McKEES ROCKS, Pa. — As Johnny Kasich turned 17 years old, many of the strands of his sturdy, sheltered life seemed to be unraveling.
He felt bewildered as race riots tore apart Sto-Rox High School, with police and their dogs called in to keep the peace. He learned that a priest at his Catholic church, to whom he had given confession, was leaving to marry a parishioner. He faced the possibility of being drafted to serve in Vietnam. And wherever he looked, politicians seemed to be corrupt.
It all came to a head one night in January 1970, during Kasich’s senior year at Sto-Rox, as 400 students and parents met to hear complaints from blacks that they were being subjected to de facto segregation. Shortly after midnight, when a black leader demanded at least one African American teacher be hired, ugly epithets were hurled, tables overturned, and fistfights broke out.
Kasich, a scrawny kid who at that time was known for his lifelong desire to be a priest, decided he had had enough. Using speaking skills he had developed at church, he walked to the front of the school cafeteria, where the school board was trying to oust a black protester, and seized the microphone.
“This has got to stop,” Kasich said, according to the account of his friend David Cercone, now a federal judge. “We can’t be doing this, being at each other’s throats.”
This was the unlikely moment that Kasich’s childhood friends say they realized their pal Johnny was shedding his dreams of the priesthood and donning the cloak of politician. When they hear him today pleading for civility among his fellow Republican presidential candidates, friends say they recognize the words that he uttered as he came of age in this hardened city on the banks of the Ohio River.
Kasich’s chances of winning the nomination may have peaked when he came in second in the New Hampshire primary. He insists that he can emerge as the contests move to his home turf of the Midwest, starting with the Michigan primary on Tuesday.
In another era, Kasich’s background might have made him a natural for this pivotal moment of his party. He has working-class roots in an immigrant-rich city hit hard by industrial upheaval. He has deep government experience as former chairman of the House Budget Committee and as governor of Ohio.
But Kasich has struggled to stand out in this year’s Donald Trump-dominated Republican contest. His efforts to soothe the electorate have paled in comparison with his opponents’ abilities to channel and amplify voter anger. His experience means he has been perceived as being part of the establishment, and his working-class roots and empathetic style have been overshadowed by the bombast of the billionaire front-runner and the mudslinging among the other candidates.
Still, Kasich has raised his profile with his unorthodox manner, survived to what he calls the “Final Four” in a field that once had 17 candidates, and could gain relevance should he win the Ohio primary March 15.
The path that brought Kasich to this point began in a modest two-story brick house on Elizabeth Street, on a ridge overlooking Pittsburgh, in a working-class neighborhood that he shared with a group of pals who called themselves the “hill boys.” They roamed from home to church to ballfield, while Kasich’s father, also named John, a postal worker, delivered the mail to their parents’ houses. Kasich’s mother, Anne, worked the late shift at a Pittsburgh postal center. They had secure jobs, making them the envy of other families who worried that work in the mills could go away on a moment’s notice.
“We were on a hill that was utopia growing up with John and our peers,” said Kasich’s childhood friend, William Savatt, who manages the Tap Club near the old neighborhood. “It was segregated from the flats, where a lot of mischief was going on.”
The flats, also known as the Bottoms, are a mile down the hill from Kasich’s former home. The flatland by the Ohio River held tougher neighborhoods and some of the world’s greatest steel and coke operations. The sprawling industrial site, acres dotted by smokestacks, sometimes sent so much soot spewing into the air that a layer of fine black particulates had to be removed from the windshield of the Kasich family car. The air smelled of sulfur, and the sky turned an ungodly shade of gray. An opened window let in a cacophony, barges banging against the docks, and the gush of giant coke ovens.
Thousands of workers spilled out of the Bottoms from their round-the-clock shifts and into the area’s dozens of bars. Organized-crime bosses ran competing prostitution rings. Life expectancy was shortened by disease and exhaustion, and with alarming frequency, by murder and manslaughter. There was a saying that block after block in the downtown area hosted a trinity: church, bar, funeral home. Neighborhoods were divided by ethnic groups, marked by spires of the faith, the Italians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Russians and the Poles.
“It was really tough; beautiful people, but really rough,” Kasich, whose heritage includes Croatian and Czech backgrounds, said in an interview.
Kasich’s refuge was his church on the hill, called Mother of Sorrows.
As Kasich entered the fourth grade, he put on a black cassock, slipped a white hip-length garment on top, and headed to a new calling to serve as an altar boy. His dream, he told friends, was to be a priest. In this area where most people were Catholic, such dreams were not unusual, and often they didn’t last long. But Kasich seemed different. He would be celibate, leading a flock, with religion always at the forefront. His friends were convinced that the priesthood was Kasich’s life course, and many thought he was aiming even higher.
They nicknamed him “Pope.” Eventually, even the head priest at Mother of Sorrows, the Rev. Joseph Farina, called him that.
“I was determined to be the best altar boy Mother of Sorrows had ever seen, by a mile,” Kasich wrote in his memoir, “Every Other Monday.”
He could be overzealous, and not just on the basketball courts of a Catholic league, where he compensated for his small size by perfecting his outside shot. His friend Cercone, who often prayed at church with Kasich during the school lunch break, mentioned one day that he also wanted to be an altar boy. Cercone has never forgotten Kasich’s response.
“He said I was too fat and that there wasn’t a cassock that would fit me,” Cercone said. “He talked me out of being an altar boy.” Asked why, Cercone gave a one-word answer, delivered affectionately: “Competition.”
Kasich spoke frequently with an assistant pastor, the Rev. Arthur Tambucci, who oversaw youth programs. One day, walking into Tambucci’s study, Kasich looked at the books on the shelves. Tambucci said he had read every one, and Kasich vowed to do the same.
Unbeknownst to Kasich, Tambucci was reconsidering his role after five years at Mother of Sorrows. Tambucci had become enamored with one of his parishioners, a young woman named Sarah Michelangelo. In time, Tambucci asked Sarah to marry him. It was, Sarah Tambucci said in an interview, a “great scandal” at the time.
“People were very angry with me,” she said. “It was a very hard time.”
Arthur Tambucci left Mother of Sorrows just as Kasich graduated from high school and married Sarah two years later.
“Many of the people in my [high school] class, my husband either performed their marriages or baptized their children,” she said.
Some of Kasich’s friends wondered whether Tambucci’s decision caused him to question his own desire to be a priest. Kasich, in an interview, said he made the decision separately when he had an epiphany. “The problem was, I couldn’t be a priest if I liked girls. That was the fundamental issue,” Kasich said.
Sarah Tambucci recalls that Kasich one day made clear to her husband that he was changing his ambition. She said that before her husband left the priesthood, Kasich walked into his study and made a startling announcement: “One day I will run for president of the United States.”
By the time Kasich entered Sto-Rox High School, named for the adjoining municipalities of Stowe Township and McKees Rocks, he was all about politics. (Kasich’s street is in Stowe, but he and the post office refer to much of the area as McKees Rocks). Ever the competitor, he was partly inspired by his friend Cercone, who became class president. Kasich spent hours arguing with friends about political issues of the day.
What shocked friends was that Kasich declared he was a Republican. Classmate Jim Bialek remembers that “99.9 percent of people were Democrats.” Mark Nosal, one of Kasich’s colleagues in catechism class, recalled that Kasich ardently defended President Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968.
“John supported Nixon, which to me was out of this world,” Nosal said. “How could you support Nixon? But he supported Nixon. I don’t have the slightest idea why he was Republican.”
Neither, apparently, does Kasich. He recalls that his parents were at odds; his father was a Democrat, while his mother was one of the few Republicans in town, which he says may have influenced him.
“I don’t know. I was never a Democrat. I can’t tell you. I honestly don’t know what” caused him to be Republican. “I always felt the Republicans were more for individuals than the Democrats were. I felt like Democrats were for big things and Republicans were not.”
He also came to believe that politicians such as school board members looked out only for themselves.
So, as racial unrest broke out during his senior year, he blamed the politicians for allowing things to get out of control.
“Race riots — I was astounded that it happened at our school,” Kasich said. “I know we had police patrolling the hallway, and I remember they had dogs. I remember going to the school board meeting, I stood up and grabbed the microphone and lectured.”
The Pittsburgh Press reported in a front-page story, headlined “Fists Fly at Sto-Rox Meeting,” that the session had been called to hear charges of segregation. The newspaper reported that the meeting “erupted into a fist-swinging melee after a black leader was ejected. . . . Fist fights broke out among the more than 400 whites and blacks and violence spilled onto Valley St.”
Kasich said he remembers telling the school board and students that “we should come together as a community to fix our problems.”
A few months later, shortly before graduating, Kasich had to directly face the question of where his future lay. He filled out a draft registration card, but he seems to have dreaded the prospect of serving in the Vietnam War. “I was really going south on the war,” he said. “I didn’t like the war.”
With a deferment for going to college, he would be temporarily immune from the draft, unlike those who ended their education at high school. Two years later, he got a draft number of 105 on a scale that ran to 365, but by then the war was winding down and his number wasn’t called.
Kasich decided he needed a clean break from McKees Rocks.
He headed to an opposite extreme — the worldly vastness of Ohio State University — and returned only for family visits.
It was only after leaving his home town that he realized how small his world had been. Ohio became his home, the state that sent him to Congress for 18 years and, in 2010, elected him governor.
“Getting out [of McKees Rocks], I realized it was closed, it was a confined kind of place,” Kasich said. “Going to college, everything changed, like flipping a switch.”