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Oyler: Cold weather spurs memories of unforgettable characters in Western Pa.

| Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, 6:12 p.m.

When we encountered our cold snap in the middle of the month, I got to wondering about the homeless man who is always against a traffic signal control box in Oakland, at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Atwood Street. I see him each morning when I drive into the city.

He has been there for at least four or five years.

Thinking of him and other homeless people brought back memories of Lansberry.

I worked “downtown” from 1974 to 1991 and became familiar with some people who live on the street. Robert Lansberry had been a businessman, owning two grocery stores. In 1971 he became convinced that he was the subject of a mind control project, dating to his service in the Navy during the Korean War.

He was convinced the CIA was communicating to him via the silent radio in his head. He later left his home and began living on the streets.

When he was interviewed for a 1979 newspaper article, he was living under the Second Avenue ramp from the Parkway East.

Lansberry became so well-known that he received votes in a primary election for County Clerk of Courts. Following his defeat, his sign read “The Election was fixed!” When he died, in 1999, his ashes were interred in the military cemetery at Indiantown Gap.

Another man I recall was a gentleman from McKeesport who had a grudge against the United Steel Workers. One of my co-workers at Dravo rode the same commuter train into town and back each day.

He reported that this man followed the same schedule and that he spent his day parading up and down Grant Street with a sign recording his complaints.

Another person I recall was a middle-aged lady who was convinced she had had a vision warning her of an apocalypse and telling her to warn everyone she knew about this danger. I recall seeing her on Liberty Avenue. I later learned she lived in Ross.

One day in 1962, her husband reported that she had not come home from her daily trip into the city to warn the citizens that “The end is near,” She was never heard of again.

On a more pleasant note, one must not forget Vic Cianca, the dancing traffic cop. I used to see him performing Downtown, in front of our building, One Oliver Plaza. He was always impeccably dressed, with sparkling white gloves. It was a treat to see him orchestrate the passage of pedestrians and vehicles at rush hour.

Cianca achieved national fame with his appearance in the movie “Flashdance” and in television exposure with Johnny Carson, Allen Funt and Charles Kuralt. He even appeared as a guest conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony.

I remember seeing him directing traffic at the A&P in Bridgeville well after he retired from the Pittsburgh police force.

I certainly enjoyed wandering around Downtown during lunch hour in those days.

The only time we get there now is on our occasional visits to the symphony. I am no longer comfortable walking around downtown, probably because I am so much older. Nonetheless, I wish I would occasionally see a policeman on foot, especially if he were as entertaining as Vic Cianca.

John Oyler is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or

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