Tom Wills: Grieving with Pittsburgh

Killing at synagogue in Squirrel Hill touched me deeply

Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Before last Saturday, most of you probably never heard of Squirrel Hill unless you are from western Pennsylvania. Tragically, that Pittsburgh neighborhood now joins Littleton, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Charleston, South Carolina, Parkland, Florida, and so many other cities and towns across our country that are forever marred by mass murders of innocent people.

Somehow, when you know personally the locations of these senseless crimes, they touch your heart more deeply. Many of us here in Jacksonville felt that hurt ourselves back in August with the mass shooting of people playing in a video game tournament at the Landing.

As many of you may already know, I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. What I haven’t shared outside of my immediate family are my deep ties to Squirrel Hill. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived there in a three-story house on Marlborough Avenue for most of the years when I was growing up.

There were flower gardens front and back.  My grandmother loved tulips. She always had fresh blooms in a vase on her coffee table. Because my mother and dad were caring for a special needs child, my younger brother Bob, who was born with cerebral palsy, I spent most weekends staying with my grandparents.

I loved those visits. Just one memory: It was on my grandparents' black-and-white TV in 1956 that I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Squirrel Hill was then, just as it is now, a predominantly Jewish community. It was and still is ethnically and religiously diverse. I never heard the word anti-Semitic until I went away to college.

Strange as it may sound, I feel as if I personally knew the victims of the shooting because I met so many people just like them in Squirrel Hill when I was a child and was introduced to their culture.
Some of the victims lived in other nearby Pittsburgh neighborhoods where I also have personal ties. Edgewood -- my grandparents on my dad’s side lived there. Wilkinsburg -- that’s where my dad grew up.

Tree of Life Congregation on Wilkins Avenue is a 10-minute walk from my grandparents' old house. I walked by the synagogue many times on my way to and from the Manor Theater on Murray Avenue. (That same theater where I saw “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” in 1953 is still showing first-run movies.) Now, nothing about that walk will ever be the same.

On a future trip back to my old hometown, I will make that walk again. I will stop at Tree of Life and pray for healing and for the peace that passes all understanding for everyone who is hurting.  

Squirrel Hill with its wonderful, durable old homes, tree-lined streets, the shops on Shady and Murray Avenues and its wonderful people will recover and carry on.

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