David P. Demarest
The Battle of Homestead Foundation feels heavily the loss of another of it’s Founders and most prolific and effective members in the passing of David P. Demarest (November 9, 1931 – October 15, 2011).
Dave tirelessly advocated for preserving this region’s immigrant culture, industrial heritage and working-class stories. He was captured by Pittsburgh’s hard-scrabble character in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was passionate about its labor history, art, libraries and the remnants of its mills and mines.
Dave’s accomplishments and contributions were both legion and legend. His research on the social novel of Western Pennsylvania led to the publication of From These Hills, From These Valleys, a pioneering anthology, as well as the re-discovery and re-publication in 1976 of Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell, an overlooked novel of the American steel industry that has become an ongoing bestseller for the University of Pittsburgh Press. The book is a must-read for anyone studying the era.
In 1990, he co-produced a video, “Out of This Furnace: A Walking Tour of Thomas Bell’s Novel,” with filmmaker and BHF co-founder Steffi Domike.
Dave’s work to document and preserve industrial landscapes resulted in a book and film (“The River Ran Red”, again with Steffi, and the others we well know) commemorating the centennial of the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the historic restoration of the Pumphouse. He was co-editor of the 1992 volume, “The River Ran Red: Homestead, 1892” and instrumental in forming the Battle of Homestead Foundation to promote the legacy and history of the bloody 1892 labor conflict.
He also founded and promoted the annual “Poetry at the Pumphouse” Forum. He published poems early in his career and loved poetry all his life.
In addition, Dave Demarest was a champion in preserving Maxo Vanka’s unique working class murals in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, mixing images of religion, war, poverty and inequality. He helped raise money for the restoration, and his play about the murals, “Gift to America,” was performed at the church in 1981 and 2008.
“Dave was instrumental in bringing public attention to the murals as one of the world’s great works of art,” says Charles McCollester, longtime friend and colleague.
At an award presentation by WQED-TV, Diane Novosel of St. Nicholas said of Dave, “He wasn’t Croatian, Catholic, or working class, but he had more to do with preserving these murals than anyone else.”
He was an early champion for saving the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock, when it was closed and near total ruin. It was the first Carnegie library in the US built in Braddock, Pennsylvania in 1888.
That interest led him to become founder and longtime editor of the Braddock Fields Historical Society newsletter.
“He really helped the fundraising,” Mr. McCollester said. “A lot of people worked hard to save the library, but it wouldn’t be where it is today without Dave’s constant advocacy.”
Dave Demarest grew up in Englewood, N.J. His father was a commercial photographer and his mother a former high school history teacher.
He graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953, then earned his master’s at the University of Connecticut and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
He taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Manitowoc, then Washington University in St. Louis, joining the faculty at Carnegie Tech in 1964, staying through its transition to Carnegie Mellon. There he was the longtime editor of Focus, the faculty newspaper, often printing pieces by university workers. He retired from the school in 1999.
“The best word to describe David among his students, faculty colleagues, CMU staff, social activists and friends is ‘beloved,’ ” wrote Russell Brignano, a longtime friend.
“He was a familiar and distinctive figure on the CMU campus: mutton chops, informal dress, a cap or baseball-style hat, reading glasses dangling from his shirt pocket, for many years his dog.
With his late friend and colleague Eugene Levy, he walked the region’s hills and valleys tirelessly, leading tours of its industrial heritage and stopping to talk with local residents. He was also an enthusiastic photographer.
“He really appreciated the layers of history, immigrant stories and topography of the city,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Demarest of Washington, D.C. “Our Sunday afternoon ritual was walking 10-12 miles. I’ve hiked up a lot of slag heaps in my life. I still walk to work every day because he taught me the importance of interacting with the landscape.”
Dave Demarest also worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights; championed the rights of African-Americans, Palestinians and death row inmates; and was a member of the Pittsburgh Humanities Council. He was a generous mentor to many of us.
The cause of death was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 79. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Marlene Sherman Demarest of Point Breeze; another daughter, Victoria Demarest of Flourtown, Pa.; a son, James Demarest of Newton, Mass.; a sister, Nancy Widmer of Bernardsville, N.J.; and two grandsons.
Dave is irreplaceable, as is his friend, colleague, and fellow BHF Founder Russ Gibbons, who passed away from us last year. The Foundation moves on with a sense of sadness and loss, and the world is a little poorer.