Slingbacks, kitten heels, open-toed pumps — don’t even get me started.) We dutifully watched the 90th Oscars last night, and I give you now my best-ofs in my own categories.

Best-Dressed Woman — I have to go with Nicole Kidman, who wowed in a gorgeous blue number, the ginormous bow and all.


Best-Dressed Man — Black Panther‘s Chadwick Bozeman, for sure. So cool. So very, very cool.


Worst-Dressed Woman — At first I thought, Oh, it’s Emily Blunt, who I think is marvelous, but she sure missed last night. Then I saw someone named St. Vincent, who is apparently a singer. I don’t know why she hung luggage on her shoulder, but I wish she hadn’t.


Worst-Dressed Man — Armie Hammer. Armie, really? Red velvet?


Best Necklace — Gal Gadot. Is it ga-doh or ga-dot? I have no clue, but that necklace was somethin’ else.


Best Red — Allison Janney, who looked “stunnnn-nnniiinnnggg,” according to the E! team, who used the term like 87 times


Best Blue — Nicole Kidman again, though Jennifer Garner’s blue was beautiful as well


Best Use of Black — Hands down, Lupita Nyong’o, who always looks elegant


Nicest Try, But Yeah, No — Margot Robbie, with her strikingly square shoulders and a dress that did nothing for her. Her hair looked weird too.


Best Pink — The almost unrecognizable but always lovely Viola Davis


Most Matronly — Maya Rudolph, who looks like she might be pregnant under all that red stuff


Best Balloon Curtains — Andra Day. Nothing more to add.


Best Didn’t Work Then, Doesn’t Work Now — Rita Moreno

Gotta LUV That Spam!