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Richard Olasz Remembered

April 16, 2010

Former Notre Dame Football coach, Lou Holtz, wrote in his autobiography, The Fighting Spirit, that only two things will change where you are today to where you are going to be five years from now – the people you meet and the books you read.

I am reminded of what Coach Holtz said following the passing of a good friend – former Pennsylvania State Representative Richard Olasz (D-Allegheny) – who died last week from an accidental fall while watching a little league baseball game in which his grandson was participating.

Richard and I were close political pals – but we were also good personal friends. He was a rare individual who gave comfort to anyone who came to him with a problem or concern.

We met 32 years ago – when we were both running for the state legislature – that first time out I won and he lost.  After the election, he contacted me, and that was the start of a great lasting friendship.

Despite having previously run several good state legislative campaigns -- Richard had not won an election; yet, at our first meeting – he was already plotting his next campaign – determined to run again. I was immediately struck by his determination, and the fact that he would not give up.

Richard went on to win a seat in the legislature two years later – and had a most successful run of 18 years in office – and was re-elected nine times.

While our political paths ultimately took different directions, and we never served together, we stayed in close touch, and helped each other whenever and wherever possible. We often got together in Harrisburg for dinner and a political discussion.

Richard was from the old school, and it was refreshing.  In a world where politicians are often rewarded for thinking alike, Richard spoke his own mind and usually kept his own counsel. He was a man's man, and wasn’t afraid to go against his own political leadership either - when he thought they were in the wrong.

His constituents – along the grime banks of the Monongahela River of his Mon Valley district (a few miles southeast of Pittsburgh) could rely on him no matter if their problem was big or small.

Richard solved problems the old fashioned way – he looked at them as though they were his own – therefore every constituent problem was personal to him, and he was a relentless advocate until the issue was resolved.

He had his detractors – it’s impossible to serve for 18 years without developing a few political enemies. However, no one accused him of not caring, of not giving his all, or not working around the clock for what he thought was right.

Nor did anyone doubt his sincerity, or his passion for his constituents.

Finally, a few years ago, when the political tide turned, Richard was defeated for re-election by a young upstart. The voters always let you know when it’s time, and while the respect and love from his constituents never died, a majority had simply thought it was time for a change.

Richard continued in politics, and was elected to local office, including Councilman in his home town of West Mifflin, a position he held until he passed away last week.

I could go on and on about Richard, his work in the legislature, and the dedication with which he served. It’s suffice to say that he lived a worthwhile life, and he will be sadly missed, as was so acknowledged  by the hundreds who paid tribute, and their respects, at his funeral service.

He often said that if you could count your good friends on one hand, you’ve led a successful life.

Richard could do that, but more so, he was the kind of life-changing person Coach Holtz wrote about in his autobiography, The Fighting Spirit.

A lifelong Notre Dame Football fan, Richard would have loved the association, with Coach Holtz.

Rest in peace, my friend.

(Robb can be reached at