10 Questions with Donald Baumgarten '57
Thursday, January 29, 2015
10 Questions with Donald Baumgarten '57
By Kimberly Burger Capozzi
As the mayor of Castle Shannon for 13 years and a prominent figure in local politics for four decades, the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association's 2014 Mayor of the Year is as comfortable taking calls on his cell phone about a constituent’s personal problems as he is nudging high-ranking officials to support development projects in his South Hills borough. Before politics, Baumgarten had a long career at J&L Steel. He also raised two daughters with Ruth, his wife of 62 years.
What’s a typical day like for the mayor of Castle Shannon, population 8,300?
I’m involved with developers, and finding out what’s going on. The police chief and I talk. People call me all the time with problems, some real – they think the mayor can solve everything. I can do certain things, like get them in touch with the right people. I think I do pretty good dealing with people.
What was it like to have other Pennsylvania mayors select you as Mayor of the Year?
I was overwhelmed. I just didn’t believe it. They give you a plaque and a microphone and I didn’t know what to say, which is unusual for me. I couldn’t believe afterward the outpouring of so many people who came out of nowhere to congratulate me. We had to go from the borough building to the fire hall because 80 people said they were going to come. We actually made a party out of it.
When you retired from J&L Steel in 1981, you were project manager of information systems overseeing analysts and software developers. Are you still tech-savvy? It’s kind of gotten ahead of me. I have a home computer and I have a laptop and I have a tablet. I can manage.
How did your degree from Robert Morris in accounting and business law help you get started?
I went to classes in the William Penn Hotel at night because I was working during the day. I wanted to better myself. It paid off. I had hoped to get into accounting, and was in the data processing department at J&L Steel with the old accounting machines. I was one of the first computer programmers, when the computing power I’m holding in my hand used to fill a whole room.
You’re hoping to break ground soon on the $42 million Shannon Transit Village, a retail and apartment complex at a light rail station that's been in the works for 14 years. What will the project do for Castle Shannon?
It means a lot to the community. We are involved in a redevelopment process right now. We’re doing a lot of things to turn the downtown around and fill some empty storefronts. That development would be right in the middle. We figure that will jump start a lot of business that will want to be there.
A lot of your mayoral duties involve convincing federal, state and county authorities to help you move ahead with projects. Is the slow pace of government frustrating?
It is frustrating, but I figure that’s the way it is. That’s government and I’m used to it. As long as I know it’s going to happen.
What’s another project you're proud of?
We had an old bridge in the borough that wasn’t in great shape. I started the ball rolling. We got the bridge replaced, and development is still ongoing in an industrial park there, with about five businesses there now. That really generated a lot of jobs. I’m very proud of that.
It sounds like it requires a lot of resilience and patience to be mayor.
No, it’s fun. I just enjoy it. There’re a lot of happy things that go on. I can perform wedding ceremonies. I’ve probably done a hundred weddings and that’s happy. I tell them, if I marry them then they stay married. It’s gratifying. If you can help people, that’s the best thing about it.
What’s next for you? Do you have further political aspirations?
People wanted me to run a long time ago for the state house, and I said no. I’m happy where I am. I don’t want to get into that business. Going to Harrisburg every week is not for me. I can do more for Castle Shannon as a mayor.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share?
I think it’s very important to be involved in the community, especially for the younger people to volunteer. There’re so many things you can do. Just know what’s going on and be part of the community. I just think people are missing something if they don’t do it. It’s very rewarding.