Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

For fifteen of its twenty-five years, Pennsylvania Heritage has been edited by Michael J. O’Malley III. It is a task he clearly embraces with enthusiasm – and wonder.

“It’s a learning experience each and every day,” he says, “and there’s not a moment in which I don’t learn some­thing. To be able to satisfy one’s curiosity and to learn more about the world we live in is an experience of a lifetime. Telling the story of Pennsylvania through the eyes and with the voices of Pennsylvanians is a privilege and among the greatest joys of all.”

O’Malley joined the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1978 as press officer for its popular statewide historic preserva­tion program. “Pennsylvania has so many historic and beautiful buildings, and it was natural for me to be drawn in that direction.” He credits his father, the late Michael J. O’Malley II, a coal company executive, for teaching him how to see the landscape – both natural and built – and for showing him buildings and structures that were slipping into the past. “During summers I’d travel with my father on business through the coal regions,” he recalls. “We’d drive to Wilkes-Barre or Scranton to meet with bankers one day, or see a contractor in Bloomsburg or Williamsport the next. No matter how busy he was, my father made sure we’d take some back road so he could show me something he told me I’d wouldn’t see again. He was right. He took me to see patch towns and collieries tucked deep in the region, and he made sure I saw the old homes built by coal barons. Many of the patches, coal breakers, and the mansions are now gone, and I’m so thankful I had the chance to see them firsthand. I can remember many of them like it was yesterday.

“In the late seventies, my father was doing business with Bethlehem Steel. After we left a meeting in the office building, he drove through the plant, taking me to yards and areas that were closed to the public. Take a good look; Dad said, ‘you won’t ever see this again’. He was right about that too. It was this reverence for the past that led to my love of older buildings and brought me to the field of historic preservation.”

He credits his mother, Elizabeth Jane (Kaup) O’Malley, for his love of reading and for his career as a writer and editor. “My mother is probably the inter-library loan system’s best patron. Today she is reading three to four books at any given time – and that’s not to mention dozens of magazines.” When he and his siblings – sisters Marria, Beau, and Tish, and brother Jim – were young, there were no televisions in their rooms, just bookcases. “We had books stacked upon books, books everywhere, books spilling out of cabinets, books on bureaus, piles of books on tables. And then there were the magazines and the newspapers. It was heaven. The world was literally at our fingertips.”

His first history pieces were pub­lished in the early 1970s in The Valley Gazette, a monthly newspaper devoted to the history and heritage of the Panther Valley in the southern coal fields. “Ed Gildea is the editor and publisher who gave me my first opportunity to research and write while I was still in college. He taught me to write well by quietly editing my work – I’d compare my manuscripts with the published pieces and I learned the nuance of a word, the shading of meaning.” O’Malley says writing for Gildea and The Valley Gazette also taught him the importance of deadlines, which is critical in his work today, and of regional history. “Ed Gildea’s Valley Gazette focused on regional and local stories and incorporated oral history long before most history-oriented publications had.”

O’Malley received his bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Scranton in 1975 and completed his master of arts degree work in American literature at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. He divides his time between Harrisburg, where he works and is active in the arts communi­ty, and eastern Schuylkill County, where he is currently renovating Kaup Estate, a historic farmstead settled by his mother’s family in 1830.

This interview was conducted to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pennsylvania Heritage, which was established by the PHMC in 1974. O’Malley has served as magazine editor since 1984.


What surprises you, as editor of Pennsylvania Heritage, most about Pennsylvania?

What’s most surprising is that Pennsylvania is so regional. It’s quite interesting to hear Pennsylvanians describe themselves. They tell people, “I’m from the coal regions,” or “I’m from the oil fields,” or “I’m from Bethlehem, Steel City,” or “I live in Kennett Square, Mushroom Capital of the World,” or “I’m from Pennsylvania Dutch Country.” It’s amazing how they tack on monikers or descriptive phrases. At first, I was almost overwhelmed by how many sections there are to Pennsylvania, not just geographical or topographical, but industrial, and even social. I would like to say that there is one area that would serve as a micro­cosm, but there isn’t.

For example, farming areas are scattered all across the Commonwealth. Up in the Northern Tier you may be driving past beautiful big, lush forests and suddenly come into a small agricultural center, where some of the architecture seems to have been plucked from New England villages. There are country stores, Greek Revival houses, and great barns with gambrel roofs. Then you can drive to Berks County and see what the Pennsylvania Germans did with these wonderful fieldstone farm houses. So you have many farming centers that are vastly different from one another, depending on the nationality or the ethnic groups that settled there. In Philadel­phia, everyone knows the western suburbs-Bryn Mawr, Berwyn, Malvern – as the “Main Line.” When the Pennsylvania Railroad first put the railroad through, “Main Line” originally referred to the main line of the railroad but now it’s become descriptive of a certain socio-economic and educational background – evocative of a certain way of life. Very much The Philadelphia Story come to life with deb parties and hunt clubs.

Have there been other surprises?

The sheer number of historical organizations and cultural institutions is staggering. We have more than a thousand history or history-related organizations of every type – neighbor­hood historic preservation associa­tions, land conservation trusts, county historical societies, genealogical study groups, regional museums, college and university art galleries, and historic house museums. We have an organiza­tion or group in Pennsylvania for just about any specific interest.

Pennsylvanians treasure their history, and there’s not one county in this great Commonwealth of ours where you won’t find a pocket of activity. You’ll also find some terrific collections that play an important role in documenting our history. We’re all touched by history, and Pennsylvanians are dedicating to safeguarding theirs.

I know that you have a special interest in the fine arts. I wonder how many people really associate Pennsylvania with artistic discovery.

For years, collectors, muse­ums, and dealers primarily dealt with the great, national names in American art. But about thirty years ago collectors started discovering the regional schools.

Pennsylvania has great regional pools of artistic genius. In Allentown, we have diverse talents like painter Walter Emerson Baum, sculptor W. W. Swallow, printmaker Tod Lindenmuth. Next door in Berks Coun­ty – which has enormous talent – we find everyone from Daniel Devlan to Ben Austrian to E. L. Poole to the Shearer family. Ben Austrian is famous for his chick paintings, but he was also one of America’s earliest “artist-illustrators.” His plump little chick for the cleanser Bon Ami is still used by the Faultless Starch Company. These regional artists are going to become so highly collectible and so coveted that I think it will stimulate new scholarship. We’re familiar with their work, but their story has not yet been fully told. In time, historians will build a context so we can better understand the times in which they lived and worked.

What I really admire about our Pennsylvania painters, no matter the region, is that they are such great landscape artists. Because of that, we’re lucky; we are seeing a Pennsylvania through the eyes of artists – anywhere from the 1850s with Russell Smith, to the New Hope School of the 1920s. Those views up and down the Delaware River and the scenes of the frosty Bucks County mornings are just phenomenal. The drama and intensity will stand forever. These paintings will be the documents of what Pennsylvania was like through the ages.

You will also find that there are different artist communities. They may be loosely strung, or they might be highly organized. Near Johnstown there was a little place called Scalp Level. George Hetzel, the famous Pittsburgh artist, organized summer classes there. The painters would come from Pitts­burgh and paint en plein air. That school had talent that was absolutely brilliant. But it really wasn’t discovered until the last forty years ago or so. Paul Chew and the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg played an important role in collecting, documenting, and exhibiting the Scalp Level pictures.

Do you think Pennsylvania created the artists, that the landscape was just begging to be painted?

The topography in many areas in so striking that, yes, I believe it attracted a number of artists – and kept a lot of artists here, too. A strong example is Mauch Chunk [renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953], with its craggy hills and steep valleys. It was a mecca for magazine illustrators in the late nineteenth century. They called it the “Switzerland of America.” In some of the travel and guide books the railroads issued at that time in order to attract travelers, you find these marvelous engravings that really portray the drama of the land­scape in the Mauch Chunk area.

So many things happened in Pennsyl­vania historically, from the Declaration of Independence to important battles. Why do you think they happened here?

For one, there was a concentration of learned minds in colonial era Pennsyl­vania. Philadelphia was a leading center of government and commerce. So, naturally you had the thinkers and the intellectuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington converging at one place at one time. When you have a collection of such brilliant and visionary individ­uals, there is, in turn, dialogue and debate. This meant nurturing one another, giving rise to all sorts of thoughts and ideas. That’s where concepts and ideals come from, such as those eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

As for battles, don’t forget how close we are to the Mason-Dixon Line. During the Civil War, when the Confederate Army began its northern advance, it came into Pennsylvania. General Lee had no specific goal, but fate intervened. Some Confederate soldiers came to Gettysburg looking for a supply of shoes. Skirmishes ensued and soon attracted many troops from both North and South. It was an accident that the greatest battle ever fought on the American continent was in Gettysburg, and that Gettysburg became so deeply embedded in the history of our Commonwealth and of the nation.

We’ve talked about events. What about people? You must have some favorite Pennsylvanians.

One of my favorite Pennsylvanians is John O’Hara, who really captured what I call the tone and tenor – the ways of life – of the anthracite region. Since I grew up there, I have always been intrigued by his work. But I know that many people from the coal regions are only interested in O’Hara because they want to know the town or the person behind his fictional names.

I look at it more deeply. He really captured the way people lived. His dialogue is superb. I think he is the best at his craft for capturing meaning through dialogue. Just reading what his characters say tells you where they’re from, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking. For O’Hara, details – manners, dress, settings – are exceptionally important, but in showing how his characters talk, he truly reveals the person. There are some quaint coal region idioms and expressions that he was able to place within each class or group of people. You could certainly tell which character had been away from the region and had come back, or who had been schooled, or who was living out in the farming villages.

When I was in the sixth grade I had to write a little essay about my most admired person. That happened to be a Pennsylvanian, at least a native Pennsyl­vanian, and it was Mary Cassatt. What I felt in the sixth grade still holds true too. I admire her work immensely.

O’Hara and Cassatt would be my top two, but there are so many others. First Lady Cordelia Pinchot was a woman of great convic­tion and strength. Conrad Richter, who lived in Pine Grove, Schuylkill County, wrote beautifully. John Updike, who grew up in Shillington, near Reading, is a favorite. Billy Strayhorn, a great jazz musician, lived in Pittsburgh.

Did O’Hara stay in Pennsylvania or did he leave?

He left. He moved around, eventual­ly settling in Princeton, but what makes his work so Pennsylvanian is that he returned to it in his short stories and novels. O’Hara would come back infrequently in person, but in his works he revisited what he called “The Region” or “My Pennsylvania Protectorate.” He thinly disguised the coal region commu­nities. Pottsville was Gibbsville, named after Wolcott Gibbs, his friend at The New Yorker. Tamaqua appears as Taqua. Schuylkill Haven is Swedish Haven. Minersville is Collieryville. Lykens becomes Lyons. So, he left, but in terms of the locus of his literature, he didn’t.

Let’s talk about Pennsylvania Heritage. Do you believe that a magazine can teach and inspire?

Yes, and I believe it’s the stories of the people in our magazine that inspire and make an impact. We tell the stories of illustrious Pennsylvanians, people like Rachel Carson and James Michener and Violet Oakley and Fred Rogers and Mike Schmidt. We also share the stories of not­-so-famous but equally significant people like Richard Arner, one of the last of the surviving Lehigh Canal workers, and Walter Rybka, captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara.

Has the nature of the magazine itself changed or evolved over the years?

When Pennsylvania Heritage made its debut in 1974, it was basically a house organ for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. As a publica­tion of the Commonwealth’s official history agency, it carried fairly conven­tional news of historical society meetings, conferences, events, and people in the field. Through the seven­ties, especially with the Bicentennial in 1976, it became a little more graphic, a little more current. In 1983, we made a big decision that in order to attract more readers we needed to expand the types of features and upgrade the magazine in general. We added color images, sized illustrations larger, and varied our departments.

The early editions of Pennsylvania Heritage contained standard, traditional histories. As the magazine expanded, the stories expanded in scope. Articles became genuine features and the individuals writing them put them in historical context, showing how they fit in the big picture. We now have included a whole range of features such as destination and travel pieces, interviews, profiles, and photo essays.

We know it’s critical to keep the magazine interactive with our readers and so we have added regular departments such as “Lost and Found,” where we invite readers to send us photographs of their local landmarks – whether they’ve been lost through neglect or destruction, or have just been rediscov­ered, restored, or “found.” We ask our peers in the history and museum communities to let us know about exciting new acquisitions or little­-known treasures for “Curator’s Choice.” “Cur­rents” and “Shorts” are always popular – they give news of exhibitions and events far in advance.

Our newest feature, “Pennsylvania Memories For A New Millennium,” encourages readers to share their personal recollec­tions of people, places, and events that affected them profoundly, perhaps changing the way they look at the world or how they perceive their past. Response has been terrific, thanks to our loyal readership.

One of our most important assets is that we’re able to converse with our readers. It’s gratifying to get letters to the editor, e-mail, or telephone calls, espe­cially from readers who remember a person or an event. That, to me, means that we are doing our job. If we’re chronicling history that’s within recent memory, making it meaningful for people and giving it in a frame of reference, and readers respond to it, then we’re doing our job. Whether they agree or disagree is not important. What matters is that they have at least “con­nected” with a story.

Editing a magazine like Pennsylvania Heritage demands teamwork, other perspectives. Our talented and visionary staff works together like a team.

Is there one guiding principal that has helped you as an editor?

Being well informed is one asset that gives an editor guidance. It’s what gives the context for making decisions about what is really important, what needs to be covered. Reading gives you a level of comfort, a conviction, a confi­dence, and a feeling of control. I believe reading is the most important ingredi­ent for having your finger on the pulse and to help you make intelligent decisions.

How do you choose a story for Pennsylvania Heritage?

Because I was not trained as a historian, I come to the task with little bias, great curiosity, and a healthy dose of naiveté. I look for the stories that haven’t been fully told or the subjects that have been neglected. I consider myself an average reader with a fascina­tion for history, and so I balance magazine content in terms of the type of history itself – industrial, political, social. I look for geographical diversity and various time periods.

Naturally, some of our features are anniversary-driven. The recent interview with Dick Clark, for instance, coincided with the dedication of a state historical marker in Philadelphia commemorating the fortieth anniversary of American Bandstand.

I rely heavily on our editorial staff for ideas, and I also count on regular contributors for story proposals. Bill Kashatus and Sharon Silverman – writers whose names our readers will immedi­ately recognize – have been invaluable in helping to prepare our varied fare.

How do you approach a story?

I think if one just looks for what I call the “hook” or the “offbeat” or the “quirky” – that works. I like to enter a story innovatively in order to engage our readers. I don’t care so much if they remember that twenty-two hundred people died in the Johnstown Flood of 1889. What I want them to feel is the terror, the grimness, the despair, the utter destruction. A great mountain of water – some eyewitnesses claim it was forty feet high! – crashed upon this little community. The numbers matter, of course, but what matters most today is the sense of drama, what these people­ – the victims – were feeling. How they dealt with the aftermath is also extreme­ly important.

To commemorate the centennial of the Johnstown Flood, in 1989, we commis­sioned a piece told through the eyes of a stranded theater troupe member. In the last one hundred years many have written about the flood, but the author, John Marsh, approached it through the eyes of out-of-towners, through accounts and letters written by one of the actress­es. The article told what this flood was like to her, being stranded there – not a Pennsylvanian, not a resident of John­stown. It was grisly and it was grim, and the article captured the fear and the terror. I think the aftermath of the flood was every bit as harrowing as the water rushing down itself. No communication. Nothing. Stranded. All the coal stoves were put out. There were fires. It was hellish. This young woman captured it all and that was the story we chose to tell. That was our unconventional angle, and I think it made people feel what actually happened.

It sounds as though if a reader can feel the individ­ual experience, that’s what is going to count – the humanness of the historical figure.

To me the important aspect of history is the human element, the people. If I could sum up history in one word, it would be people. What we’re doing is not telling the story of the incidents, or the events, or the traumas, or the disasters, or the great experiments, or the innovations. We are telling the stories of people, the people behind those events – the human aspect. We’re not talking only about the robber barons, or the kings of commerce, or the titans of industry. We are also looking at the ordinary citizens whose lives have made a difference for us, whether or not they’re working in a shirt factory in Wilkes-Barre in the 1920s, or on the canal in Erie in the early nineteenth century, or in a Pittsburgh glass house in 1850.

It’s not the number of tons of steel produced by the Homestead Steelworks that’s important. It’s not the number of ships that was built with that steel. It’s the people who worked in those mills, what their life was like. Not just in the mill, but how they related to others in the community. These are the lessons that history should teach us.

So, it’s the individual story that intrigues you.

Whether a teamster, a farmer, a dressmaker, a coal miner, a CEO, every individual is helping to shape history. Everybody makes a contribution. The unfortunate thing is, I don’t think that we capture all of the contributions. Even more unfortunately, I don’t think that most people realize they are making a contribution. I hope that our magazine helps them at least recognize something of themselves in those individuals we do write about. Everybody has a story to tell. That’s why I’m especially fond of using a first-person accounts – a diary, a letter – whenever we can because it gives you the sense of immediacy, urgency, and the feeling of being there. I think, to our readers, that is critical. We could stand back and make history passive. But I want the readers there with us, discover­ing, feeling, finding out.

We haven’t talked about Pennsylvania’s tremendous ethnic diversity. Do you feel that this is one of the main things that you try to cover in Pennsylvania Heritage?

Ethnic history is a critical element that permeates Pennsylvania history. I like it to flavor the articles. People can really get a fix on what life was like for these recently arrived immigrants, even the second and third generation immigrants, who still savor their old world ways and customs and traditions. I am glad there are a number of institutions in the Commonwealth that are now helping those people preserve and understand the importance of their nationalities and their customs. But I don’t really like to take a self-conscious position that seems to say: “This is going to be a piece on ethnic history.” I like it to arise naturally as part of the story we’ re telling. Ethnic history is best presented when it’s woven naturally into a larger piece.

How do you handle some of the stories with political implications? For example, it’s fairly well known that one of the causes of the Johnstown Flood was ultimately the indifference of wealthy industrialists.

Sheer honesty. We’re not here to set the record straight. We’re here to tell the story as honestly and as intelligently as we can. We are not here to pass judg­ment. When it comes to the story of the Johnstown Flood, the author reports that wealthy Pittsburghers refused to take any action to correct a dangerous situation at their fishing club dam. Our readers certainly could infer what this group of people was like, or what their primary interests were.

The Knox Mine Disaster in January 1959 was caused, in part, by greed and corruption in the mining industry. Our article retold the story accurately and honestly.

Our piece on “Dapper Dan” Flood, the powerful congressman from northeastern Pennsylvania, pulled no punches. In many instances we used direct quota­tions as a way to let readers feel how influential and willful he was – and how intimidating he could be. To have paraphrased his words or to make them polite would have been a grave injustice to history.

What does the future hold for Pennsyl­vania Heritage?

In the immediate future I see a comprehensive index to the magazine. I see a CD-ROM of the magazine’s first twenty-five years. I see us reaching the far corners of the earth through the Internet.

The new technology will keep us in touch with our audience. We can’t change history, but we can change the ways in which we make it accessible to a diverse and growing audience. Research­ing and interpreting history is important but it’s the communication of what we have learned that’s critical. As time goes by, electronic publishing – such as our Web site – will make the magazine even more accessible to a broader audience. The new technology will help us position Pennsylvania Heritage in a highly competi­tive marketplace. The competition won’t necessarily be from other magazines but from all the demands for a person’s time.

Are the really colorful, rich aspects of Pennsylvania fading as we approach the next century? If you could see into the future, how is this period going be looked at historically? Would it be exciting to write about?

Oh, it would be absolutely exciting to write about. I see this not as a beginning of a new millennium, but of a continuum. We talk about present change in Pennsylva­nia – how industry is being supplanted by technology. But a century ago Pennsylva­nia, then an agrarian state, was also being transformed right in front of people’s very eyes. Day by day, farmland was being turned over for mills and factories. I’m sure a century from now, people will regard this current change as every bit as exciting as we – looking back – find the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century. So, I believe we’re just continuing. Change is a very big part of our story. I only wish that a hun­dred years from now I could be here to see how the new century is being covered.


For Further Reading

Bruccoli, Matthew J. The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara. New York: Ran­dom House, 1975.

Chew, Paul A. Two Hundred and Fifty Years of Art in Pennsylvania. Greensburg, Pa.: Westmoreland County Museum of Art, 1959.

____. The Permanent Collection: The Westmoreland County Museum of Art. Greensburg, Pa.: Westmoreland County Muse­um of Art, 1978.

Cuff David J., ed. The Atlas of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Klein, Philip S., and Ari Hoogenboom. A History of Pennsylvania. University Park: The Pennsylvania State Univer­sity Press, 1973.

Lindsay, Suzanne G. Mary Cassatt and Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Muse­um of Art, 1985.

McCullough, David. Brave Companions: Portraits in History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Michener, James A. The World is My Home: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1992.

O’Hara, John. Appointment in Samarra. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1983.

Stevens, Sylvester K. Pennsylvania, The Keystone State. New York: American Historical Company, Inc., 1956.


Suzanne McInerney of Hummelstown is an editor for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s publications program. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in humanities from the Pennsylvania State University. She is co-author with Fred Baldwin of Infomedicine: A Consumer’s Guide to the Latest Medical Research, published in 1995 by Little, Brown and Com­pany.