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Obituary Stories

Brookline man spent life caring for animals, Pittburgh zoo

Tony LaRussa
| Wednesday, June 14, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Mr. Pete Schepis and Slapshot, an emperor penguins that appeared at Pittsburgh Penguins games at the Civic Arena. Together they were known as Penguin Pete and Slapshot.
Mr. Pete Schepis and Slapshot, an emperor penguins that appeared at Pittsburgh Penguins games at the Civic Arena. Together they were known as Penguin Pete and Slapshot.
Mr. Pete Schepis with a dolphin.
Mr. Pete Schepis with a dolphin.
Mr. Pete Schepis on the set of Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood.
Mr. Pete Schepis on the set of Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood.

Pete Schepis was never the kind of guy to fuss over animals.

But as the longtime supervisor of grounds and buildings for the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, he took great pride in providing shelter for all creatures.

Peter P.J. Schepis of Sharpsburg died on Monday, June 12, 2017, from Parkinson's disease. He was 83.

A native of Brookline, Mr. Schepis began working at the zoo in 1968 as an animal keeper.

A year later, he became part of the between-period entertainment for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club by escorting team mascot Slapshot — an Emperor penguin — across the ice of the old Civic Arena.

“My sister and I had a blast once we got to the arena, but we hated driving to and from the games with that smelly penguin in the back of my dad's station wagon,” said Mr. Schepis' daughter, Becki Schepis of Ohio Township.

It was the third season for the fledgling franchise and the first year the team made the playoffs. Penguin Pete and Slapshot were fixtures at every home game through 1975.

Mr. Schepis also regularly transported animals, including horses, donkeys, a llama and a baby elephant, to WQED studios for appearances on “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.”

During the 1970s, visitors to the zoo who happened to be viewing the gorilla exhibit when Mr. Schepis was passing by would be treated to brief demonstrations.

“George (the gorilla) would spot my dad coming up the walkway and stare and follow his every move as he moved through the crowd,” said Mr. Schepis' daughter, Bobbi Gross of Sharpsburg. “When they were face-to-face, George mimicked my dad when he crossed his arms.

“Then when my dad moved the cigar he chewed on from one side of his mouth to the other, George would follow him using a piece of rubber hose or one of the biscuits they gave him for snacks,” Gross said.

George died in 1979 and is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh .

In the 1980s, Mr. Schepis was instrumental in implementing the zoo's master renovation and construction plan to create more natural exhibits including the Asian Forest, African Savanna, Tropical Forest and the Children's Zoo.

During his 31-year career, Mr. Schepis traveled to the Florida Keys to acquire sharks, Mississippi for dolphins and Kenya to learn about maintaining African animal habitats.

Mr. Schepis was an avid hunter and fisherman and enjoyed boating and camping. In retirement, he used the woodworking skills he learned at the former South Side High School, where he played football and studied cabinet making, to create detailed bird houses.

Mr. Schepis was preceded in death by a brother. He is survived by his wife Carolyn (Gigante) and four daughters, Betsy (Tony) LaRussa, Becki Schepis, Bobbie (Ron) Gross and Barbara (Kevin) Bick. He also is survived by 10 grandchildren and a number of nieces and nephews.

Friends will be received on Friday, June 16, from 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. at Worrell Funeral Home, 820 Main St., Sharpsburg.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at St. Juan Diego Parish's St. Mary building in Sharpsburg.

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-772-6368, or via Twitter @TonyLaRussaTrib.

Editor's note: The author is the son-in-law of Mr. Schepis.

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