In Growing Up Yinzer, famous natives from Joe Namath to Billy Porter reflect on the city and its impact | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In Growing Up Yinzer, famous natives from Joe Namath to Billy Porter reflect on the city and its impact

click to enlarge In Growing Up Yinzer, famous natives from Joe Namath to Billy Porter reflect on the city and its impact
Photo: courtesy of Karen Nordstrom
Dick Roberts

When former Steelers coach Bill Cowher announced his resignation in 2007, he used the word “yinz,” addressing Pittsburghers and fans in front of the national press.

“You can take the people out of Pittsburgh, but you will never take the Pittsburgh out of people,” Cowher told them. “I’m one of you. Yinz know what I mean.”

It always stuck with Dick Roberts, eventually inspiring his first book, Growing Up Yinzer: Memories From Beloved Pittsburghers, published in October.

“When I had this idea for the book, I remembered [that] press conference,” Roberts tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “He was clearly trying to make a connection that he was still a Pittsburgher.”

“Yinzer,” Roberts and the book assert, is “a term of endearment,” worn locally as a badge of honor and symbolizing grit and determination.

The resulting book is a compendium of 51 Pittsburghers — including Cowher — sharing memories and reflections about how growing up in the city shaped them. Roberts explains the book isn’t 51 profiles, but first-person, as-told-to interviews that he crafted into “stories.”

“These folks all ended up being really good storytellers,” Roberts says. “Bards of the Pittsburgh experience.”

The book’s famous figures encompass the worlds of business, politics, sports, entertainment, and education, with more than a few recognizable names. Just on the cover, illustrated versions of entrepreneur Mark Cuban, WQED broadcaster Rick Sebak, quarterback Dan Marino, and WNBA star Swin Cash appear — all standing together atop Mount Washington.

Reporting over 18 months, Roberts spoke directly with everyone in the book, also pulling in previous interviews where Pittsburghers hyped their hometown.

“Jeff Goldblum apparently loves talking about Pittsburgh,” Roberts says. Actor and comedian Billy Gardell, best known for starring opposite Melissa McCarthy on the sitcom Mike & Molly, is also a “big cheerleader” who “really attributes his style of humor to Pittsburgh.”

click to enlarge In Growing Up Yinzer, famous natives from Joe Namath to Billy Porter reflect on the city and its impact
Photo: courtesy of Layne Murdoch
Swin Cash

Roberts was most excited to talk with legendary quarterback Joe Namath (born and raised in Beaver Falls), exclaiming to his wife when Namath called him, “It’s Broadway Joe on the phone!”

Several themes recur in Growing Up Yinzer, one of which, Roberts tells CP, is that Pittsburghers love talking about Pittsburgh.

Interviewing University of Kentucky basketball coach and Hall of Famer John Calipari, who had in his office that day, Roberts says, “four recruits who were probably the best high school players in America,” Calipari spoke unhaltingly about his Pittsburgh roots for more than an hour.  Growing up in Moon Township, Calipari recalled being inspired by his hardworking parents — a baggage handler at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport and a cafeteria worker — and returning to Police Station Pizza in Ambridge each time he comes home.

“I’m the same guy I’ve always been,” Calipari says in the book. “My heart’s the same. My friends are the same. My approach to things is the same.”

Hard work and continuity are also themes of Growing Up Yinzer, along with the importance of family, community, and neighborhood pride, says Roberts. He points out that all the Pittsburghers featured in the book have become successful, and in some cases wealthy, but few started out that way.

“Many of them grew up of humble means in blue collar families,” Roberts says.

Businessman and former president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins David Morehouse imagined he’d work as a boilermaker. (Naturally, accounts of the steel industry and its importance pervade the book.) Tom Murphy Jr., Pittsburgh’s second longest-serving mayor, recalls steel as “a culture, your whole life.” As a 16-year-old in 1960, he remembers his family owned one car, and he'd end dates and nights out at midnight so that he could pick up his father from the swing shift at the Carson Street mill, where he worked for 51 years. 

Roberts was moved by Murphy’s recollections of a bygone time.

In the book, Murphy says, “When the whistle blew, you had a huge mill with the glow, the flames, and the smoke coming out of the mill and then four or five thousand men rushing out of that gate … So for me, the noise, the flames and the number of people when it was dark was a great picture, very vivid, and it’s incredible that would all disappear.”

Not every Pittsburgher’s upbringing came with nostalgia.

Award-winning singer, actor, and Broadway star Billy Porter told Roberts, “Being Black, gay, and Christian in Pittsburgh during the 1980s made me a target for the kind of oppression that literally kills people and destroys humanity.”

Porter left Pittsburgh for New York City not to return for decades; the book also has its fair share of prodigal son stories. 

But in 2015, after winning multiple Tonys playing Lola, a drag performer, in the hit musical Kinky Boots, Porter returned to Pittsburgh for the show’s run at the Benedum Center.

“This prodigal son hath come home — as a lady!” Porter says in Growing Up Yinzer, not knowing what to expect of the hometown audience. His performance of “Hold Me in Your Heart” garnered a five-minute standing ovation on opening night.

click to enlarge In Growing Up Yinzer, famous natives from Joe Namath to Billy Porter reflect on the city and its impact
Photo: Courtesy of Burton Morris Studios
Burton Morris

Porter says, “I felt my own heart — which I had kept closed and guarded so many years — crack open … my eyes were open to the evolution and transformation that the people of Pittsburgh have been engaged in.”

Roberts himself is a Ligonier, Pa. native whose parents owned the historic Darlington Inn. The neighborhood tavern with a “big horseshoe bar [and] knotty fireplace” hosted Pirates players and three generations of the Arnold Palmer family. 

Though growing up in Westmoreland County, 50 miles outside the city, he never felt like a true yinzer; Roberts still remembers watching Pittsburgh’s KDKA and reading the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette, eschewing Johnstown media closer by.

“I always stayed,” he says. “Even though I had opportunities to go other places … I always kind of felt like I was a Pittsburgher.”

Alongside radio personalities Jim Krenn and Larry Richert, and cartoonist Rob Rogers in 2018, Roberts created Yinzer Cards, greeting cards with illustrations of local touchstones like the tunnels and the Primanti’s sandwich, and featuring Pittsburgh characters and Pittsburghese.

“Being with you, my love I can’t hide / Like when I find parking on the Sathside!” a Valentine’s Day card reads.

The line of cards — billed as “captur[ing] Pittsburgh’s essence” — served as a kind of first run at the book, Roberts says. Also a longtime PR professional who helms his own firm, he believes he’s uncovered some Pittsburgh fundamentals across various yinzer projects.

“There’s [a] unique way Pittsburghers talk,” he says. “They have a unique group of words that they use … but [one] of the keys to it is: they’re proud of it and they have a sense of humor about it.”
click to enlarge In Growing Up Yinzer, famous natives from Joe Namath to Billy Porter reflect on the city and its impact
Growing up Yinzer book cover
Ultimately, the formula is simple: “At the end of the day, Growing Up Yinzer is a book about Pittsburgh,” Roberts says. “The heroes of the book are all the storytellers, for their great ability to articulate their experiences and what Pittsburgh meant to them.”

Eclipse at Carnegie Science Center
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Eclipse at Carnegie Science Center

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