One Big Heart: Memorial Day 2019

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

Someone really loved Jordan Celovsky a lot; you can tell by the heart that’s been left behind. Attached to an otherwise nondescript stretch of highway guard rail is the most elaborate, and perhaps beautiful, model of a human heart we’ve ever come across.

The memorial sculpture–I think that’s the right term–is several feet wide, covered in rough burlap and then wrapped in an incredible tangle of green leaves and beet red roots. If you never made the connection between woodsy flora and coronary arteries before, you’ll never see them as independent again. We could only wish this past Carnegie International had anything either this imaginative or moving.

The 29-year-old Celovsky died two years ago in a head-on collision on Easter Sunday, 2017.[1] In that time, he’s already had three memorials created along Rt. 837. There was a beautiful hand-painted cross + Harley-Davidson stone left at the scene last year. [See our 2018 story Memorial Day: Roadside Crosses for a photo.] Now this heart and an entirely different cross, featuring what seem to be hand prints from the two children he left behind, have appeared back at the same location. [See photo, below.]

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

While this memorial is above-and-beyond in several different measures, it’s certainly not alone. Hopefully everyone has someone who cares about him or her the way that Jordan Celovsky’s loved-ones do. For those who die tragically and prematurely–in car crashes or accidents, suicide or as victims of gun violence–the rest of us hold onto a special kind of survivor’s guilt.

How many times have I driven that very same stretch of Rt. 837 in the Mon Valley? How about where other memorials are found along Ohio River Boulevard, McKeesport Road, or Munhall? Whatever the answer, we all know there’s been ample opportunity to end up with the same fate. It could have been me.

unknown, Strip District

This Memorial Day, we’re continuing with a theme we started one year ago: rounding up and focusing in on these very public, yet intimately personal, remembrances of a departed we’ll never get the chance to meet.

The highway crosses and utility pole collections of stuffed animals have become a kind-of people’s park outside the cold formality of the cemetery; it’s the immediate, this-is-where-it-happened holy ground for a life cut short.

roadside memorial including painted cross, angel statue, inscribed stone, and solar garden light

Jessica Marie Lojak, 10-13-81 – 9-26-10, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

roadside memorial cross for "CB"

CB, 1/21/59-3/27/15, Mon-Fayette Expressway

roadside memorial cross

Nick, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

Eric, Glassport

Jazmere B. Custis, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

roadside memorial made from inscribed wooden planks

Nicholas W. Marino, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

unknown, McDonald

Linda’s Garden, Slickville

unknown, Bellevue

Derek Durand #23, Butler-Freeport Community Trail

road construction warning sign turned into memeorial

unknown (“We love U (?) … R.I.P.”), Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

It would be an incredible oversight to let the day go by without a mention of the lives lost in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Unlike, say, traffic fatalities or suicide–which are sadly so common as to not really rate as news–that horrific hate crime has no parallel in modern America.

Back in January, we ran a story on the beautiful collection of handmade Stars of David that appeared throughout Squirrel Hill in the months following the massacre. [See “Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Jan. 13, 2019.] That display is just about as powerful a memorial as we can imagine.

The photo below, though, taken on the Monday morning after the attack at (Tree of Life victim) Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz’s office in Bloomfield, was its own kind of loving memorial. The spontaneous leaving of dozens of flower bouquets outside an office that may have been incapable of opening for the day says as much as the love and respect of this particular departed as anything else.

Office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Bloomfield

Finally, a personal connection. If you regularly walked Centre Avenue near the Giant Eagle you knew Roger. A constant positive spirit and kind soul who spent many of his days camped-out on the pavement, using black Sharpie markers to create goofy-faced pet rocks and elaborate dream worlds on discarded sheets of cardboard.

Working in the area, I got to know Roger a little bit–filling his coin cup now and again, along with buying him the occasional serving of take-out soup or fried chicken from the grocery store. The Orbit’s co-assistant to the mail room intern and spiritual time lord Lee did a lot better than me–regularly hooking Roger up with fresh fruit, cash money, and restocking his marker supply. I wish I’d have done more when I had the chance.

This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help each other get along in this life so we don’t live with any regret when they reach the next one.

R.I.P. Roger, Shadyside


[1] https://archive.triblive.com/local/allegheny/12202259-74/friend-family-remember-lincoln-place-man-killed-in-west-mifflin-crash

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

Memorial Day: Roadside Crosses

roadside memorial cross with Christmas wreathes, West Elizabeth, PA

Mark, 66-02, West Elizabeth

A simple cross. Each spar a length of white PVC pipe a couple feet long with the ends capped and sealed. There is one heavily-sun-bleached Christmas wreath attached to the piece and another lays in the grass just in front. Also at the scene is a small, hand-painted, ceramic angel. Peel-and-stick letters on three ends of the pipe describe only the most basic details: Mark, 66-02.

wooden memorial plaque with flowers for Vincent Lapko, Pittsburgh, PA

Vincent Lapko, Nov-30-1983 – Oct-7-2017, Homestead Grays (neé High Level) Bridge [photo: Lee Floyd]

Years ago, the makeshift memorial was hammered into the grass of a wide berm along Route 837 in West Elizabeth. We pass the cross on every trip down to Donora and Monessen, so it’s become a kind of mile marker in this industrial stretch that includes a number of small factory buildings along with large operations for Eastman Chemical Resins and Marathon Petroleum. The enormous, stories-tall gas reservoirs of the latter form an imposing backdrop to the very human-scaled and personally-tended roadside cross put up for the departed.

roadside memorial cross with fireman's helmet and the text "When I am called to duty", Homestead, PA

firefighter’s memorial, Homestead/Munhall

Memorial Day means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It was created to honor those men and women who’ve died in military service for the country and has morphed into the great long weekend of igniting propane under chicken thighs after deeply-discounted blowout sales at department stores and car dealerships.

While those interpretations of the holiday are all valid, The Orbit finds a profound depth in the very personal and extremely individual work of making and tending these unique tributes that seem to pop up just about anywhere.

roadside cross and wreath with lettering "Ryan 1998-2017"

Ryan, 1998-2017, Rt. 65

There’s a lot we don’t know…and will never know just by randomly passing a roadside cross with someone’s first name. Somewhere out there–for any accident that’s resulted in fatality–there must exist the blunt facts of a police record or newspaper obituary. But even with the clues provided–a firefighter’s helmet, a stone painted with the Harley-Davidson logo, an unexpected location along the bicycle trail–the memorials generate more questions than they answer.

hand-painted roadside memorial cross, state route 837, PA

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

Whatever happened to Mark, Ryan, Jordan, or any of the others remembered in these roadside crosses, it probably wasn’t a happy ending. Their ages–from late teens to mid-thirties–and placement of the crosses (mainly) along busy roadways suggest unexpected, unnatural deaths. These seem likely to be car crash-related, but of course those details are part of what remain a mystery.

The most important unknown, for the vast majority of us, is the character of these people whose lives were cut short on the two-lane blacktop. They were clearly loved and are missed with a reverence we should all be so lucky to have. The Orbit spends a lot of time in the graveyard; very few marble headstones get the loving upkeep of some of these lashed-to-a-guardrail wooden crosses.

wooden memorial cross by bicycle trail

Ronald Vahosky, Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail

iron memorial cross with plastic flowers on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Fazio, 12/21/90-11/13/15, Bloomfield/Lawrenceville

Back to that anonymous roadside in West Elizabeth–graveled and dusty, noisy with truck traffic, and surrounded by the petrochemical industry. It has none of the solemn peace, flowering dogwoods, frolicking deer, or generations-old sculpted beauty of Allegheny or Union Dale Cemeteries. It offers neither the great cross-river views of St. John’s and Loretto nor the rock star lineup at Homewood.

But…this is where it happened. And for the people who loved Mark and Vincent, Ryan and Jordan, these lonely stretches of ex-urban highway seem to have become hallowed ground in a way that may never seem completely appropriate for more pristine, formal burial grounds.

* * *

metal cross attached to iron train trestle, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown, West Liberty Ave.

Roadside crosses, though not obviously memorials, showed up in a couple other places on our travels. These anonymous acts of faith–a metal cross on steel girder (above) and old world painted wood cross on utility pole (below) come with even less to go on.

Do they remember a specific traffic fatality like the more personalized examples above? Or do these crosses have nothing to do with an individual or specific intersection and just represent a quiet-but-public expression of religious belief?

wooden cross attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh

unknown, Lawrenceville

There’s a couple more here, too. This loving, heart-shaped and patio-sized tribute to “mom / grandma / friend” on Route 51 is hard to suss out. Did grandma pass away at this stretch of highway [it’s as likely as anywhere] or did the family just decide to landscape their elaborate memorial in a naked roadside where the greater Coraopolis/Moon Township commuter community could pay their respects? Who knows!

roadside memorial heart with sign

mom / grandma / friend, Rt. 51

Finally, the one that really hits home. We wrote a while back about the ghost bicycle for Susan Hicks in central Oakland and went into a whole spiel about putting our faith in robots. We’ve been fortunate enough that there haven’t been too many other cycling fatalities in the city since then.

One painful exception is Dennis Flanagan, a cyclist who was killed riding on a fast-moving stretch of West Carson Street in 2016. For the ghost bicycle left to mark the spot of Flanagan’s fatal accident, the teddy bears have faded, plastic flowers droop, gears and chain are rusty. But the painted-white bicycle remains, locked to a street sign faithfully reminding passers-by that Dennis Flanagan was here and we all need to look out for each other. That’s what Memorial Day means to me.

ghost bicycle memorial decorated with plastic flowers and stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

ghost bicycle, West End