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McKeesport Past & Present 3-day reunion begins

Michael DiVittorio
| Saturday, July 12, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
McKeesport Past & Present co-chair Frank Francis recognizes honorees Sheryl Sears Carson, left, and Lois Brown during Friday's banquet.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesport Past & Present co-chair Frank Francis recognizes honorees Sheryl Sears Carson, left, and Lois Brown during Friday's banquet.

Current and former McKeesport residents gathered at the Palisades on Friday to kick off the eighth annual McKeesport Past & Present reunion.

The three-day celebration of togetherness continues on Saturday at noon at Moran Field in Harrison Village, then on Sunday at 11 a.m. at Trinity Church of God in Christ at 2216 Jenny Lind St.

“We're coming together for three days of fun,” reunion co-chairman Frank Francis said. “We just have a lot of community input. This is just getting bigger. We pick a different church every year and we close it out.”

Kenneth Burkley of Columbia, S.C., was born in McKeesport in 1946. He delivered The Daily News for a little more than five years, and always has called McKeesport his home.

“What brings me to McKeesport is my family,” Burkley said. “I come back and forth every year ... Growing up in McKeesport, there was no excuse for me not to achieve as I had so many people (supporting me). I've known them all my life. I haven't seen them for a while, but there's a closeness and certain kinship and warmth there ... It's a spiritual experience (to come back) and it's humbling and it's a blessing to be here still living and see them ... All the positive words that you can give it, that's what I would say.

Sherlyn Solomon of Silver Springs, Md., was at the first reunion eight years ago and assisted with its development.

“It's grown immensely,” Solomon said. “The very first year a lot of people didn't come out. I don't know whether it was because communication wasn't there. We got a handful of people. Every year it's grown and gotten better. The same people come back and new faces show up. You're starting to see generations coming together and coming back to enjoy it ... It still feels like family.”

Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Clyde Waite said he never thought he would come back to McKeesport after he graduated in 1962.

Waite said he experienced great hardships and developed misplaced anger as a result, but later learned it was those emotions that drove him to succeed.

“I did not have a pleasant life here in McKeesport except for my friends,” Waite said. “I came close to hating this place. I left the morning after graduation ... This is not a place that I'd thought I'd ever come back to, and I'm glad I came back because of the people that are here that I know ... If it wasn't for the friends and the community that supported me, I don't know what would have happened to me.”

Waite said he's dedicating a learning center in memory of his mother, Anna Middleton Waite, this weekend.

Community activists Lois Brown and Sheryl Sears Carson were honored at Fridays's event for their many years of service to McKeesport.

The two have worked toward the betterment of the city for about 30 years.

They were part of the founders of Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, which assisted former steelworkers affected by the mills closing in the early 1980s. They've started various garden and park projects since 2004, and are well-known for their volunteerism.

“It's a great honor to be honored by your peers,” Brown said.

Brown and Carson said they worked as a team with many groups and organizations, all with one goal in mind.

“We love this community,” Carson said. “We were raised in this community, now we're raising our children and grandchildren in this community. We do everything we can think of to help the citizens of this city ... We know McKeesport has gone down as a community since the steel mills left, but there's so many things that we can do as citizens to improve things in it and give it a face lift, and we still do it.”

The reunion is a tribute to Barbara Jean Price Spencer, a McKeesport Area graduate who moved to the nation's capital, where she became an esteemed educator. Spencer, who passed away in 2006, did not live to see the hometown reunion she envisioned.

Francis said McKeesport Past and Present continues Spencer's commitment to education by awarding scholarships to recent McKeesport Area High School graduates.

“It's important that we keep Barbara's dream alive,” Francis said. “We get together as a committee and search for various people that we feel are really worthy of this.”

This year's recipients from the class of 2014 are Jordan E. Rodriguez and Charles Cole. Scholarships were provided by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania Department of Masonic Education & Culture.

“I think this is an event that's very exciting for the city,” Mayor Michael Cherepko said. “It's always exciting to see current residents and former residents from all over the country come back to their hometown. It kind of goes with the saying, ‘Once a Tiger always a Tiger.' These are individuals still proud of McKeesport, and they truly want to see our city flourish once again.”

Cherepko commended the committee members and organizers who make the reunion happen year after year.

“From day one, I told them they would have our support,” Cherepko said. “I continue to support it both through the city and through personal donations so they can do some activities with the event.”

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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