He was described by friends and colleagues as persistent, passionate and flamboyant. And he also was described as a “newspaperman to the bone.”
And that’s the way most people will remember Byron T. Smialek, 69, former sports editor, city editor and columnist with the Observer-Reporter, who died Tuesday, October 8, 2013, in Donnell House, Washington, following a lengthy illness.
“He loved people,” said retired O-R executive editor Park Burroughs, who was hired by Smialek as a sportswriter in 1972. “He wrote more than 1,200 columns and most of them were about the people that he made an effort to meet. Not everybody liked him, but everybody read him,” Burroughs said.
Smialek was born Oct. 11, 1943, in Canonsburg, the fourth of seven children of Blanche and Andrew W. Smialek of Cecil. He was a 1961 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School and a member of the Liberty United Methodist Church, Washington.
He began his newspaper career at the age of 17 as a reporter and sports editor of the Canonsburg Daily Notes. He was a courthouse reporter and feature writer for the Coloradan, Fort Collins, Colo., for two years , and was with the Tribune-Review of Greensburg for four years as general assignment reporter before assuming duties as sports editor of the Observer-Reporter in November 1969.
“He was our celebrity,” said Thomas P. Northrop, publisher of the Observer-Reporter. “He was so well-known and was involved in so many areas.”
Northrop recalled Smialek telling him that writing three columns a week was the hardest nonphysical thing anyone can do.
During his term as sport editor, Smialek greatly expanded the newspaper’s local coverage and began following Pittsburgh collegiate and professional sports. He covered the Pittsburgh Steelers during their domination of the National Football League in the 1970s.
He left the sports department to become a general-interest columnist in 1982. He also covered Washington City Hall and became city editor a few years later. He was appointed senior writer and columnist in 1993, a position he held until his retirement in 2009.
On June 18, 1983, he married Darlene Hackenson McGowan, “The Blonde,” who survives.
Also surviving are two daughters, Kelley McGowan Roos (Dan) of Shaler Township and Courtney McGowan Page (Cody) of Trinity, N.C.; three brothers, Walter of Florida, Daniel of New York and Anthony (Evie) Smialek of California; one sister, Marita Smialek of Cecil Township; two grandchildren, Blake and Amelia Page and several nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by two sisters, Rosalie Lowery and Patrica Foley.
While Smialek may be best known for his journalistic contributions, he also was one of the founders of what became known as the 2000 Turkeys campaign.
Pete Povich of WJPA radio said the campaign was launched in 1982 by Smialek, Grace Hopwood and Wayne Armstrong. “I joined in a year later,” Povich said, “and I vividly remember eight to 10 years later when the food bank gave us an award, Byron said it was the happiest day of his life. It really meant something to him,” he said.
Povich said Smialek was one of those people who was persistent and passionate about the program. “He just wanted to help to feed people. He did not want people to go hungry.”
Keeping with his strong connection to sports, Smialek served as the public address announcer for Washington & Jefferson College football games for more than a decade.
Scott McGuinness, the sports information director at W&J, said, “Byron meant a lot to me. I was 22 years old when I came to the college, and Byron, unsolicited, offered me valuable suggestions on dealing with the media. And he didn’t need to do that.
“You just had to love his personality. He made me laugh, and he took his job as public address announcer, for both football and later, basketball, very seriously.”
McGuinness said when Smialek got sick he felt a void not having him around at the games. “I missed the guy. I thought about him all the time.”
One of Smialek’s proudest achievements came in 2008, when he was named to the Washington–Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame for sports journalism.
Friends will be received from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and from 1 to 3 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in Hummell & Jones Funeral Home, 420 Locust Avenue, Washington, Thomas W. Hummell, supervisor, Douglas M. Jones, funeral director, where services will be held at noon Friday, October 11 with the Rev. Lois Swestyn, officiating. The family suggests memorial contributions be made to Donnell House, Washington Health System Hospice Care, 155 Wilson Avenue, Washington. Messages of condolence may be left online at www.hummellandjones.com.
Retired O-R executive editor Park Burroughs contributed to this obituary.