Friend of Public Safety award honors late custodian

Dorsey Wheeler, a custodian for the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management who died in February, is the inaugural recipient of the Friend of Public Safety award.

The new award, which will be given out annually, recognizes those whose contributions and impact go unheralded but not unnoticed.

Vice Chancellor Ted Fritz is planning to present the posthumous award on May 3 to Cindy Wheeler, Dorsey’s wife of 37 years and an employee at the Office of Facilities Management.

Dorsey Wheeler, who worked for 22 years at Pitt and since 2006 at the Jerome Cochran Public Safety Building, died on Feb. 16 after battling several health issues.

“He was always interested in how other people were doing,” Fritz said. “He was also genuinely concerned about making the building a nice place for all of the staff who work here. He got the job done but did so with such a pleasant demeanor. His good attitude proved to be contagious when you were around him. He was the sort of person that you want to have around your workplace.”

Cindy Wheeler said her husband had a love of life and family and a penchant for the unusual, something she found out immediately during their first meeting — when Dorsey was a carpet installer and Cindy worked in the receiving department at a Hills department store.

“He and the guy he worked for came in to install carpet on shelving for the audio department,” she said. “He was so funny. He was talking to me and we were walking down an aisle while I was showing him where the audio department was. And he did a cartwheel — right in the middle of the aisle. I thought, ‘Hmmmm, he was very intriguing, to say the least.’ He was just so funny.”

The two dated for three years before getting married in 1984. The Wheelers eventually bought a home in Sheraden and raised three children, but it’s the “second home” — a place at Holiday Camplands near Lake Pymatuming — where the family loved to go and spend time together.

“There was swimming and crafts,” Cindy Wheeler said. “It was just nice place to hang out together. There was a lot of family time.”

As the kids got older, the parents made trips to the camp together.

“We rode to work together. We worked in the buildings right next door to each other. We rode home together. Then we’d go to camp together. We did everything together,” Cindy said, noting that the Facilities Management and Public Safety buildings are located side by side on Forbes Avenue.

Dorsey was born on Nov. 18, 1953, in Long Beach, Calif. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was 5 years old. He later returned to Long Beach to serve in the U.S. Navy. After his short time in the service, he came back to Pittsburgh. Cindy said Dorsey was a bit of a “wild child,” but he settled down after their marriage, especially when the kids — Jessica, Jared and Dorsey Michael — were born.

“He was a good father. He was the fun one, and I was the disciplinarian,” she said, laughing. “If he could, he’d give them whatever they wanted.”

During the winter holiday, Cindy said the Public Safety employees would give Dorsey a card containing some extra spending cash.

“Even though I had already done all the Christmas shopping and everything was done, he’d take that money and go back out and buy all the kids gifts with that money,” she said.

His friends at the Public Safety building will remember a man who went out of his way to make staff feel welcomed and comfortable, his sunny disposition always brightening their days.

“Dorsey persevered through many things over the 15 years that I knew him,” said Maureen Conrad, assistant to the chief of police. “One of my favorite quotes by Dorsey was, ‘Get on the good foot!’ Even when he didn’t feel good, had things going on, he still always would say that to me. He pushed through so much and loved his family so very much.”

“Dorsey was just a good human being,” said Nicole Barrett-Acre, an administrative assistant in Public Safety. “He never complained and was so very humble and kind. His family meant everything to him, and I admired that the most.”

In the year before his death, Dorsey had to spend time away from work on several occasions, and he had been away from the office for months before his death. During the long absence, his friends at the Public Safety Building missed his presence.

“Sometimes I’ll glance at my office chair that he sat in, and my mind will take me back to all of those fond memories,” said Barrett-Acre. “Because of Dorsey I will always remain humble and never forget where I came from. And above all, family first. Those are just a few things, that he has unknowingly passed down to me. It was a pleasure and honor to have known Dorsey Wheeler.”

Cindy said “it means a lot to me and makes me very happy” when she hears others speak so fondly of her husband.

Tina Torquato, the assistant to the vice chancellor, said Dorsey “was a gentle soul and a kind man. When I first started here, he always made me feel welcome.”

Cindy said her husband’s Public Safety friends brought as much joy to his life as he did to theirs. After his death, they made a book that contained photos, memories and poems.

“When we knew that he was passing away, I broke down one day,” Cindy said. “He could talk, but he was wearing a mask on his face, so I couldn’t understand him. So I got him a whiteboard and he would write on it. So one day, I started crying and he wrote on there, ‘Don’t be sad.’ And I said, ‘How can I not be sad? Who am I going to yell at when we’re going to camp? Who am I going to yell at in the car?’ And he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ "

A plaque honoring the Friends of Public Safety and Emergency Management is located on the first floor of the Jerome Cochran Public Safety Building.

Anthony Conroy, Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management