We’re working to collect and share 100 oral histories of the common folks who made Pittsburgh what it is. As the South Side Market House celebrates its 100th anniversary, we’re celebrating the seniors who go there for community and activities. Here’s the kind of story we hope to share…
To hear 80-year-old Roberta Smith describe what made her one of South Pittsburgh’s most prominent female leaders is to learn the value of public education, public housing, lifelong connections to a community, and perseverance.
Mrs. Smith, who’s now retired, was the first female owner of The South Pittsburgh Reporter, the first female president of the Brashear Association community organization, and the first female head of the South Side Chamber of Commerce. She’s lived her entire life in South Pittsburgh, primarily in Mt. Oliver.
Mrs. Smith dates the start of her writing career back to third grade, when she was known as Roberta Johnson. She attended Hillsdale Elementary School in Dormont.
“The teacher asked us to write the obligatory ‘What I did on my summer vacation…’ And I had been to visit my sister in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The teacher read the essay. She liked it. She read it to the class and she said ‘Miss Johnson has a talent for paragraph writing.’ And that kind of set me off,” Mrs. Smith says. “Through the years, I was editor of my school paper and the Junior Achievement paper. I entered contests all over the place and with one of them I won a Senatorial scholarship to Pitt.”
But the University of Pittsburgh scholarship was only for half the tuition and that caused a bit of a conflict in the family. Mrs. Smith’s mother, who herself only had a third grade education, was reluctant about her daughter attending.
“She’s going to get married someday and we’ll have wasted all this money,” Roberta Smith recalls her mother saying.
Her father, though, who was a printer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, championed his daughter’s aspirations.
“My dad’s attitude was: ‘What you learn, nobody can ever take away from you,'” she says.
Dad and daughter won out. Mrs. Smith did go to Pitt and became the first in her family to get a college education. She didn’t graduate quickly, though– Ms. Smith did, as her mother predicted, get married.
That marriage to Bill began with what was essentially a long-distance dating relationship-only her suitor lived less than ten miles away, in the North Side. The two communicated only by phone for over a year and finally met only after he’d gone overseas for military duty and then returned on leave.
“We lived above the South Hills trolley junction,” Mrs. Smith says. “I can remember him getting off that streetcar and there was this handsome red-headed guy in uniform.”
She was smitten. Still, it took years and a break-up before the two married and had four children. Which meant she would finish her degree in night school about 20 years after she began?
“I took probably two courses a semester,” Mrs. Smith says. “I wanted to do it for my dad.”
By the time she graduated in 1970, her father had died. But as soon she had her degree in hand, she visited her father’s gravesite with it. As she told this story recently, 40-plus years later, it still brought a few tears to her eyes.
The Pitt education served Mrs. Smith well, and in turn allowed her to serve the community. One of her early jobs was working in a reader contest department for the Post-Gazette. She also worked in Head Start education with three- and four-year-old children.
But what really pushed her career along, she says, was moving into a public housing site, St. Clair Village, when Bill lost his job. Mrs. Smith got involved in advocacy at the complex.
“I went from St. Clair Village to the South Side Community Council,” she says. “I wrote articles about their activities. It came to a point where the (South Pittsburgh Reporter) editor would call me at home to ask for stories.”
Mrs. Smith got to know The Reporter’s business manager at the time, and before long, the company wanted to pass on the paper to her.
“Writing,” she says, “has been very good to me.”
For just a dollar, the previous owner of The South Pittsburgh Reporter, Typecraft Press, which was printing the paper, sold it to Mrs. Smith.
“And he was supposed to charge me $10 after the first year,” Smith says. “At a dinner, I tried to give him the $10 and he wouldn’t take it.”
Asked why she took on the responsibility, she shares matter-of-factly, “I had this education I wasn’t using. It wasn’t enough for me to just be a wife and mother and housekeeper.”
It was a time when a number of community papers were thriving around Pittsburgh, Smith says. She believes what allowed The Reporter to thrive while other papers like it failed is that she lived in the community her entire life.
Plus, she says of her former staff, “We weren’t that concerned with making big salaries. We only had three employees at the most.”
One of those employees was Mrs. Smith’s son, Tom, who went to what’s now Point Park University to study journalism.
“I told him he could come as an intern, but I didn’t want him there for the rest of his life,” she says. “I didn’t think he ever would make enough money to support a family.”
But when she was 65, she retired and turned over the paper to Tom, who continues working today as its editor and publisher, and has also maintained community involvement like his mother with the Brashear Association, Hilltop Alliance, and other groups.
Roberta Smith says she sees the value of The Reporter and other small community papers as not unlike church bulletins.
“But not everybody goes to church,” she says. “I always felt like I was providing a kind of unique service. If someone is going to open a nudie bar next to their supermarket …. I liked being able to provide people with that kind of information. And you make a lot of friends and you make some enemies too.”
Mostly, though, Mrs. Smith says the friendships kept her in the business, she says-“from high-ranking public officials to people who worked in their organizations.”
One of those officials is Magisterial District Judge Gene Ricciardi. He says Smith not only shepherded south Pittsburgh’s development, but closely mentored people like him. He recalls a time when he was the sole opponent in a prominent vote in his first week as a city councilman.
Mrs. Smith, he says, “was able to pick people up, brush them off, and send them back into the game. I remember her saying, ‘Did you believe in that vote? Was it based in principle? Then what’s wrong?’ That meant a lot to me.”
But, Mr. Ricciardi says that in Mrs. Smith’s writing, or in person, she wasn’t afraid to take people on herself if a position seemed wrong-headed.
“If Roberta believed that someone had a hidden agenda,” he says, “watch out, because she would actually take you on head-to-head.”
For that honesty, Mr. Ricciardi says, “We really consider her an icon south of the rivers,” Her whole goal was the betterment of our neighborhood, of our communities. I think the respect she garnered was never for herself. Everything was driven to make things better south of the rivers.”
This article was first published in The South Pittsburgh Reporter.