Brian O'Neill: A gentle soul’s life on the fringe

Joe Regoli’s body was found last Wednesday in his North Side home, his life ending at 69 as it was lived for decades, a bit of a puzzle.

I’d known Joe — nobody called him Mr. Regoli — since the early 1990s. I knew him the way so many Pittsburghers knew him: just a little bit. I’d hail him down on the street or he’d hail me, this big bearded man in old clothes badly in need of a wash. He might suggest a book to read or a story to pursue. If I had my dog on a long walk, he’d worry about Teddy getting enough water, not me.

Joe died of atherosclerosis and his body was decomposing when he was found in the three-bedroom home he’d bought 10 summers ago in Perry South for $10,000. He’d had neither the money nor much interest in keeping the heat on, the water running or the debris cleared.

The man who did not fit smoothly into this world will be buried this morning in a small family ceremony in the Greenwood Memorial Park in New Kensington. Father John Regoli, 81, Joe’s oldest brother, said the family will use Joe’s share of the small inheritance their late mother left in 1993, money Joe would never accept, to bury him, the second youngest of seven children and the first to die.

He’d cut himself off from his family apart from an occasional phone call, but he was friendly to many on the streets of Pittsburgh. Back in 1993, when red pigtails still framed his bearded face, he sought my help when he was trying to stay in a city-owned Hill District rowhouse that he and his big, beloved mixed shepherd had squatted in for years.

It smelled like a supermarket dairy case. Jugs of expired milk, donated by a kind parochial school janitor, lined the walls. They’d gone to curds in the July heat, protein for Joe and his dog. Yet despite that smell and boarded first-floor windows, he’d befriended enough neighbors to become that rarest of all squatters: one with references.

Neighbors on Webster Avenue had written letters of praise to share with city hall, saying Joe was peaceful and an animal lover. Some neighborhood children wrote, “I do not want you to tear down old man Joe’s house because you would [be] terribly concerned about it if someone would tear down your house.”

But the city said it couldn’t be responsible for the danger Joe had put himself in. Down the house came. He found another flop.

Six years later, Joe got in a scuffle one July night in Oakland when a young bearded man in jeans stepped onto a second-story porch where Joe slept with his two shepherds. Joe was arrested when that man he wrestled turned out to be a plainclothes cop. Joe was found guilty of resisting arrest and was sent to the Allegheny County Jail for months.

A friend on the board of the Pittsburgh Zoo quietly let one of his dogs be taken in there, which I recall because Joe would call regularly from jail, concerned that his beloved animal was freaking out amongst wild animals. But the dog was probably more comfortable there than his master was in society.

David Regoli, 51, attorney and a former Westmoreland County Common Pleas judge, is the son of Joe’s first cousin John W. Regoli, a former state legislator. David recalled that, when he was a boy, Joe would visit their house in New Kensington and instruct him and his siblings on the importance of the environment and just being a good kid.

Then Joe disappeared to Pittsburgh. David wouldn’t see him again until he was a law student. He sat down at a computer in the Allegheny County Law Library and a homeless man beside him told him the computer didn’t work.

David immediately recognized the voice. “Joe,” he said, and the man responded, “Which one are you, David or John?” They talked for an hour and Joe would follow David’s career, often showing up in a court hallway before a trial.

“He was a kind soul,” recalled Barb Caprino, a retired clerk for the Superior Court Prothonotary, an office where Joe had once been a front-desk regular. “Just the way he spoke to people.”

He wasn’t a good homeowner, however. The city cited him repeatedly for piling garbage and waste high around his Maple Avenue home, leaving a stench no neighbors could or should bear. The city finally sued and hauled away 20 dump trucks of garbage in September 2014, with a hauling chore repeated this year. Yet full gallons of milk and a pile of empty banana boxes still stood on the front porch Tuesday in front of the door sealed by the county medical examiner.

Joe was found because someone checked on him after he hadn’t shown at a North Side food pantry for a couple of weeks. Friends and family hope he’s finally at peace.

He’d more than once told me I should read the anti-war writings of C.E. Montague, an English journalist who served in World War I. In lieu of flowers, I intend to finally chase those down.

Brian O’Neill: or 412-263-1947 on Twitter @brotheroneill

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