Bob Vavro might well be the only Pittsburgh barber to be nominated for a state position by the governor, have a garden named after him in a resolution signed by the mayor, earn acceptance into the National Barber Hall of Fame — yes, there really is one — and annually ski the Alps right into his late 80s.
Known to some in the neighborhood where he spent his whole life as the “mayor of Hazelwood,” Robert V. Vavro Sr. followed in his barber father’s footsteps, taking over the family business in the 1950s after completing a stint in the Navy during the Korean War.
But cutting hair for decades along Second Avenue in Hazelwood — Vavro’s was one of roughly a dozen barbershops in the then-bustling community — was perhaps the least of Mr. Vavro’s accomplishments. The father of three boys tirelessly advocated for his neighborhood as part of the nonprofit Hazelwood Initiative, worked for his union and taught new generations of barbers before helping to oversee the profession on a state level as a member of the State Board of Barber Examiners,
He also became something of a poster child for healthy elder living and vivaciousness, much like John Glenn riding a rocket ship at age 77 or former President George H.W. Bush skydiving at 90. Mr. Vavro skied every winter all over Europe and in New Zealand until he was 88, swam daily and bowled weekly.
Mr. Vavro died Tuesday at Jefferson Hospital of complications from prostate cancer. He was 90.
“Bob’s got deep roots here in Hazelwood, and what always impressed me about Bob was he loved the neighborhood and he loved the people who lived here,” said Kris DiPietro, a board member of the Hazelwood Initiative who served with Mr. Vavro. “He was someone who was interested in what they were doing and how they were doing.”
Mr. Vavro was born and raised in Hazelwood. He graduated from Central Catholic High School and joined his father’s shop after his wartime service, during which he stayed stateside. When his father became ill, Mr. Vavro took over the business and was joined by his brothers, Joe and Ed. He enjoyed the work and the camaraderie with his customers, Mr. Vavro’s son Robert Jr. of Hazelwood said Friday. And he knew how to make his clients comfortable.
“He’d say, ‘If you’ve got a guy sitting in your chair, if he’s a Republican, you’re a Republican. If he’s a Democrat, you’re a Democrat,’ ” Mr. Vavro Jr. said.
Mr. Vavro eventually became active in his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. And after 30 years or so cutting hair, he became invested in teaching others and then in having a voice overseeing the profession. He was nominated by the governor to the State Board of Barber Examiners, starting in 1995, and was in the midst of his fifth term.
Fellow board member Ian J. Harlow, who is commissioner of the state’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, said Mr. Vavro had “just a practical, common-sense approach to everything.”
Although Mr. Vavro had statewide influence, his impact was also acutely felt on a local level, most of all in his neighborhood.
He was “vocal in meetings about the changes happening in the neighborhood and making sure that the voice of the community was heard and that developers knew that the community was active and relevant to the discussion of where they fit in and the future of Hazelwood,” said Alfred DiRosa, the Hazelwood Initiative’s operations and outreach coordinator.
Mr. Vavro commanded so much respect, Mr. DiRosa said, “When Bob Vavro knew my name, it felt like a big deal to me.”
Over the years, Mr. Vavro tended to a corner plot at Second and Johnston avenues, where the Hazelwood Initiative is located, and in 2012 then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed a resolution naming a gazebo and green space there the “Bob Vavro Sr. Garden.” On his 90th birthday this year, City Council did one better — proclaiming his birthday “Robert V. Vavro Sr. Day.”
Although Mr. Vavro mowed the garden grass as religiously as he swam, he always made time during ski season to head for the Alps, and specifically to Kitzbuhel in Austria, his passion for the sport awakened decades earlier. In addition to his physical activity, Mr. Vavro was an avid hobbyist making clocks and fixing watches.
In addition to sons Robert, John of Hazelwood and James of Cochranton, Crawford County, Mr. Vavro is survived by his wife, Carolyn, sisters Eleanor McKenzie of Upper St. Clair and Jean King of Plum, and a brother, Joseph Vavro of Bethel Park.
Arrangements are being handled by John D. O’Connor and Son Funeral Home in Hazelwood. Mr. Vavro will be buried at 10 a.m. Saturday following a Mass at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. The family suggests donations to the Special Olympics in Mr. Vavro’s name.
Jonathan D. Silver: [email protected], 412-263-1962.
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