At age 82, it is unlikely a keynote speaker at a career fair at Peters Township High School would be of interest to the student audience.
But when the Nov. 21 speaker was well-known forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, who has performed more than 17,000 autopsies and consulted on high-profile cases such as those of JonBenet Ramsey, Elvis Presley, Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Anna Nicole Smith and Nicole Brown Simpson, the students were enthralled.
Wecht, who once served as an Allegheny County commissioner and as the Allegheny County medical examiner twice, is outspoken about his opposition to the Warren Commission report following the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy. He is not a supporter of the single-bullet theory, and he is never one to shy away from telling anyone and everyone who will listen that the pathologists who did the original autopsy “bungled” the procedure. When asked why he believes there was more than one assassin in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Wecht began a dissertation on wound paths and bullet trajectories that left most in the audience lost in the medical language.
However, Wecht was not at the career fair to discuss the Kennedy assassination, even though he would be in Dallas on the 50th anniversary, the very next day. Wecht was the keynote speaker so that he could tell the students about his rather unusual career path that has taken him through medical school, a stint in the military, earning a law degree, and delving into politics, all the while helping his Norway-born wife raise four children.
As an only child of immigrant parents, Wecht was born in Bobtown, Greene County, with the family later moving to Pittsburgh. For as long as he can remember, Wecht said he was groomed by his Russian father and Lithuanian mother to be a doctor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. However, he told the students he was born a generation or two too soon and encouraged those seeking careers to, if needed, let their parents know the ultimate career decision was theirs and not their parents.
He also urged the students not to “bind yourself” rigidly when seeking a career.
“There is nothing worse than being in a field you don’t enjoy,” he said. “People retire if they are not enjoying what they do.”
At age 82, he has no plans to retire.
“What do you do with yourself? How much time can you spend watching television or playing golf?” he asked rhetorically.
His strongest advice: “Don’t allow anyone to tell you what to do” and “There is nothing wrong with changing your mind.”
While business degrees were once the most sought after, engineering has moved to the top of the list, mainly because of the local drilling industry. And, he advised the students, when it comes to the forensic sciences, don’t believe everything you see on television.
While he encouraged everyone to obtain a law degree to broaden the educational scope in whatever field is chosen, Wecht said a medical degree is not something to concentrate on.
“It is not a life-broadening field,” he said.
When deciding on a major in college, Wecht said while many of the fields appear interesting, like philosophy, history and political science, jobs are difficult to find and additional degrees are essential.
“Don’t make up your mind too soon,” he said.
When Wecht was young, he said a basic college degree meant a good job.
“Now, it’s a beginning,” he said. “Your college degree will be your beginning.”
Although Wecht has appeared on countless radio and television programs and has gained notice around the world, his response was simple and given without hesitation when asked of what he was most proud.
“My family,” he said to spontaneous applause from the audience of students young enough to be his grandchildren. Of his four children, Wecht said one son is a state Superior Court judge, another son works with him at the Pittsburgh Institute of Legal Medicine, another son is a neurosurgeon and his only daughter is an obstetrician/gynecologist. His wife earned a law degree.
“The most important thing is your life, your family, happiness and productivity,” Wecht concluded.