While U.S. Rep. John Murtha made his living as a skilled politician, it was his grit, his work ethic and his heart that most locals wanted to talk about Monday.
“He was like a father to the community. He tried to raise us correctly, with a responsibility to the community and responsibility to fellow man,” said Bill Polacek, president of JWF Industries in Johnstown.
“That is what he represented. He put his country and his district before himself. That will be hard to come by.”
Murtha’s work ethic and dedication was a common theme among those reacting to the news of his death. The breadth and depth of the congressman’s contributions over a 36-year career left some at a loss for words.
“It will take me personally days, if not weeks, to grasp the incredible loss of the congressman, who I knew quite well,” said Istvan Jaray, maestro of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. “We had so many conversations. Words are just not adequate.”
Jaray’s grief was shared by people from all professions.
Outside this area, Murtha’s name was linked mainly to defense spending. But in the Johnstown region, he was known as a passionate booster of many causes.
“He did it all for his community,” said Richard Mayer, former publisher of The Tribune-Democrat. “I’ve never known him to take anything for himself.”
“He was a remarkable guy,” Mayer added.
“Just look around his community, and you see his hand everywhere,”
That includes the Challenge Program, an initiative aimed at boosting student achievement.
“He was the finest mentor that any student or any young person could have,” said Renee Shaw, director of program development.
“He was a giant. Everywhere he went, he left his mark.
“We are so proud that we could be a part of working in his district.”
Murtha’s hand also was felt in the region’s national parks, for which the congressman was a tireless champion, said Joanne Hanley of the National Park Service.
Hanley spoke about “the heart of the man” in gauging Murtha’s influence.
The lawmaker played a big role in helping establish the Southwest Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission more than 20 years ago, which has led to the development
of heritage tourism, Hanley said.
And he was instrumental in the push for a Flight 93 crash-site memorial in Somerset County.
“Mr. Murtha called me a couple of weeks after the (Sept. 11) crash and asked what the park service could do to help,” said Hanley, who is national parks superintendent for western Pennsylvania.
Murtha and county commissioners set up a meeting concerning a memorial in October 2001, Hanley said. And the congressman later introduced legislation to establish a permanent Flight 93 memorial.
“The legislation that Mr. Murtha introduced – it passed unanimously in both houses of Congress in record time,” Hanley said.
Richard Burkert, executive director of Johnstown Area Heritage Association, said Murtha played a huge role in developing history-related sites across the region.
“We owe the Johnstown Flood Museum to the congressman’s support,” Burkert said.
In Cambria Township, supervisors Chairman Robert “Buzzy” Shook said he “cannot even think of who will replace” Murtha.
Along with recreation
projects and other improvements Murtha was instrumental in bringing to the rural township, he also helped
with the Cambria County Industrial Park, where two major military training facilities are located.
“You’re not going to find these things just any time someone is elected,” said Shook, who had just moments before learned of the congressman’s death.
“I don’t know where you’re ever going to find that any-more. Probably not,” Shook said.
“Yes, he was blunt, but I found him to be interested, helpful and cooperative.”
That sense of personal connection was common among those who mourned Murtha’s death Monday.
“He walked the walk, he talked the talk,” longtime Johns-town labor leader Ernie Esposito said. “He’s a man who will always be respected.”
Tribune-Democrat City Editor Arlene Johns and staff writers Susan Evans, Mike Faher, Randy Griffith and Kathy Mellott contributed to this report.