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UPMC McKeesport Celebrates 125 Years as ‘Cornerstone of the Community’

By Richard Finch Jr.
The Tube City Almanac
April 22, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

UPMC McKeesport hospital physician Richard Bondi, M.D., with a cutout of his late father, Dr. Frank Bondi, at the hospital's 125th Anniversary celebration on Friday. (Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

On a rainy April 19, 1894, a large crowd --- estimated at 1,000 people, according to news reports of the time --- gathered at the McKeesport-Versailles Cemetery for the dedication of McKeesport Hospital.

Due to a light rain last Friday, the 125th anniversary celebration for what is now UPMC McKeesport hospital was moved from the courtyard to the Usman Ahmad, M.D., Memorial Conference Center in the Mansfield Building.

“Today is Good Friday, but it is also a great Friday here at the hospital,” said Mark O’Hern, president of UPMC McKeesport and UPMC East.

According to the Old Home Book, published in 1910, McKeesport Hospital was organized on Dec. 2, 1890 by the McKeesport Board of Trade. Local businessman James Evans was elected the first president of the board of trustees when the hospital opened for business on April 18, 1894.

In the early days of the hospital, the “world was grappling with realities like bubonic plague,” said Carl Kovski, president of the non-profit McKeesport Hospital Foundation.

Kovski said the hospital “trained nurses that would serve and sacrifice in two world wars,” and witnessed new technologies in the coming years that are now considered common medical equipment.

“The hospital witnessed the first use of x-ray equipment in 1895, the invention of the defibrillator in 1927, the first pacemaker in 1958 and the commercialization of the PET scanner in 1976,” he said.

UPMC McKeesport hospital board chair Rebecca McHolme speaks with attendees at the hospital's 125th Anniversary celebration on Friday. (Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

Rebecca McHolme, chairwoman of UPMC McKeesport's board of trustees, said her great-grandfather attended the dedication of the hospital in 1894 and told family members it was a day “of heavy rain and a lot of speeches.”

McHolme, an attorney with McGrail & Associates in White Oak, also serves on the UPMC Quality Patient Care Committee and the board of the McKeesport Hospital Foundation. She said she’s amazed the original hospital was built for $60,000.

“People donated to this institution ever since it's founding, with the support of wealthy philanthropists, as well as the kids who donated their pennies through the build a brick program,” she said.

Mark O'Hern (left) became president of UPMC McKeesport and UPMC East in October 2018. (Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

As a result of the April 1998 merger with UPMC, the hospital gained access to UPMC Health System’s specialists and state-of-the-art intervention and diagnostic capabilities.

The merger allowed the hospital to strengthen its commitment to the community, providing community-focused programs sponsored by the non-profit McKeesport Hospital Foundation, O'Hern said.

Patients have access to 216 beds for acute care patients and 56 beds for patients in need of skilled nursing care. A new emergency room opened in 1999.

UPMC McKeesport physician Dr. Rudolph A. Antoncic Jr. (Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

(Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

Prior to the formation of the hospital foundation in 1976, community involvement was paramount in building and expanding the hospital, speakers said.

McHolme talked about prominent families that donated their time and money over the years, including G.C. Murphy Co. co-founder Walter C. Shaw and his wife Virginia, who helped finance the construction of the Shaw building.

Also generous, she said, was the family of McKeesport Tin Plate Co. founder Edwin R. Crawford. Even after Crawford's death in the 1930s, McHolme said, his widow, Mary, continued the “tradition of giving her time and money to this place, when she died she donated her estate to the hospital.”

The Mansfield family --- longtime publishers of the McKeesport Daily News --- and Evans families also were dedicated to the hospital, she said. “It's an integral part of the McKeesport community, beginning with James Evans donating three acres upon which this hospital was built,” she said.

State Sen. Jim Brewster (Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

O'Hern thanked state Sen. Jim Brewster and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko for their “constant, longtime support of our campus and figuring out ways we can continue to serve our community.”  

Brewster said that one of his concerns right now is combating the widespread opioid addiction crisis. UPMC McKeesport and its physicians, along with PurePenn LLC --- the medical marijuana facility in McKeesport --- are parts of that fight, he said.

Brewster said he and Cherepko are working very hard to keep UPMC McKeesport hospital in the city.

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko presented Mark O'Hern, president of UPMC McKeesport, with a proclamation recognizing the hospital's 125th anniversary. (Richard Finch Jr. photo/special to Tube City Almanac)

“From a personal standpoint, I use this hospital, my family uses this hospital and we've never had anything but first class treatment,” Cherepko said, but acknowledged it is fighting a climate of negativity.

The mayor said he has been working to change the image of McKeesport through infrastructure improvement, reduction of blight through demolition, economic development and public safety improvements.

“Unfortunately, the hospital, the mayor's office, the school district are all in the same boat together with this perception issue,” Cherepko said. 

McHolme called the hospital the “cornerstone of the community.”

“It always has been for the last 125 years, supporting this community and the community supporting it,” she said.

She said she recently spoke with longtime nurse Wendy Riazzi, and “we talked about the tens of thousands of babies born at the Painter Building financed by Robert and Laura Painter, everybody has a story here in McKeesport.”

“Everyone in the community has been somehow connected to this hospital,” she said. “Either they were a patient, had a family member who was a patient or were employed here.”

And everyone in the area is contributing to the hospital’s legacy, McHolme said --- not just the wealthy who have buildings named after them. “My dad was on the board for 29 years and now I'm doing my part,” she said. “We all continue to write new chapters.”

Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at finchr43@gmail.com.

Originally published April 22, 2019.

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