The same night Stan Musial died in St. Louis, an old friend died near Donora.
Veronica Duda, 98, was the strong and talented widow of Dr. Michael Duda, Musial’s mentor at Donora High, now long amalgamated into a district school.
The Dudas, young and childless at the time, took to the shy athletic kid from one of the poorest families in the mill town. Musial had the slightest bit of a stutter from being made to write right-handed, as was the fashion back then. Musial was not a scholar, but he could play basketball and baseball. Michael Duda, known as Ki (he used to portray the Kaiser of Germany in childhood games), started a high-school team, partially to give the boy a chance to play spring baseball.
Verne Duda was a trained violinist who had cut back on her performing to follow her academic husband a few miles from Latrobe to Donora. Teachers were treated with great respect in this community of newly-arrived ethnics. As hard as Donora was, people looked after each other.
Musial had an instinct for finding role models – a man with an auto dealership who taught Musial how to carry himself; the basketball coach who taught them citizenship; a mill worker who ran the town baseball team and one day let the skinny batboy pitch.
On Halloween evening in 1948, when Musial was already a star in St. Louis, Verne Duda was a queen of the parade, right down the busy main street of Donora. She noticed the normal bad air was getting worse but continued to toss apples and candy to the crowd – until news came that people were falling, and dying. It was the start of the Donora Smog that killed 18 people right away, not counting Lukasz Musial, who was taken to St. Louis, where he died in late December.
Michael Duda became the president of the state college branch at nearby California, Pa. He was beloved, and died way too young. Verne remained friendly with Musial’s mother Mary -- went with her to Hollywood when Stan was honored on “This Is Your Life.”
I caught up with Mrs. Duda a few years ago in a retirement apartment on campus. She was in a wheelchair and her eyesight was going, and she had misplaced some documents about her husband and their prize protégé. She did not lack for opinions, but her main one was pride in the boy from town who made his way in the world.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.