Tarentum pharmacist follows in his father’s footsteps of helping people
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley residents and the notable things that they do.
Lifelong Tarentum resident Chuck Blackburn, a second-generation pharmacist, grew up with the desire to help people.
“I feel like I spent my career responding to needs as they popped up,” he said. “The thing that has carried me through the professional career here is an overwhelming need that I saw in the community for health care services other than filling prescriptions.”
He graduated from Tarentum High School, forerunner to today’s Highlands School District, in 1956 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Allegheny College in Meadville.
Blackburn’s father, Charles E. Blackburn, founded Blackburn’s Physicians Pharmacy in 1936 months after the St. Patrick’s Day flood. Tarentum was among the region’s towns that sustained massive water damage as several inches of rain fell in a short amount of time — coupled with about 63 inches of snow melting in warm spring temperatures.
The elder Blackburn and Elder Stein were managers of Central Drug Stores in Tarentum at the time when the business district was under more than 10 feet of water.
The pair decided to quit and start their own shop as a result of a dispute within the company on what to do about flooded merchandise. There were about a dozen pharmacists within walking distance of Tarentum.
“There was that much business in Tarentum in the 1930s,” Blackburn said. “There were 50 doctors in the town.”
Blackburn, 82, intended to study at the University of Pittsburgh’s medical school to become a doctor himself, when a meeting with the late Richard McCoy, coupled with the family business’ situation, would change his life’s path.
McCoy was emeritus professor of biochemistry and associate dean emeritus of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Pitt.
“I had about a five-minute conversation with the man, and I thought I was being fired from medical school,” Blackburn said. “He picks up the phone and calls the pharmacy school. My first reaction to him was, ‘I already had a bachelor’s degree. Why would I want another one?’ ”
The business began to go under in the mid to late ’50s when the Heights Plaza Shopping Center opened in Harrison — along with its Heights Plaza Medical Center series of doctors’ offices.
“When that opened, it struck a blow to the business district of Tarentum, and I had just gotten out of college in 1960,” he said. “The business wasn’t doing well. It was bankrupt.
“Father was paying wages out of his own personal savings. I come out of college and was supposed to go to medical school next fall, and I sort of felt I would delay it for a year and see if I couldn’t help my father keep the business going.”
It turned out to be the right call as Blackburn would graduate from pharmacy school in 1963 and help add medical equipment sales to his father’s pharmacy business.
Chuck Blackburn took over the company with business partner Ronald Rukas after the elder Blackburn retired in 1971.
Chuck Blackburn’s son, Tom, is the vice president of the family company.
“I was very grateful for the fact I could work with my father every day for 25 years,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think too many sons have that privilege or relationship. We both had the same sort of philosophy of doing the best we could for our customers.
“I think our employees all feel that way. Some of them have been with us for 30 or 40 years. We all feel like one big family at work. You grow roots.
“We wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t reinvented the business a couple of times.”
They now have medical supply stores in Bridgeville, Erie and Buffalo, N.Y.
The Tarentum store, along Corbet Street, remains the only pharmacy and medical supplier.
Blackburn is a certified enterostomal therapist and can help people with stomas, incontinence, ulcers and others in need of wound care.
He learned CPR — unintentionally — but that knowledge would prove critical down the road.
Blackburn said he was walking along Pitt’s medical halls when where was a commotion in one of the classrooms.
“I see manikins on the floor and medical students ‘kissing’ them. I was told to get in line (having no idea what’s going on).”
Turns out the class was being taught by Dr. Peter Safar, an internationally renowned Austrian physician and anesthesiologist. The Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at Pitt is named after him for his numerous contributions to that field.
Blackburn said he wasn’t registered for the class, but it seemed Safar invited nearly everyone within a 30-foot radius to learn the lifesaving technique.
Years later, with that experience, Blackburn was able to help save a patient suffering from cardiac arrest.
Blackburn was instrumental in establishing the emergency medical services division of Eureka Fire-Rescue-EMS.
His wife, Georgie, is the company’s vice president of government affairs and works with lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
“You have to be an advocate for your clients today,” Blackburn said. “You have to fight for their (medical insurance) coverage. You have to know the policies up and down. You have to know the rules and follow them.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .