Pittsburgh sisters join in annual raising of flag for brother who died in Vietnam

By BILL ZLATOS | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | Published: July 4, 2014

PITTSBURGH — As a youth, Peter J. O'Toole took part in most activities that the Sarah Heinz House offered.

He played basketball and hockey, danced, took part in the Christmas play, went camping.

Friday marks the 45th straight Fourth of July that the flag that draped his casket after his death in Vietnam will be raised at the campground near Ellwood City where he loved to stay. His family will attend the flag-raising ceremony for the first time.

“It's very commendable that they remember a member of the Heinz House who was willing to go give up his life for his country,” said his sister, Carol Matessa, 68, of Ross. She and at least one other sister, Darlene Carmack, 59, of Wexford will attend the event.

The Sarah Heinz House has provided activities for boys and girls in the North Side for a century, and the campground near McConnells Mill State Park is much the same as it was in O'Toole's time. Oak, maple and pine trees shade the 111 acres. Kids sleep in platform tents and hear the sounds of chirping birds and rain pattering on canvas.

The Sarah Heinz House was practically the center of life for O'Toole and his sisters. Their father died in 1963, and their mother Agnes, a waitress at Eat'n Park, raised them on Howard Street in the North Side.

Heinz House records show that O'Toole distinguished himself for attendance. He won a loyalty pin. He played chess and was one of the seven highest-ranked members of his group on three occasions, and one of 25 outstanding boys by the Alumni Association.

His senior picture from North Catholic High School shows dark, wavy hair, a gleam in his eyes and a smile. Though small in stature, he was not one to back down.

“He was always the person you wanted on your team at the Sarah Heinz House because he would never quit, as opposed to some of the guys with more ability who would take time off between plays,” said his friend, William Novakovic, 70, of Oakmont, who was involved with the activity center for 12 years.

After graduating from high school, O'Toole — sometimes called by his middle name, Joe — joined the Army. He became a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. He went to Vietnam on July 28, 1968. He soon was wounded but recovered.

He was killed on Sept. 19, 1968, when a mine exploded under the truck that was returning him to his unit. He was 19.

After the funeral, the camp director received permission from O'Toole's mother to keep his flag, but his sisters did not know how it was used until recently. It is encased in glass on a bookshelf in the Heinz House until each July Fourth flag-raising. The sisters plan to contribute to a personalized memorial for his flag.

Bob Bechtold observed the ceremony as a child, then as camp director and now as director of outreach and recruitment. At the flag-raising, he said, the staff tells the story of how O'Toole lived and died, how he took advantage of opportunities and how current members could do the same.

“You're in a special place,” Bechtold said campers are told. “You never know what can happen. If you get the opportunity again, just seize the moment.”

O'Toole is buried in a military plot on a grassy hillside in Christ Our Redeemer Cemetery in Ross. An embedded stone marker gives a brief history of his military service.

On a brilliant summer day, hundreds of American flags, one for each grave, flapped silently in the breeze.

“The best people always end up dying because it's the worst people that provide these kinds of conflicts,” said Novakovic, himself a veteran.


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