by Eileen French Jordan
Patricia “Penka” French was an esteemed translator for the U.S. Department of State, development director for the Tamburitzans, unparalleled arts and culture fundraiser, a tireless champion of Bulgarian (and all other) cultures, the president and driving force behind the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center, and so much more. She went on to her grandest adventure yet when she left this world on January 12 of this year. She is my grandmother.
I printed her impressive resume in her funeral church program because it seemed wrong not to.
Pat was born to Bulgarian immigrants in the mill town of West Homestead and they worked in the Homestead Bakery. She had a penchant for drama and mischief and she was always memorable. One of her favorite memories to share of her childhood is when she and her friend got banished to front of house duties at the bakery because they overfilled and exploded the jelly donuts for kicks.
Sometimes, as a child, I lamented the fact that I didn’t have a normal grandmother who would bake cookies and teach me how to knit. Sometimes I was embarrassed that we spent weekends in West Homestead learning Bulgarian dances with my cousins instead of at cheerleading practice in my respective suburb. This charming, stylish, bossy woman instilled respect in everyone around her — even the people who didn’t like her very much listened to her. That was even more embarrassing.
It’s funny that what mortifies you as a child is something you take extreme pride in as an adult.
1. Go after what you want. And bring your friends and family with you.
Coming off of Pittsburgh’s “Hamilton” craze, “talk less, smile more” is in my head every time I think of her. She was definitely more A. Ham and less A. Burr.
Pat French climbed her own professional ladder when there wasn’t a path for women beyond the secretary pool. Her fundraising skills knew no bounds and she was not afraid to ask for and go after what she wanted. While visiting the funeral home over the weekend, a member of the foundation community recalled her infamous tenacity. Despite changes in protocol at his foundation she found a way to get what she wanted; he shook his head and laughed “she wasn’t easy, but she got what she wanted.”
A family friend shared with me that my grandmother plucked her out of said secretary pool and exposed her to the bright vibrant folk-filled world, where she has lived her life ever since. Pat French did not do her work alone — she recognized talent and took us along on her journey, even if some of us were kicking and screaming along the way.
2. Wear the costume. Get involved.
Our family and friends labored away for countless Folk Festivals, wore itchy wool costumes in 80-degree heat offering “bread and salt” to welcome dignitaries and suffered a variety of indignities in the name of promotion, fundraising and diplomacy that are now are some of our best, most comical and most treasured memories. It’s a lesson in life experience. Wear the costume. Get involved. You’ll be glad you did, if only for the stories you can tell later.
3. Create your community.
As a young girl, my memories are most vivid in her house on Vista View Street. The salon-style dinners and parties that become popular for the upwardly mobile later in life were a daily, and all day long, occurrence at their compound in West Homestead. I say “compound” because it was a sprawling blue stucco house with an apartment upstairs, a guest house and a large garden tended to by my grandfather. While this sounds impressive, it was definitely function over fashion, and in addition to my family living there, “4413” served as a place for relatives to get back on their feet, immigrants in need a temporary home, friends who were ailing that needed space and care, and, of course, was party-central. I grew up surrounded by diversity in gender, race, culture and creed in the four walls of her home, which resulted in a lot of good times, great music and exceptional food.
Every May, the Pittsburgh Folk Festival would come around and it was all hands on deck. It was refreshing and fun to connect with some of my contemporaries there, who usually were as sheepish as I was about their cultures. The Festival was the one time that immersing yourself in your heritage, and those of your friends, felt like being a part of a very special club. While practicing my Bulgarian dances for our performance, I also learned the Tinikling (Bamboo Dance) from my Filipino friends and discovered how to properly wrap an Indian saree.
My grandmother tirelessly promoted her culture and encouraged people who had zero connection to it to dance, eat, cook, speak the language, learn the songs. Some of the best Bulgarian cooks and dancers I know are actually Irish! Pat knew that the secret to diplomacy was rooted in cultural experience.
She created her own ever-expanding multi-cultural community. Sometimes that community was in her home and sometimes it was at the Bulgarian Center, but really, it was with her wherever she went because she never stopped adding to it.
4. Get off your ass and do something.
When my grandfather, U.S. Army Lt. Colonel William C. French, was diagnosed with cancer, we were not allowed to cry and wring our hands. My grandmother organized the entire family to join the American Cancer Society for a fundraising phone blitz. So there I was, eight years old and working the phones for Grandma.
Her passions extended far beyond her family causes and beloved Bulgarian community. About eight years ago, Gram enthusiastically told me I had to meet a Bulgarian woman named Vasso Zotis Paliouras who was starting a nonprofit to benefit children with cancer. My grandmother ended up on the inaugural board of Lending Hearts and Vasso recalled, “Pat was one of the first individuals I shared the concept for Lending Hearts with back in the winter of 2011. She immediately embraced the idea and wanted to help in every way possible to make it a reality. Pat had a beautiful passion and energy for helping others. She insisted it had to be done. We would make it happen.”
My mom recently found a few things on her nightstand including a partially filled out donation form to my husband’s theater company. Right up to her last days, she had her no-nonsense “3 Gs” golden rule for charitable work that was anything but subtle — “give (money/time), get (money/opportunities) or get out (self-explanatory).”
5. “You can’t hide in Pittsburgh.”
At my grandmother’s wake, a lovely woman came up to me and introduced herself as the person who did her hair at the nursing home in her final few months. She recalled that she knew my grandmother when she was a young girl and Pat actually went to her mother’s salon in West Homestead. She grabbed my hand and said, “I was the shampoo girl and everyone would usually tip me 50 cents. Your grandmother always tipped me a dollar and would tell my mother what an outstanding job I did. Later, at the nursing home, she would tell everyone, ‘This kid did a phenomenal job, you need to go to her!’ She never changed.” Your reputation will always precede you in the Steel City to be sure.
My grandmother always said, “You can’t hide in Pittsburgh.” It’s important to mean what you say and say what you mean here. One of the most heartbreaking moments of her life was when she and others were let go from the Tamburitzans after their years of tireless and excellent work that elevated the group to new heights and international fame. She took her fight public and held press conferences with local news stations in her kitchen. She stuck to her convictions and let people know exactly where she stood. Because you can’t hide in Pittsburgh.
Not only can you not hide in Pittsburgh, you cannot hide from Pittsburgh. She also brought Bulgaria to Pittsburgh and vice versa, shrinking her two worlds even more. She often claimed that everywhere she traveled she bumped into a Pittsburgher or Bulgarian. In the early ’90s she worked on the Sister City designation for Sofia, Bulgaria and Pittsburgh, making that connection official for everyone.
6. People are people.
When I lived in Washington, D.C. in my early 20s, she came to visit me often because she had a lot of business at the Bulgarian Embassy. One particularly memorable time we were invited to Ambassador Elena Poptodorova’s residence to meet the King of Bulgaria. The protocol was to wait your turn (not her strength) to meet the King but instead, she grabbed my elbow and marched us both forward, extending her hand and professionally and warmly introducing herself and proceeding to have a minutes-long conversation with him while the entire room was audibly gasping. I was red-faced and mortified and she snapped back at me, “People are people, Eileen.”
In her farewell letter to my grandmother to be read at her funeral celebrations, the former Ambassador recalled, “I can see her right in front me, with her inimitable twinkle in the eye which never goes away, her bobbed hair in beautiful grey, always with a smile and … makeup on her face, flashy coordinated jewelry to go with fashionable clothing. (She was the one to introduce me to Chico’s, too).” My grandmother always made things approachable, even if that meant taking dignitaries to her favorite store at the mall.
Pat was no stranger to local politics. She would relentlessly call council members and befriended state reps, many of whom attended her funeral. Family and friends were also roped into these relationships over the years, for our own benefit, of course, and usually with pretty comical outcomes. On one particularly hilarious occasion, as young children, my sister Rachel and cousin Greg were forced to stand in the freezing rain for over an hour at a City of Pittsburgh holiday event and were then commanded to “wave HI to Sophie” as Pat greeted her friend Mayor Sophie Masloff.
She made everyone she met a part of her family, no matter their station. Ambassador Poptodorova remembers, “For so many years Pat had always been at my side, both in professional terms and as a close friend. More than that — she would often say in her soft Tvarditsa dialect: ‘Sha ma slushash, az sam ti kaka – You better listen to me, I am your older sister.’ And indeed she was.”
Pat always blurred the lines between business and personal, colleague and friend, friend and family. She scoffed at work-life balance because there was just life, and it was full.
Eileen French Jordan is a founding partner of Revive Marketing Group. She lives in N. Point Breeze with her husband Patrick and daughter Pepper.