Hempfield man chosen for Distinguished Alumni Circle
Emil Kuhar speaks in a soft whisper that tells the ravages of his illness.
But the progressive form of multiple sclerosis cannot hide the twinkle in Kuhar's eyes, the excitement in his tone, his love of a good joke or his exuberance for life.
He is, as close friend Jeanne Pittavino said over and over, “an amazing person.”
La Roche College in McCandless will recognize Kuhar for that spirit on April 19 at the Wyndham Hotel in Pittsburgh. The college has named him one of 50 inaugural members of the Distinguished Alumni Circle.
Circle members have achieved notable success in their professional or personal lives or demonstrated a strong commitment to helping others, college officials said.
“It's nice,” Kuhar whispered as he sat in his motorized wheelchair inside his Hempfield home. “I didn't expect it.”
Kuhar was unaware his wife, Debbie, and Pittavino were nominating him for the award. The two women had filled out questionnaires for the college and shared their feelings about why he should be honored.
“Emil has never forgotten the compassion, support and personal kindness that he received from the dedicated sisters and professional staff at the college,” his wife wrote in nominating him. “His character and integrity (not to mention his sense of humor) were strengthened by his experience at La Roche.”
Pittavino said she has been inspired by Emil Kuhar ever since their days together at La Roche in the late 1970s.
“When I heard Emil got this award, I was so happy, because he's such a deserving person,” said Pittavino of Cranberry. “For him to go through this illness — the way he's handled it — for me, it is an amazing tribute to his optimism, to his zest for life.”
In her nominating letter, Pittavino wrote: “In spite of the fact that his disease has taken a toll on Emil's life, he continues to share his love of art, his great sense of humor, and his giving nature with all who come in contact with him. Emil Kuhar is truly a most ‘Distinguished' alumni of La Roche College.”
Kuhar, 56, learned about the honor after the mailman delivered a certified letter to his Redmont Village residence on the day before Christmas.
Receiving the letter on that special day made the honor that much greater, he said.
Debbie Kuhar signed for the correspondence.
“That was kind of exciting,” she said. “Merry Christmas, honey.”
Kuhar, who graduated in 1978 with a degree in graphic design, was diagnosed with MS in 2005. In less than a decade, he went from using a cane, to depending on a walker, to traveling in a scooter, to riding in a wheelchair.
Despite his disease, Kuhar continued for about two years taking commercial photographs, snapping wedding photographs and designing brochures and letterheads in his at-home business, Kuhar Visual Communications. He closed shop in 2007.
“It was hard at first, really hard at first,” Debbie Kuhar said, adding she and her husband continue to be optimistic.
He has taken pictures of Fred Rogers, Dick Cheney and Pittsburgh Steelers. He regularly clicked off photos at the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival and won first-place honors in the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
As a volunteer, Emil Kuhar designed artwork for the Boy Scouts and created a newsletter for the Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen, a bike-riding club.
He continues doing the newsletter for the homeowners group where he lives and brings in jokes each month for his MS support group. He's known as “the good humor man” among support-group members, his wife said.
“We believe humor helps in the healing,” she added.
He took part in a 150-mile bike tour to raise money for MS patients and research in the 1990s, well before his diagnosis.
He has continued to raise money to fight MS through the annual walk, such as one scheduled for 11:30 a.m. April 21 at Lynch Field in Greensburg.
In his earlier years, Emil Kuhar cared for his sick mother, which left an impression on his future wife. The two met at a friend's house. “I liked what I heard,” Debbie Kuhar said.
They have been married for 31 years. She retired as a Wendover Middle School teacher last year.
“She's the best,” Emil Kuhar confided.
He wants to begin taking a new drug that has shown promise for some MS patients. “We're hopeful,” his wife said.
Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or firstname.lastname@example.org.