Donora had already lost its major industry and was flat broke and in debt about the time John “Chummy” Lignelli decided to get into local politics nearly four decades ago.
“Let me tell you how broke we were,” said Lignelli, 91, who is running unopposed for another four years in the borough mayor’s office in this year’s election.
The local police department was down to one cruiser when, Lignelli said, he got a call one night in the late 1970s from an officer stating the police car had broken down. He responded by selling raffle tickets to raise money to purchase a used car for the police department.
“We ran that car without a decal. One night it broke down,” said Lignelli, who told police to retrieve his personal car to use for patrols.
The borough bounced back by selling and mining coal it owned and then obtaining grants to expand utilities for the construction of new homes over the mined property.
“For a time we gave up our salaries,” said Lignelli, whose take-home pay as mayor stands at $71 a month.
“This goes to show you when you have a problem, you just don’t throw up your hands. As mayor, I don’t have a vote unless it’s to break a tie, but I have a voice.”
Lignelli worked as a steelworker at U.S. Steel’s Donora Works until it was shuttered about 1960. He was transferred to the company’s Christy Park plant in McKeesport, where he was quickly elected to the position of union grievance man. He entered Donora politics when a former mayor asked him to fill a vacant seat on council in 1977, and, for him, there would be no looking back. He served 15 years as council president before becoming mayor and is believed to be one of the oldest sitting mayors in the United States.
“I think age depends, and for everyone it’s different,” said Donora Council President Karen Polkabla, who has served with Lignelli for 25 years. “Some people could be 100 and still active and able to perform. This is Chummy’s life. It keeps him strong.”
And some 25-year-olds could find it difficult to keep up with this mayor.
He rises each day between 4 and 4:30 a.m. and is out of his apartment two hours later to volunteer at the Meals on Wheels program’s central kitchen in the borough. He then stops by the mayor’s office before going to work for Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services Inc. driving a minibus to transport people with special needs in Donora to their services in Charleroi.
He returns to the mayor’s office by 2:30 p.m. to finish his daily business unless he has a meeting on his agenda, which could be the Washington County Housing Authority, where he serves as chairman. This all takes place between the times when he is selected to receive yet another honor for community service. Yes, he even rings the bell to attract donations every Christmas season for the Salvation Army.
“I cannot think of any plaque that I do not have,” he said.
He received one of them after raising $24,000 to save the struggling local American Legion post in 2006, when its building was for sale and Donora was faced with having to cancel its duties to host the Washington County Veterans Day parade.
“We had a hell of a nice parade,” Lignelli said.
He said he’s lost count of the number of new furnaces he found money to purchase and install for people in need, even if they live outside of the borough.
Even when he worked in the steel mills, he was always finding summer jobs there for poor young men, including Ken Griffey Sr. before he became a famous major league baseball player.
“I used to say to him, ‘Don’t forget you brown-bagged it once in your life.’”
Each Christmas, he raises $7,000 for the Donora Library by selling large jars of cashews.
“I don’t sell one jar at a time. I have one customer in McKeesport who buys 40 cases.”
The challenges faced by Donora today remain as serious as they were when Lignelli entered local politics.
While the borough’s finances are solvent, he said, local businesses complain about less traffic attributed to the closing of the century-old Donora-Webster Bridge, which has been scheduled for implosion in 2014 without being replaced. The borough has to deal with abandoned and blighted properties and the closings of the last two bank branches in town. Its population in the 2010 census was 4,910, showing a loss of 743 residents over the past decade.
“I think eventually we will get another bank,” he said. “There is always a project.”