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Visitor brings steel man tall tale to life for Pine students

| Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ask a elementary school students what they know about Joe Magarac, and they're likely to respond with a puzzled look.

Two generations after the peak of the city's steel industry, Pittsburgh's mythical Hungarian steelworker -- a man made of steel who rose from an ore mine to help steelworkers -- is at risk of fading into obscurity.

"It's a tall tale. It's a tall tale from your heritage. Maybe some of your ancestors worked in the steel mills. They made Pittsburgh," local actor Tim Hartman, 48, told about 400 students from Wexford Elementary in Pine at an assembly Friday.

For more than an hour, Hartman's one-man show painted a picture of a city teeming with immigrants and filled with smoke, soot and rust-colored skies, but awash in profit from the steel industry.

"I loved his facial expressions and how he did all of the parts. I have never seen one person do so many different people," said fifth-grader Katie Graszl, 11, of Pine.

Graszl and schoolmate Maddie Ince, 10, a fourth-grader from Pine, hadn't heard the Magarac story.

"I thought it was funny and interesting. It's a good story," Ince said.

The origins of the Magarac legend are unclear. The tale likely has its roots in the 1890s or early 20th century during the migration of people from Eastern Europe who staffed the mills in Homestead.

Magarac is depicted on paintings at the University of Pittsburgh and in a statue at Kennywood. His likeness is at an elementary school in Rankin and on a Downtown mural.

In its day, the legend moved beyond Pittsburgh, to the Great Lakes steel cities stretching from Buffalo, N.Y., to Wisconsin. Magarac at times has been Czech and Croatian.

Sort of a cross between Paul Bunyan and Superman, Magarac often appeared out of nowhere at critical moments to protect steelworkers. In one story, he appeared to stop a 50-ton crucible from falling on a group of steelworkers.

"Joe Magarac sacrificed everything for his friends," said Hartman, who stands 6 feet, 6 inches tall and has done versions of the Magarac show countless times over 25 years.

As a young man, legend says, Magarac won the beautiful Mary Mestrovich's hand in marriage in a weightlifting contest, but allowed her to marry her true love, Pete Pussick.

His fate is the subject of much debate.

Some say he melted himself in a Bessemer furnace for material to build a mill. Others insist he still lives in an abandoned mill, waiting for the day that the furnace burns again.

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