Interview with Ms. Cleo Dunn, 19 January 1999, at her apartment in Pennsylvania Bidwell High Rise, Manchester, Pittsburgh, PA.; interview conducted, transcribed and edited by Barry Chad.
Transcribed: 2-4 February 1999.
Reviewed with Ms. Dunn: 6 July 1999.
Entered online: 4 February 1999.
Updated: 22 May 2003.
Q Have you always lived in Pittsburgh?
A No, no. I was born in New Kensington.
Q When did you come to Pittsburgh?
A In '62...and I lived a number of places and I worked different jobs. I worked at St. John's for ten years, that's when it was out on Woods Run. And then I went to Eye and Ear Hospital for ten years...working as a Nurse's Assistant.
Q Did you do that at St. John's also?
A Yes. And then I worked at...yeah, Eye and Ear...and then I went to Lemington Home in 1979 and I worked there until I retired in '92. And then I had poor circulation in my legs and I went into the hospital and had them remove them. '95. And then I moved here the last of '95. November 20th and I've been here ever since. I love it here very well and I get around real good and everything. I go different places. I go to church every Sunday--Brown's Chapel A. M. E. Church on Hemlock and Boyle. And I've been a member there since '63. And as long as right now the weather is permittable, I go every Sunday--Sunday School and church. And, in fact, I'm Secretary of my class, the adult class. And I belong to different groups. I belong to the Mary L. Hall Chapter 137 and I'm Financial Secretary. And I go down to Three Rivers Center [of Lutheran Service Society] and I'm President there for the time being. This is our second year. It's [located at] 1439 North Franklin Street here on the North Side down in Manchester. And I play bingo...and I go out as much as I can. And I love to travel. I'm the youngest of six children, the only one living. I have numerous nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews and great great....
Q When you moved from New Kensington to Pittsburgh, where did you move to?
A Well, I stayed with my sister for a while until I got me a place of my own, got an apartment, got a room of my own and then from there spread it out until I got me an apartment--Central North Side, up on Boyle Street, and when I moved down here I was living at 119 Parkhurst Street in an apartment, but it was too much for me because it had steps, and people had to carry me up and down the steps and so.... It didn't take me but two weeks to move here after I came home. I stayed at Lemington Home for six months for rehabilitation--April '95 until October 6, '95 (but I came a long way!)--and I was [back home] for two weeks and then they called me and told me I had an apartment here. So this is my first time living, you know, down this far [on the North Side]. But I love it. And I do here...I started taking computer classes [with Mr. Wilkerson]. And they're very good. And I'm trying to do it just to be able to have something to do. And he said that I'm doing very well. So that makes me feel good, you know. When you've been out of high school since 1949...I never thought that I would come to this...it's just something very exciting, it's something to do even though I don't have a computer [in my apartment], but I love doing it. [Ms. Dunn displays a Certificate:]"Pennsylvania Bidwell Highrise
Certificate of Merit for Computer Literacy
Start Operations, Hard Disk Drives, Filenames/Extensions,
MS Word '97, Explorer, Memory, Shortcuts, Multi-Tasking.
Presented by Charles Wilkerson 10-22-98.
PBH Council Pres. Fannie Goodman."
Q Did you go to high school in New Kensington?
A Yes. I graduated in 1949. [Growing up,] during that time, there wasn't that many Blacks 'cause when I graduated from high school, there was only nine in my class at that time. And...your mother--if I did something wrong--your mother would whip me and when I got home, you know what happened.... We used to go off and leave the doors unlocked and windows. If you'd go away for two or three days and come back, everything still be in place. And we lived around all types, Jews, Italians.... And all of us, we all played together. Like my mum used to make rolls and they'd smell it straight down to the backyard. They thought she'd give em a jar of jelly and butter and rolls or a loaf of bread and everything. Just have a good time. But they were very strict. We had to mind. If we did something wrong and they figured it, we got a whippin' for it. (And I'm proud: I don't regret till today.) And a lot of people nowadays you can't hit a child. We got a whippin' at school, got punished at school; we got punished at home. And wasn't no talkin' back. Now these kids they gonna tell the teacher what to do. They don't want to learn. And they kept you in a grade until you passed; and when you played hooky from school, that truant officer going to be at your house want to know why so-and-so wasn't in school.
And then I traveled a lot: Detroit; I've been in Chicago (I stayed in Chicago for three years); Buffalo, New York, for two-and-a-half; and then I'd go around different places, stay for a weekend...that was when I was able. In Detroit I was working at, I was taking care of...they had a lake called Woodhall Lake, like a summer resort, and these people from Chicago, they wanted me take care of their twins. And so I went there; then I was working at a concessionary, they had a concessionary there and then I'd come home on Friday nights and stay until Monday and then I went back. Then she asked me how would I like to go to Chicago and take care of her twins. I thought that was a good idea, so I went. But the only trouble there though it was so cold; it was really really cold in the wintertime, but I enjoyed it. But things started getting rough like, and my parents would start worrying about me 'cause I wouldn't call them every weekend; so I decided to come back home. I come home. I stayed for a while. Then I went back to Buffalo. I was working at Kobacker's Department Store, running the elevator there. And then I came back home. [And then in 1960 my mum died. I was in New York City. I came home two weeks before she died.] So I moved here in about '62. Nine times out of ten, when I was working, when I had the weekend off, I was always gone.
I have a lot of friends and I still have a lot. They call me, worry about me, wanna know how am I doin', what am I doin', and I tell em. I go out to Lemington Home. I been out there twice since my surgery, but they call me and everything. And I like to go someplace...play cards, bingo. And then here I play bingo. We have a little card group, Pokeno group. And I just enjoy...except I don't go out anyplace by myself 'cause it's so bad out. When I do travel, my friend takes me or my nephews come and get me, take me shopping. And, on the telephone and watching TV.... Things have changed so much, you know, these days now. Can't go nowhere; you're scared to go. And then the fact before my surgery, I didn't go nowhere unless I had someone with me because I just don't like the nightlife no more.
[Pittsburgh's] changed a lot. One incident that I remember. I was living up on Alpine Alley and I had gone away and it had snowed. And when I came home, someone had broken in to the house. One door, I thought I had closed it. I had put something up against it. They'd stole my record player. But, I called the police and the only tracks were made was from this door across the street. But I got it back.
I used to--didn't care--I used to go out, come in, but I made sure I'd have someone walking with me or take a cab or something like that. I'd go over my sister's house on the Hill up until when she got sick, I went over there just about every day to let her daughter have some time out and I'd spend the night over there and then I'd come home in a jitney 'cause she was fifteen years older than I. She was the oldest and I'm the baby. But I'm the only one living now out of six. And then I used to go back and forth to Detroit with my brother and my sister-in-law before they died, but I still have two nieces up there. They always calling me. They come to visit me about three times, four times a year, but we talk twice a month.
Q What did your mother and father do?
A Well, my father was a laborer and my mother was a housewife. She took in washing and ironing and then she quit that, she just did the cooking and raised us kids and she raised two grandkids, two grandchildren. They both are grown and married and everything. She was the most beautiful person. She went to church. My dad went to church. In fact we was all brought up in the church. Even though my dad was a Baptist and my mom was a Methodist, I just continued on and like I was raised a Methodist. But I attended a Baptist church and everything. [I had a lot of friends who were involved there and so we visited each other's church once in a while.] My dad he was a laborer worked at Allegheny Steel until he retired. He retired and my mum died that August; he retired that September. And they had a dream of going to California to live. But he did carry out the [dream]. He moved to California and that's where he died at 74, but we had his body returned here because was too many of us to try to get out to California.
My dad remarried and my stepmother she was very nice to us, to me. She came to visit here when my nephew got killed in '66. My dad had taken my nephew Dennis out to California with him and so he was going to school and he graduated from high school when he was 16 years old. And he came back here to help his mum out. And he was with a friend of his--they were all in the same grade in high school--they were taking a girl home and he got killed in an automobile accident. He died October the 17th. And two weeks prior to the accident....and he was very very smart in school...and he was head of the young men's church group (the YMCs) and the YMCA; he played basketball, but his favorite words were, "Hurry up--I don't have but a little bit of time." And do you know, his Minister, from out in California, he came, he flew in with my step-mom, and he did the Service, and those were the words that he spoke--Dennis'ld always say, "Hurry up now--I don't have but a little bit of time." And so maybe he musta known something. I said I believe that he done musta known something was going to happen. But he lived a full life, to me. And sometime I think about that. And I say, well, He musta left me here for a reason 'cause I'm still here.
Q How did you get started working in the Health Profession?
A Well, I was working at Allegheny--it was just only that part that you see there. [There is a fine view of the tower of Allegheny General Hospital from Ms. Dunn's window.] And I was working in housekeeping and so a girlfriend of mine came by and she said, "Cleo, why don't you get out of this. They're hiring out at St. John's." So I went out there and put an application in and so two weeks later they called and told me to be prepared to come to work. And I started and I just enjoy it. And then there was a nurse named Linda Croak, she's dead now. Her mother worked in the Gift Shop. She wanted to send me to nursing school. I said, "No, I like what I'm doing." Because I don't like sitting down. I'd rather be on-the-go. 'Cause, I mean, sitting down talking to a patient or sitting there playing cards with a patient or something like that...somebody else have the light on...want some pain medicine.... Nah, I don't want that. I don't like that writing. I'd rather be around the patients, and so I worked on the fourth floor and then I went down the Emergency Room. So I got down the Emergency Room and Dr. Christian--he taught me a whole lot of things. And some of the things, I knew more than a nurse. Dr. Horace Christian. He's out McKnight Road now. I think I heard he's retiring. He taught me how to start IVs...and what to do and everything. I did it under supervision, not on my own, but I did it. In case an accident would come in, I'd write out the report and for X-rays, he'll look at it. He said, "That's right." And I learned a whole lot, but I asked to be transferred back up on the floor. Then after a certain length of time I went out to Eye and Ear. (They was hiring out there.) So I went there and then they taught me a whole lot of things. I have some certificates from there. [And] from St. John's--the process of taking care of patients. And they taught me a lot too 'cause I really enjoyed it. And then I got sick, so I stayed off work for about three months. Then I got this job out at the Lemington and I enjoyed working with the older people until I retired in '92. I got a plaque from them. [Ms. Dunn produces a plaque which reads:]"Presented to Cleo Dunn in Appreciation
for Your Service and Devotion to Our Residents
over the past Thirteen Years.
Lemington Home for the Aged. 1979-1992"
Q Working the Emergency Room must have been very dramatic.
A Yes, yes. I seen a whole lot of people, whole lot of things. I've seen em come in...from accidents. And there was one I really remember. It was a garbage truck came down off of Marshall Avenue hill all the way down and it was real bad. It was pouring down rain; it was slippery. And they brought these three guys in. And this one fella (now I don't know if he's dead or not), but they called him "Big." He tell everybody, "Cleo saved my life! Cleo saved my life!" They did surgery down in the Emergency Room on him. Then they had to sew him up, you know, trying to keep the blood from coming, and, in fact, we thought he was going to die. I think he got a hundred-some stitches, if I remember correct, but that's one I really remember. And they said I really did a good job there. I wasn't scared. I didn't panic or nothing. Most of the people they panic when they see something like that, but I just...I was calm. The policemen they all were very nice. They helped. They did the best they could. They helped take the patients up to X-rays and everything. And back in those days the policemen were really really good. They used to bring me home. There was a nurse Dolores Bronky, her husband was a policeman. Then there's another girl, I still call, Lois Miller. We talk now. Her brother was a policeman. They'd bring me home at night when I worked. And then when they see me going to work, they'd pick me up and take me to work. They'd bring me home at night.
[Ms. Dunn shows some photographs: A photo of one of her sisters; a photo of her father and stepmother; a photo of her at Eye and Ear Hospital; a photo of her as a patient at Lemington Home, undergoing rehabilitation; also certificates from Eye and Ear Hospital Staff Development:][and]"This Certifies that Mrs. Cleo Dunn, Nurse's Aide,
Has Completed First Aid Course.
Awarded November 19, 1974."[and]"This Certifies that Cleo Dunn Has Completed
the Aging Process.
Awarded November 12, 1975.""In Appreciation of Five Years of Service
The Eye and Ear Hospital of Pittsburgh Hereby Awards
This Certificate of Recognition to Cleo Dunn."
Q What brought you through your surgery and your rehabilitation?
A I don't think if it hadn't been for Him I don't think I'd be here because I told my Minister--he came to see me the night before I had this foot operated on--that was January the 7th, 1995. He prayed with me. He says, "Cleo, just keep having faith." And the Minister says, "Cleo, you gonna be okay." And I said, "No." I said, "I don't think so." So that night, the night before I went to surgery, I had this dream. And it looked like something was pulling me to the left. Another hand was pulling me to the right. And I just kept on and looked like I went into a deep sleep and only thing I could see was white and then I snapped out of it. So I was telling my Minister about it--the morning of my surgery he came in and I was telling him about it. And he says, "Cleo." And he says, "Mrs. Dunn." He said, "What seemed like it was pulling you?" I said, "I don't know what it was." But I said, "I think it was Satan." And after I explained it to him, he says, "Cleo, that's what it was." Satan was trying to pull me back to him, but the Lord was trying to pull me over to Him. So he said, "Which way you want to go?" I said, "I wanta go this-a-way!" And he said, "That's what it was." 'Cause I thought I was gone. But I thank God that I made it through 'cause it wouldn't have been for Him, I don't think I'd be here.
I'm always got a smile on my face. They wrote a article in the Eyes and Views about me, and my favorite saying was, "If it's a dog, give that dog a pat on the shoulder 'cause you never know when that dog might have to lead you across the street." And so far it's been so true that you never know who might have to come and help.