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Atmosphere bittersweet around Penn Hills train display this year

The Penn Hills Holiday Train Display brings joy to children throughout the area each December, but this year its operators will run the trains with a tinge of sadness.

Retired officer Domenic Slebrich Jr., 74, who began the display in 1984, died the day after Thanksgiving, and he leaves a legacy of community service behind.

"Dom was a unique individual," police Chief Howard Burton said. "He could be very gruff and people wouldn't know how to take him at first, but you'd see very quickly that he was just joking. He was a real people person."

Sometimes people got the wrong impression, though.

Both Burton and Officer Duane Yenchik, when asked about their favorite story involving Slebrich, told the same one:

Slebrich was one of the department's first K-9 officers, and his dog was named Satan. Burton said Slebrich always worked the midnight shift, and late one night, dispatchers began getting calls from residents in the area of Mt. Hope Cemetery.

"They were saying, 'You better send the police up here, there are devil worshipers in the cemetery,' " Yenchik said. "So dispatch radios to Dom for his location, and he's already in the area. Turns out, he'd let Satan out to do his business, and the dog ended up chasing some deer. So there's Dom, yelling through the police-car public-address system, 'SATAN! SATAN! GET OVER HERE!' "

Giving back to the community was also a large part of Slebrich's life. He started what is now People Helping People Daily, which started as Police Helping People Daily. The group does community projects, including providing turkeys to needy families during the holidays, giving toys to kids at Christmas and a golf outing.

As a secondary project in 1984, the holiday train display sprang to life, with several Penn Hills police bringing their own train sets to create a miniature version of the town.

Detective Bill Trogler said that when he first came on the force, he would occasionally be drafted into PHPD service.

"Dom would say, 'Son, you're not getting any calls.' He'd give me a list of addresses and send me out to drop off turkeys," Trogler said.

Yenchik said Slebrich was willing to help whenever and wherever he could.

"He had a heart of gold," Yenchik said. "If somebody needed help, he was there. I started as a paramedic, and one time we got a call about a girl whose arm was stuck in a floor drain. Dom arrived at the same time as our ambulance, and he and his partner took turns with a sledgehammer trying to break through that floor.

"He had a gruff exterior, but if you needed help, he was there for you."

He served with the Penn Hills Police Department from 1967 to 1993.

Additional Information:

Getting on track

The Penn Hills Holiday Train Display will operate in the municipal building through Jan. 1, from 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 1 to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The cost to attend is a $1 donation, which goes toward People Helping People Daily, or PHPD, a charity that members of the Penn Hills police department operate.

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