A Tribute to Ivan Cole
by Mike Silverstein
His name on Behind the Steel Curtain was Rick(VA), and he was a regular contributor. Mine was HomerJ, and so was I. We were both rock solid Steeler fans.
He was from the East End of Pittsburgh. And so was I.
We were both living in the DC area, and we decided to take in a Steeler game together at one of the many Steeler bars in the area.
It turned out we grew up in the same general area at about the same time, that his brother was a classmate of mine, and many of his closest friends in the DC area were high school friends and classmates of mine. Some of us had been friends since grade school. There was a strong connection.
Ivan and I grew up during the time of the great Civil Rights movement, when there was so much hope. Ivan, the introspective football player, navigating his way through high school and college as a black kid, seeking new opportunities. For me, the world brought opportunities my parents never had. Both of us had done relatively well professionally,
And now, forty-some years later, we were able to reflect on our lives – the parallels and the differences, how race, class, and so many other factors came into play. And, from day one, we felt comfortable talking about these things with a liberating sense of honesty.
Ours was a deep and abiding friendship, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were the river that ran through it.
Even before we met at that Steelers’ bar, we knew from one others’ writings that we shared the values that are the hallmarks of Rooney U: hard work, loyalty, acceptance, dedication, teamwork, and using the platform of sports for the greater good.
We both loved the stories of Ray Kemp and Bill Nunn and Mike Tomlin and Lowell Perry. And how the Chief had been part-owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. And Ivan had gone to Temple and played football with Randy Grossman. Equality and breaking down barriers was important to both of us, and was a recurring theme of our years.
We would meet Sundays at Steeler bars on Capitol Hill, Crystal City, Landover, Fairfax, and wherever—to take notes, compare notes, cheer, swear, and curse Al Riveron to hell. We didn’t like that Vontaze guy either.
We would go to Steeler watch parties and watch playoffs together at other folks’ homes.
We would bounce ideas off one another and proof-read stuff before submitting it.
During the off-season or whenever, we would see stuff on the web and forward it to each other.
We only attended one Steeler game – a pre-season contest at FedEx Field or whatever it was called at the time.
But Sunday afternoons, half a dozen of us from the area would find a place to gather and watch the Steelers, down a bacon cheeseburger and a beer or some iced tea, before heading home.
Ivan and I made an annual habit of heading up to Latrobe to visit Steeler training camp. The first couple of years, it would be a day trip from DC on a weekday.
More recently, we decided to do Friday Night Lights, the one Friday that the Steelers practice under the lights at Latrobe High School Stadium.
We’d drive up Friday morning, take in the night practice, stay in a motel, watch the Saturday afternoon practice at St. Vincent, and then head back.
Our last trip was August, 2019.
We’d rendezvous, as we always did, in the parking lot at Montgomery Mall outside DC, where Ivan dropped off his car, and then headed off in my Honda Accord on our three hour, 180 mile journey to Greater Latrobe Senior High School.
I loved our road trips, because we talked history and sociology, politics and race, and did so with complete honesty and trust.
Our conversations were deep, often with periods of silence, when we were both in thought.
As we headed west on I-70 in Maryland, we talked about the great contradictions that are our nation and our people. That a nation in many places built on slave labor could elect a black man President. And how there were a thousand contradictions like that in our past and present.
“Nothing is ever as good as it seems,” I said. “And nothing is ever as bad as it seems.”
We had planned our weekend, and would be meeting Rebecca, who lives in Squirrel Hill, at practice in Latrobe. We would be staying at a Residence Inn in Monroeville (everything near Latrobe was sold out) and would have breakfast Saturday morning in Squirrel Hill with Rebecca.
Ivan started talking about Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood he always loved.
“As a black kid,” he said, “I always felt safe in Squirrel Hill. Sometimes safer than I felt in Homewood.”
He then referred to a New York Times article by an African-American former Pittsburgher who wrote that Squirrel Hill was exactly the kind of place a white nationalist would target because it was so diverse and so accepting. It was the kind of place that haters would hate.
A peaceful place that became a killing field, he said. The kind of contradiction that is America.
I then told him how, on the day that my family’s synagogue became that killing field, I was at a college football game in Youngstown, watching an openly gay biracial football player breaking barriers. Along with Jake’s family, I was welcomed before the game into YSU President Jim Tressel’s private box. And two hours later, as we sat in the stands, Jake’s mom broke the news to me that there had been a mass shooting in Pittsburgh. She asked if I knew anything about Tree of Life, and I said my grandpa had become a member in 1882.
“Contradiction,” Ivan said. “your friend breaking down barriers, and yet hate comes back and people die on the same day.”
We talked, listened to XM on the radio, stopped for a late lunch at the Eat ‘n Park on Route 30 in Latrobe, and then headed to the high school for the Steelerfest that preceded the Friday night practice.
Ivan and I ran into Jon Kolb at Steelerfest. First met Jon 47 years ago. Blonde haired kid from Ponca City, OK, graduate of Oklahoma State University, offensive lineman for the Steelers, and would soon finish fourth in one of those televised World’s Strongest Man competitions. I covered the Steelers back then, but didn’t think this cowboy Adonis and I had much in common, to be honest. Oh, was I wrong!
Jon played for 11 years, and was an assistant coach for another 11. During that time, he picked up advanced degrees in Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Therapy, and opened up a rehab center for seniors with hip and knee problems, for wounded vets, and for injured athletes. He’s been deeply involved in charity work in the Pittsburgh area, and he teaches at a nearby state University.
Friday afternoon, Ivan and I introduced Jon to our friend Rebecca, who headed up the Pittsburgh Camerata, and we got into a discussion of how Jon’s kids got him and his wife into opera, and his favorites. So this cowboy brute is not only into the healing arts, but also the performing arts.
An hour after our conversation, Jon spied us going into the grandstand to watch practice, and he came up to us to let us in on a deep, dark secret.
“I might love opera, but I can’t sing. In my very first elementary school Christmas pageant, I was a sheep. Everybody else had a singing role, but I couldn’t sing a note, so they had me just stand there and play the sheep.”
We all have our secrets, but I never would have guessed there was a sheep in Kowboy Kolb’s closet! Four Super Bowl rings, and a remarkable guy!
Practice was the usual three-ring circus, hard to follow, but there were flashes of excellence. Much of the time was spent looking at the roster sheet, trying to figure out who was who.
When it was over, we headed to Monroeville, for a good night’s rest.
Had breakfast Saturday at Pamela’s on Murray Avenue amid the joy and diversity of the Squirrel Hill that I love. For nearly 40 years, Pam and Gail have been cooking up Pittsburgh’s best breakfast, and the Obama’s even invited them to the White House, so wonderful are their crepe-style hotcakes.
A trio consisting of two well-groomed young gay men and their girlfriend sat across from us. At the table next to them was a Jewish family, who pointed out pictures on the wall of high school friends and summer camps of years gone by. There were black families and interracial groups. Members of one African-American family, waiting in line for a table, wore “Stronger than Hate” T-shirts. The vibe, like the young gay man sitting across from us, was fabulous.
Pamela’s is one block from the church Fred Rogers attended, three blocks from Rebecca’s home, and maybe ten blocks from the Tree of Life Synagogue, where I was Bar Mitzvah.
After a great breakfast with Rebecca, we said goodbye to her. Ivan and I headed to the Steelers training came in Latrobe. But on the way, we stopped at Unity Cemetery, to pay respects at the grave of our spiritual mentor Fred Rogers. It’s only two miles away, down a winding road.
At Steeler practice, we saw dozens of fans wearing “Stronger than Hate” t-shirts. The sun was shining. The wind was gentle. The Steelers were practicing among the green hills of Westmoreland County. All was right with the world.
Heading back to DC after practice, Ivan checked his phone and told me the terrible news of a mass shooting in El Paso. I can’t adequately express the depth of sadness and fear that I felt for my country. Words fail.
The very contradictions that we had talked about for two days had struck us once again. And our conversation turned again to our spiritual mentor, Fred Rogers.
We both thought of “the helpers.” Fred Rogers told children that at frightening and terrible times, it is good to look for the helpers, because there are always people willing to help.
And then it dawned on us that we can’t all look for the helpers. Some of us have to take on the responsibility of being one of the helpers. That we were the ones who had to be of help. We were the ones who needed to reach out and comfort others and speak out, even if we were broken and afraid.
We had to set the example. We had to be the example.
Ivan was a remarkably kind and wise man. He knew the contradictions of life, and was determined that his life would be a triumph of hope and achievement over pessimism and experience.
His moral compass was unfailing, and love that he had for his family and friends, especially for his daughter Christine, was whole and complete.
The Cole Family Christmas Party was a highlight of the holiday season. Ivan’s wonderful family, both his biological family and his logical family, would gather at the Reston Rec Center for endless portions of Italian food and conversation and music and line dancing and smiles and laughs and more conversation.
Half a dozen of us from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh would get together at one table and spend hours reminiscing, catching up, and talking. Fifty and sixty years ago, we were kids together, long before society had tried to teach us to hate. I can’t fully describe how much it meant to me to reconnect with my guys. Of the many gifts Ivan gave us, this one means the most to me. Our talks were often about race, completely honest, and non-judgmental. Truth, honesty, and acceptance across the racial divide are rare Christmas gifts, indeed. We all learned so much from one another.
I always had trouble finding the Reston Rec Center, so, after making a wrong turn on my way to December’s party, I called Ivan for directions. He straightened me out.
The Peabody gang arrived early (and stayed late, as always) and we spent the night in conversation. Ivan didn’t make it to the party, and Christine mentioned that he had just taken a fall and needed to be checked out at the hospital. We assumed it was a bump or a bruise.
It turned out he had broken his tail bone, and needed surgery.
The recuperation brought complications, bedsores and a terrible infection.
The infection meant additional surgeries.
For four months, Christine watched over her Dad and cared for him in his infirmity, just as lovingly as he had cared for her as a child. Friends came to visit, both at the hospital and at the rehab center. Rebecca flew down twice from Pittsburgh.
Then, with COVID-19 spreading, with hospitals and nursing homes in lockdown, Ivan’s last days were in isolation.
We would speak by phone, and I called him three days before he died.
He was alert, but tired, and his voice was weak.
As we were about to say good-bye for the last time, I told him once again what I told him the last time I saw him at the rehabilitation center. That he had meant so much to me. That our friendship had enriched our lives. That he had made me a better person. That I loved him very much. And that I would never forget him.
And so I will carry on rooting for our Steelers, as much as I will miss him, because Ivan will want me to do so. And he will be watching over me, or be at my side.
Here we go, Steelers. Here we go.
Good-bye, dear friend.