PRESIDENTS, WE SALUTE YOU! | Pittsburgh City Paper


A President's Day appreciation of some local gavel-wielders.

Albert Heiles
Three Rivers Volkswagen Club

Albert Heiles


Years in Position:

Presides over six annual board meetings to help steer an organization of more than 250 Volkswagen enthusiasts.

Platform Planks:
"I want to increase the number of people who participate and we want to have more fun. Our objective is to grow our membership and do more to serve our members."

Trusted Adviser:
His son, also named Albert Heiles, serves as second vice president. He owns a new Beetle and one of the original "Herbie" Beetles that appeared in The Love Bug movie.

First Lady:
Donna Heiles, his wife, also loves VWs and has driven them since she was in college.

The story of how Albert Heiles came to be the president of the Three Rivers Volkswagen Club begins almost two decades ago with a little boy in a hospital bed who can barely breathe. The asthmatic boy, Albert, is Heiles' first child and he and his wife, Donna, have brought the boy a videotape, The Love Bug, the 1969 Walt Disney movie featuring a Bug that can drive itself.

"I'd say that my son believed when he saw The Love Bug that the Volkswagen Beetle was a real thing and had a personality and he fell in love with it," Heiles says. An obsession was born: The boy began furiously collecting model Beetles and, when he was 4, his parents bought a Beetle of their own.

The younger Heiles "led us to the club when he was 9," the father reports. They became active in the club, which hosts car shows, participates in the annual Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in Schenley Park in July, tours together and more. Heiles became president of the club recently, and his son serves as second vice president.

The club weds the two basic -- some would say rival -- camps of Volkswagen lovers. There is the air-cooled camp, named for the groundbreaking rear-mounted, rear-wheel-drive Volkswagen engines introduced in Germany the '40s, cars which are cooled by forced air instead of a radiator. While celebrated for their ingenuity, affordability, and ease of repair, they are also notorious for their lack of power and their inability to defrost the windshield. The Beetles ceased production in Germany in 1978, but were produced in Mexico right up until this past July.

The other camp is the water-cooled engine enthusiasts, those who collect and drive VWs with traditional front-mounted, front-wheel-drive engines. They include, of course, people with Rabbits and Cabriolets dating back to the '70s, and drivers of the new Beetle, which was launched several years ago.

Becoming a vintage-VW collector can be a relatively cheap affair, Heiles says. "To buy a vintage Corvette or a Chevy Impala is fairly prohibitive, but you can pick up a vintage VW for $2,000 to $4,000. You could get a pristine Beetle hardtop for $8,000." It's no wonder, Heiles says, that the group tends to draw people who may be more down-to-earth than other car collectors. "If you were to call the [vintage] Porsche or Audi Club, you'd find there's a little bit of blue blood there. But the old Volkswagens, and our club itself, are the antithesis of the blue blood."

Heiles himself has four vintage Beetles in his garage now, including one that belongs to his son: one of the 46 Herbie Beetles that appeared in the original The Love Bug movie. (The Walt Disney Company is actually listed as a prior owner on the car's title.)

And while his son doesn't have nearly the trouble with his asthma that he did as a kid, he certainly hasn't outgrown his Beetle obsession. In his room now there are 1,400 Beetles, from smaller than a Matchbox to 3 feet in length. Now 22, the younger Heiles doesn't spend much time in his room, though. He's earning a bachelors of science degree in Automotive Marketing/Management from Northwood University in -- where else? -- Detroit. The degree, which is certified by the National Automobile Dealers Association, is the only one of its kind in the country. He's hoping, naturally, to one day run a VW dealership.

With a make of car having such a profound impact on his family, you'll forgive Albert Senior if he tends to wax rhapsodic about his VW club. "It's about families," he says, sounding conspicuously presidential. "They've got four seats as opposed to an MG with two seats where you have to leave the family home. It's a way to tie kids to parents, husbands to wives, to tie families together. In our case it was a little boy who had trouble breathing and fell in love with a Volkswagen."

Mary Field
Ferret Fanciers Club


Years in Position: 19

Writes quarterly International Ferret Review newsletter; staffs 24-hour ferret emergency hotline

Platform Planks:
"We're trying to educate the public about [ferrets] so they don't think they're a designer rat."

Trusted Adviser
: Significant other Dan Huber

Presidential seal
: Image of a ferret with the slogan "Ferrets are Funtastic"

For Mary Field, it all started with a pair of beady black eyes staring from a sheet of newsprint.

"We saw a picture of one in the paper and my late husband just fell in love with it," recalls Field of the day in 1984 when her husband became smitten with a ferret. Field bought him one for his next birthday, at a time when as pets ferrets ranked ahead of little aside from the komodo dragon.

Today, of course, pet ferrets star in Hollywood romantic comedies (Along Came Polly). But Field was in the vanguard of the revolution: Her Ferret Fanciers Club was the first such organization around, she says, and it's still the largest, with more than 3,000 members internationally.

Field launched the club after she and her husband encountered another ferret-owner at a party and spent the evening comparing notes. She flushed out partisans with a classified ad in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which led to a feature article there. Then the story was picked up nationally, by the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.

The remaking of America's pet landscape continued: In 1986, Field launched the world's first ferret show, with contestants judged on color, coat, body-to-tail ratio and how well they were dressed. The show got media any politician would envy, with coverage by all three national networks, she says.

Field's husband died in 1988, and a few years later, she says, "I decided I do not want to live my life doing ferret shows." She sold the rights to the show but continued leading the club, now from her home and headquarters on the North Side.

Field leads by example, with two ferrets of her own -- Furry, age 6, and Heather, 5 -- but there's more to the presidency than the care and feeding of domesticated members of the weasel family. Aside from her regular duties, she's written books including The Ferret Medical Directory and The Ferret Handbook. ("Usually if you buy a ferret, you buy a book.")

It all takes about 35 hours a week, Field estimates -- a lot for a chief executive who also freelances in fund-raising and development. But she's not alone: Ferret Fanciers has a board of directors, and Field has a trusted adviser in significant other Dan Huber.

Such support comes in handy when there's a crisis: Several years ago, as part of California's campaign against illegal ferret ownership, state workers there began seizing pet ferrets and clubbing them to death. "We wrote letters to the senators. We publicized it," recalls Field. "We started a boycott of California products."

California officials feared the ferrets would get loose and harm the environment. But while Fields admits domesticated ferrets aren't for everyone -- "They have attacked babies" and are not advised for families with children under age 6 -- they also can't survive in the wild. Now, while California still bans ferret ownership, "it's in the category of not wearing a seatbelt or something," she says.

Field, ever diplomatic, won't admit to any skeletons in her presidential closet. But she does have a small secret: "Mary Field" is a pseudonym adopted by one Joan Lance when she started the club but lived in a high-rise with a no-pets policy. The appeal of ferrets, however, is unclassified information: "They're just a lot of fun."

Nancy Martin
Sisters in Crime, Mary Roberts Rinehart chapter

Nancy Martin

Writer: AL HOFF

Years in Position:
About a year and half

Biggest Challenge:
Trying to find a meeting time that suited so many busy people in a location that suited so many far-flung members.

Up the Allegheny, folks are dreaming up all manners of murder -- then taking a break for lunch. This is the local chapter of Sisters in Crime, an international organization of writers, readers, booksellers and other literary players dedicated to promoting the work of women mystery writers. The Pittsburgh-area contingent -- named for Mary Roberts Rinehart, the famed North Side scribe -- meets monthly at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont under the stewardship of its president, Nancy Martin.

This group of aspiring mystery writers has a simpatico president in Martin, who came to murder, as it so often happens in novels, through love. A successful romance novelist (her Harlequin romance, Whirlwind, has sold more than 5 million copies), she recently branched out into mysteries, penning a cozy series featuring a trio of impoverished Bucks County heiresses, the Blackbird Sisters; the third novel in the series, Some Like It Lethal, will be published in April.

Martin is familiar with the hurdles. "Writing mysteries is a big challenge. I wrote romances for almost 20 years before I finally decided I've got to write something I really love to read. And I had a hard time teaching myself how to do it. It is complex -- and it has a similarly touchy readership. Learning the do's and don't's for readers is a challenge as well."

She has been president of Sisters in Crime for the past year and half, and won the election handily, running unopposed. "It's not exactly a sought-after office," she laughs. She had hooked up with SIC through the Mystery Lovers Bookshop after moving back to Pittsburgh two years ago. "The organization had lost its core membership, and the membership had dwindled. They were looking for ways to revitalize the chapter, and since I'm a published mystery author, it seemed like a logical choice for me to step into the role as president of the organization."

Primarily, her duties are "rallying the troops. We have lots of different activities. We run workshops and have a book club and attend events sponsored by the Mystery Lovers Bookshop to meet other authors. I'm kind of the cheerleader. Mostly what I've done, though, is find great people to do the actual work. ... We're a very self-serving organization; everybody is very can-do and steps up when they feel like they can contribute.

"There's no bureaucracy in SIC -- it's all just fun." And she adds, "This is the only kind of organization where you regularly discuss bumping off each other. And discuss various methods by which it could be done."

If being the president of a mystery writers club sounds like the set-up for ... well, for a mystery novel about a mystery writers group whose members have dangerous ambitions, Martin doesn't seem worried. When asked about potentially hostile takeovers, she laughs heartily. "I welcome it! I tried to run a write-in campaign for somebody else to be president but it was no go."

But what about presidential perks? "The best perk is being around a really nice bunch of people -- smart funny women united by a common goal."

Claire Preville
Pittsburgh Angels women's rugby club

Claire Preville


Years in Position:
1 & 1/2

"I just make sure everyone's doing their job. Treasurer: 'Are there dues coming in?' Secretary: 'Do we have our matches scheduled?' I also coordinate with the men's team."

Platform Planks:
Recently, the Pittsburgh men's and women's rugby teams formed a formal alliance, the Pittsburgh Rugby Club. The goal of this coalition of the willing? To acquire territory -- namely, a rugby-centric practice field so they don't have to count on the often-occupied city fields. Also, each player is a rugby ambassador, trying to recruit players and promote the sport: New members are always welcome.

Trusted Advisors:
Kim Sortwell, Treasurer. Heather Jones, Match Secretary. Becky Mumper, Vice President. Shawn Crago, men's rugby president.

Shape of office:
"My car!" -- an ovoid Chevy Cavalier, as well as the rectangular Ruggers Pub on the South Side.

Skeletons in the Closet:
Led a former life as a "band nerd" playing clarinet and euphonium.

Rival organizations:
A friendly rivalry, Preville insists, with other clubs, particularly the Detroit and Cleveland women.

First Lady or Man:
None at present. Would-be First Men "have to be able to hang out at Ruggers," Preville says.

What, If Anything, President Inhales:
"Nothing. Well, beer! But that goes along with being a rugby player. You play rugby, you get beer."

Axis of Evil:
The dreaded ACL knee injury. According to medical research, women athletes -- especially in sports like basketball, soccer and rugby -- are more likely to tear the anterior cruciate ligament, one of two that stabilize the knee. Thanks to this "Hometeam Security" threat, Preville just underwent knee surgery this year, and a teammate is down right now.

As a kid, Claire Preville was the nonathlete of the family -- a rough-and-tumble bunch: Her father coached hockey and her mother and sisters played field hockey. Preville, on the other hand, played the clarinet and the euphonium -- neither of which was a harbinger for her ascendancy as commander-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Angels, the city's women's rugby club.

Like many rugby players, Preville discovered the sport in college. "I don't know what attracted me," she confesses. But there must have been some indefinable spirit of the scrum: After Preville returned home to the Pittsburgh area and went to work, "I knew something was missing -- rugby."

After volunteering to help out with a high school team, she was soon the coach. Getting her wings as an Angel was just as quick. After playing on the team for a while, the current president became too busy with school and stepped down. "When she quit, we didn't have a field. I was like, 'Who's supposed to do that?' 'I don't know.' So I started calling around, 'Hey, can we bump on your field?'" Soon, she was President Preville. "I bought in," she explains. "I decided if I was gonna do it, I was gonna do it all the way.

"It's a big community," Preville says of the world she surveys. "I could move to Florida and join a club and be welcomed. If you walked into this bar [Ruggers Pub] and said, 'I played in college,' people'd say 'Why aren't you playing now?'"

Bob Parker
Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (a.k.a. Three Rivers Chorus) of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc.

Bob Parker


Years in Position:
2 (inaugurated Jan. 1 to second two-year term in past decade)

Presides over weekly meetings each Tuesday. First duty: to set up committees, and "To make sure everybody else gets their job done. We have to deal with the international society. We rehearse down at Trinity Christian School -- we have to pay rent. We have to raise money. Plus reports have to be done. It's as much work as you want it to be. I think [the members] were a little awestruck [after his inauguration]. Before, these guys would come in on a Tuesday night, eat donuts and drink coffee and leave. I said, 'This isn't going to happen anymore.' And the guys are like, 'Oh my God, we might even have to do something.' As president, that's my prerogative."

Shape of Office:
Square (spare bedroom)

Governing Philosophy:
"[Anyone] can give you a goal; I want strategies too. I hate to use the example of our present situation in Iraq. I'm sure somebody had a goal in mind. But the strategy?"

Secession Crisis:
During his first term a decade ago, some members broke off into another barber shop club more focused on competition. "That's tough. And as president, I tried to stop it. I said, 'Why can't we have two choruses within the chorus?'"

Possible Dynasty:
His son's mother-in-law is president of another barber shop chapter.

First Lady:
Likes barber shop choruses, hates barber shop quartets.

"When you get barbershoppers singing you can't shut them up," says Bob Parker. And he's obviously happy about that. For 17 years he's been singing a capella four-part harmony with the local chapter of the unmelodiously acronymed SPEBSQSA. Apart from the name, the organization must be doing everything right -- there are 10 chapters in and around Pittsburgh alone, and 35,000 members all over the United States, not to mention chapters in Russia, Sweden and Japan. The Greater Pittsburgh Chapter will commandeer the stage at Carnegie Music Hall -- the one in Oakland -- on May 1 for its 60th annual show.

Club quartets perform "Singing Valentines" each year at this time, for $40 a pop. Their Valentines have helped a marriage proposal along; they've even sung to guys.

"We're singing in bowling alleys, in a veterinarian's office one time. All the people in there with their pets ..." he marvels. "It was one of those classics, with the dogs howling along."

One year he surprised his wife at her job in the Allegheny County district attorney's office. "When all these dirtbags and lowlifes were in there, we were singing 'Heart of My Heart,' 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart,'" Parker remembers.

Barbershopping, as Parker calls it, fits its public image -- most times. The guys -- all 66 in Parker's chapter -- perform in white shirts with red suspenders, bow ties and arm garters. They're mostly in their 50s or older. The best thing about barbershopping? "It keeps these guys alive. No -- it does! We've got a guy who celebrates his 97th birthday next week. He still sings in our show." Another member has been singing with them for the past 65 years. A 28-year-old has just joined up, but he's a rarity.

The repertoire is also what you'd expect -- "Sweet Adeline," anyone? -- including 15 standards, called "pole cat songs" -- but they have a modern repertoire as well. College quartets do barber shop rap. "You can actually write just about anything in a barber shop style," Parker says.

The 58-year-old Plum resident retired from teaching middle-school science two years ago after more than three decades in Monroeville's Gateway District. With his white beard, he fits the barber shop image -- until he mentions he used to be into The Fugs. "Whatever happened to them?" he says.

Parker's a baritone. If The Beatles had been a barber shop quartet, that would have been Ringo's part -- indispensable and disrespected.

"They call us the leftovers," he says. "To get a chord you have to have that fourth part, and the fourth part is the weird notes."

The weirdest fact Parker noted is that "We've got guys in our chorus who can't sing. And it's hard to keep them out because they're so enthusiastic. That's a tough call there."

Running for a second term as local SPEBSQSA president may have been his easiest call. He says he's president again "by default." Before that he was chapter secretary, a job he found less than harmonious. As Parker puts it: "That's the reason I ran for president -- so I don't have to be secretary."

Nathan James
Students of the Department of Africana Studies (SODAS)

Nathan James


Years in Position
: Less than a year (organization is less than a year old.)

: Making sure the beginner organization doesn't ... fizz out.

Platform Planks
: Schedule programs and events to connect University of Pittsburgh Africana Studies majors with off-campus black organizations and communities; voice student concerns to the greater university administration.

Trusted Adviser
: Director of Publicity (read promoter) Nkaiso Akpabio, who last November ran for office on the P.I.M.P Party ticket with campaign ads broadcast on WAMO 106.7.

Rival Organizations
: Students of the Department of Asian Studies (SODAS), Students of Direct Action Society (SODAS) and Students Opting to Declare All Soft Drinks Preferably Ordered as "Pop" (SODASPOP).

: Eight active, but "the whole department is a part of SODAS, so being in Africana Studies automatically makes you a member."

Meeting Times
: "Usually Friday after 4 p.m. for our executive board meetings, but the general body meetings are starting to be Sundays at 6 p.m. -- really when we all get together and say we can meet until we get a huge enough general body to actually have general body meetings."

For Nathan James, being president of SODAS is small fries compared to all the other stuff he presides over, and hopes to preside over. He is also president of the Kuntu Repertory Theater at the Pitt that has produced legends such as August Wilson, Rob Penny and Dr. Vernell Lillie, who founded the theater and is its current artistic director. In years past James was the president of his Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and also of the Pitt chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which governs all of Pitt's black Greek societies. Before enrolling at Pitt in 1998, he was a student at Point Park College, where he was president of the Black Action Community Society, not to be confused with Pitt's Black Action Society.

James has bigger goals post-graduation this April, though.

"I plan on taking over as many institutions and societies as possible, and all at once," says James. "I could preside over the United States."

If James were Leader of the Free World, he says he would universalize affordable health care, shut down drug ports to the U.S., set higher standards for police forces and emphasize urban community redevelopment. He'd run on his own independent party ticket, citing how neither Democrats nor Republicans are addressing minorities' concerns now.

As president of two organizations, along with touring as a spoken-word performer and teaching theater in the Milliones Middle School in the Hill District, he's already developing a knack for reaching the masses.

"I would say behind the desk I'm more Billy Clinton, minus the sexual undertones," says James. "With great power comes great responsibility and if I have people following me then I can lead them down the right road."