Jo Ann Salopek's picture will never appear on a Wheaties box, but to the hundreds of South Siders whose lives she touched during nearly 40 years of community concern, she was a true champion.
Mrs. Salopek, 69, died of a stroke Dec. 3 after a year-long battle with cancer.
A second generation life-long South Sider, she began her years of public service in the mid-‘60s, helping Jane Street neighbors of the United Dairy Farms milk processing plant overcome antiquated city zoning laws. These regulations allowed a full-blown industrial concern to disturb the otherwise tranquil residential neighborhood.
It wasn't a popular cause. The farmers' co-op provided dairy products at lower-than-commercial prices. But neighbors who had to contend with before-dawn tank truck deliveries, vermin drawn by spilled milk and the clanking of the milk bottling processes were more important to Jo Ann. It took years of working with public health officials and building inspectors, but with her help, the neighbors won and the dairy relocated to a more appropriate suburban industrial complex.
In the early ‘70s, Mrs. Salopek played a major role in trying to persuade city council to choose a South Side site (where Station Square is now) for the then-proposed Pittsburgh convention center. Although the Mon Plaza site backers hired a public relations firm, it was Jo Ann Salopek, working with local residents and businesspeople, who organized radio and television appearances, press conferences and print coverage for the campaign.
In the end, political decision makers chose the Strip district site where the center now stands, but Jo Ann gained public relations experience she would continue to use for the next 30 years.
“Whatever was best for the neighborhood, that's what she wanted,” said her longtime friend and community partner, Kitty Hitz.
Nowhere was this philosophy more evident than in her relationship with The South Side Hospital. The old medical facility was directly across the street from her 20th Street home. She was well-known to hospital administrators for her efforts to keep the hospital a good neighbor when it came to parking problems, waste management and noisy deliveries.
Nevertheless, when the Health Systems Agency threatened to close the facility in the 1970s, it was Jo Ann, working with a small group of residents, who coordinated a massive postcard campaign and brought a bus load of people to the HSA board meeting in Monroeville.
“Please, no more postcards,” pleaded the HSA chairman, and the hospital stayed open. The greater benefit of maintaining a hospital in the community outweighed the not insurmountable localized complaints.
“We managed to get into some trouble together,” said Mrs. Hitz of her community activities with her friend, “but [our projects] almost always ended happily.”
Recalling some of those activities, Mrs Hitz lists numerous testimonies before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on behalf of residents' interests; active participation in South Side Community Council programs, South Side festivals and parades. “Most of all, we enjoyed the Christmas activities: delivering tiny live Christmas trees to senior citizens for the council and warm winter clothes and toys, purchased by the 17th Ward Democratic Committee, to some of South Side's neediest families on Christmas Eve,” she recalled.
Both women were 17th Ward Democratic officers. Mrs. Hitz was (and still is) secretary and Jo Ann vice chair and in her final year, ward chairperson.
“We worked well together,” Mrs. Hitz said. “Because she had a job (most recently in the city controller's office) and I didn't, I could be on the streets in the daytime to learn what people were thinking, then feed it to her for follow up.”
South Side Chamber of Commerce president Bruce Kraus said he met Jo Ann about two years ago. “As a resident and a businessman, I was concerned about the plans to close the Zone 3 police station,” he recalls. While canvassing the neighborhood to gain support for keeping the station open, again and again he was referred to Mrs. Salopek.
“I met her and discovered she was already working to preserve the station,” he said. He learned his new friend had been through a similar threat to close the station a dozen years before, and helped to save it then. She'd also worked with Police Explorer Post 777 when her now grown sons were teenagers, and the old No. 7 Police Citizens Council to improve community relations and sponsor an annual recognition dinner for outstanding officers.
“I did the leg work, and she used her political contacts and helped mount an e-mail campaign that helped to save the station,” Kraus remembers.
In 2003, the SSC of C named Jo Ann Salopek its Person of the Year and “no one deserved it more,” the organization president said.
Kraus credits Mrs. Salopek with helping to relocate a traffic hazardous bus stop to its original site across Sarah Street at 18th, and with helping to prevent the loss of a residential property for the expansion of a convenience store near the same corner.
He also gives her credit for kindling his interest in becoming active with the chamber. Through her friend, former organization president Penny Folino, Jo Ann was named to the chamber board and chaired the Community Relations Committee. Kraus became her co-chair.
It was Jo Ann's final community project that helped to ease her pain during her final days, Kraus believes. “Jo Ann spearheaded the chamber's involvement in organizing an annual craft show once coordinated by the Market House seniors,” he said.
“It was her baby. She was long a part of it because of her home-based business, ‘Creations by Jo Ann'.” The chamber took over the show when the seniors couldn't manage it any more, about three years ago. “Last year, we had 23 vendors. This year, when we moved the show to the IBEW hall where we had more parking, we had more than 60.”
“Although she was too ill to visit the show, we made a video for her and all the vendors sent get well wishes,” he said.
She never got to see the tape, but Kraus gave it to her son, Mark, as a memento of his mother's final work.
“She was my mentor and my friend,” Kraus said. “She had a wealth of knowledge and information. Before I met her, I didn't comprehend the difference one voice could make.”
Jo Ann Salopek is survived by her sons Mark (Louann) and Michael (Ellen) and three grandchildren, as well as her sisters Elsie Moorman, Merry Lou Stofesky and Maggie Palmer. Final arrangements were by the Thomas J. Gmiter Funeral Home, with a Mass at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery.