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Pizzaburger king, Belle Vernon Area Board member Stringhill dies

| Monday, April 19, 2010

Joseph Stringhill was famous for his pizzaburgers and respected as a longtime member of the Belle Vernon Area School Board.

But Stringhill will best be remembered as a dedicated family man.

Friends and colleagues are mourning the loss of the legendary restaurant owner and public servant who died Saturday at Shadyside Hospital.

Stringhill was 72.

He was the retired owner of Stringhill's Restaurant in Washington Township and currently serving on the BVA board.

Longtime friend and colleague Charles Kraft said he had known Stringhill for 50 years and served with him on the school board for about 24 years.

Kraft said Stringhill was a "conscientious" director and took pride in never missing a meeting.

"He always had the youngsters at heart," Kraft said, adding Stringhill always stood up for what he believed, even if it wasn't popular.

Kraft described Stringhill as the "finest family man" he has ever known, and has fond memories of time spent at his restaurant.

"He used to joke that he should have had his pizzaburgers franchised, because he would have been a rich man," Kraft said. "Joe was a rich man - he was rich in so many ways."

Stringhill, a Lynnwood native and 1955 Rostraver High School graduate, began his career in 1959, when the original Stringhill's opened at 813 Fayette Ave., Lynnwood. Jerry Weiss owned the building.

A couple years later, Weiss constructed another building across the street, and the pizzeria moved to larger quarters, next to Ange's Barber Shop.

That's where Stringhill invented his signature sandwich - the pizzaburger.

In 1965, Stringhill, who was away from the business for a couple of years while serving in the military, had the opportunity to move to nearby Allen's Crossroads in Rostraver Township - at a site currently occupied by Burger King.

Another transition took place in 1981, as Stringhill's made its final move to 1303 Fayette Ave. in the Fairhope section of Washington Township.

He sold the business and retired in 2003.

School board member Joe Grata said he will carry with him fond memories of Stringhill, who gave him his first job, working in the first pizza shop.

"My job every Saturday and Sunday was to come in early, scrub and wax the floors and clean the pizza ovens. When he came in around 11, he would give me a few bucks, two slices of pizza and a Pepsi," Grata recalled.

Grata said that when he rejoined the school board in January, Stringhill told him it was "time to pass the torch" to younger members.

"He told me, 'A few of us are getting to be dinosaurs,'" Grata said with a laugh.

Grata and Kraft agree Stringhill was a strong presence and wasn't afraid to voice his opinion.

"If he disagreed with you, he would clench his cigar in his cheek or in between his fingers and get in your face and tell you so," Grata said.

That's why so many respected him, he said.

"He was a nice guy, and definitely unique," Grata said.

His colleagues and friends said Stringhill ran his business more like a family, employing relatives to help run every aspect of the restaurant.

Tony Ruscitto began a lifelong friendship with Stringhill after stopping into the restaurant about 35 years ago.

"We just stopped in for a bite to eat and we just clicked," said Ruscitto, of Scenery Hill, a former football coach in the Valley. "He's a rare breed, an old time guy with a lot of high morals and a lot of character.

"If I were ever in a war, he is the guy I would want in the foxhole with me," Ruscitto said.

Ruscitto described Stringhill as a "great cook," whose easygoing demeanor made customers feel like family when they dined in his restaurant.

"Large crowds would come there for years for the camaraderie," Ruscitto said. "It was like a big family."

The restaurant was well known for its free popcorn and fried dough.

News of Stringhill's death hit hard, Ruscitto said, and his heart goes out to his wife Judy, and their family.

"His family was his life," he said.

Grata says Stringhill enjoyed living life to the fullest, and especially looked forward to preparing Sunday dinners for his family.

"He would always say, 'Sunday is reserved for my family,'" Grata said.

Stringhill was an avid gardener and volunteered his time delivering "meals on wheels" and with the Washington Township-Fayette City Lions Club.

Kraft said the school board cancelled its meeting tonight and instead will gather at the (Leonard J. Parzynski) funeral home to pay respects.

For full obituary information, see Page 4A.

Kraft said that while the board must appoint someone to fulfill Stringhill's term, it can never replace him.

"The board won't be the same without him," Kraft said. "He was an icon."

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