Of the roughly 1.2 million people living in Allegheny County, Jimmy Cvetic knew 942,000 of them. I know you’re thinking that number is ridiculous and you’re probably right. Jimmy probably did know all 1.2 million.
Jimmy died Feb. 15 after a fight with cancer that had him on the ropes many times in the past several years. A celebration of his life is slated for 5 p.m. March 18 at the Monroeville Convention Center and we’ll bring you more details as they’re available.
Jimmy was a man of many lives; Pittsburgh’s own renaissance man. The Vietnam veteran joined the Allegheny County Police force in 1973. He mostly worked in homicide and narcotics, spending time under cover. But that was just the start of who he was. He was a boxing coach, a poet, a humanitarian and to many, an unconditional friend. Jimmy’s charm and heart was matched only by his wife Gloria Sztukowski. That’s probably why they made such a great couple.
Jimmy was a guy always on the go and I think Gloria was the only one who could keep up. Even in his late 60s with a bad hip, Jimmy got around more than anyone half his age. He always had irons in the fire and at times you swore he had to be more than one person the way he was able to juggle it all. In a way, he was several people, at least five that I knew of. I only knew Jimmy the cop by reputation. But let me tell you a little about the four Jimmys that I knew in the order that I met them.
Jimmy the Poet
This is the side of Jimmy Cvetic that would surprise a lot of people because he was a boxing coach and a police officer before he really became known as a writer. But, I first met Jimmy through his poetry. He had written a book of poetry called The Evidence Room. The poems focused on the atrocities of the Holocaust and he was putting on an artistic performance centered around some of the works. Jimmy read his poems as dancers and a live painter reenacted his words each in their own medium.
The topics of his work varied as much as his life’s work did. He wrote about growing up catholic and his time in school with the nuns. He wrote about his time as a cop, the good and the bad. He wrote about life honestly; he saw all its smiles and all of its blemishes and he wrote about every one of them in fantastic detail. After this story is my favorite Cvetic poem, Identity Theft and the Vanity of Your Worth. He has written several books, many carrying a title incorporating his nickname, Dog. Titles include Dog Days and Dog is a Love from Hell.
Jimmy met the actor Nick Nolte when Nolte was in town to film the movie, Warrior. Cvetic served as his chaperone, keeping Nolte out of trouble. They started talking about poetry and Nolte read and loved Jimmy’s work.
“Jimmy shows me this giant stack of poetry,” Nolte says. “I read it and it was some of the best poetry I’d ever read.” Nolte was so impressed with Cvetic’s poems that he took them to poets at the nearby Los Angeles Poetry Club in Venice, Ca., and they were so impressed that they have had Cvetic out to the club for readings.
More than he wanted to be a police officer or anything else, Jimmy told me that he wanted to be a writer. He often said that he wanted to be known as the Charles Bukowski of Pittsburgh. I once told him he got it backwards: Charles Bukowski was the Jimmy Cvetic of Los Angeles.
Jimmy the Fighter
Jimmy ran several boxing gyms in the region, most famously the Third Avenue Gym Downtown. He was heavily involved along with Sztukowski in the Western Pa. Golden Gloves and the Police Athletic League. He was also the first trainer for some well-known local fighters including Monty Meza-Clay and Paul Spadafora.
But what I always appreciated was the way Jimmy would use boxing to work with troubled youth. A 2007 story I wrote about Jimmy sums up why he did it.
“As a rule, we get tough kids through these doors,” Cvetic says. “They’re not all bad or in trouble, but let’s be honest: We’re not getting choir boys from Vienna in here.” But whatever else the kids get from Cvetic, they get a shot at greatness, however fleeting. “I don’t care how tough the kid is or how bad he is,” Cvetic says. “When he puts on those trunks and those gloves and steps into that ring under the lights, it’s a moment he’s going to carry with him the rest of his life.
“No matter what he becomes in life, for at least one moment, he’ll always have the lights.”
Jimmy the Humanitarian
“There’s no such thing as a bad kid and every kid deserves to get what they want at Christmas,” Jimmy would often say in one variation or another. That’s why he spent the bulk of his year collecting toys or collecting money for toys or setting up fundraisers to make money to buy toys. The drive was through the non-profit Police Athletic League and he used a storefront at the Monroeville Mall as his own personal North Pole.
Jimmy lived by the motto: “Anything for the kids.” And when he said anything he meant it. He was never afraid to ask anyone for anything to reach his holiday goals. He was always taking a meeting or making a call. I once asked him if he was ever uncomfortable asking for donations and he answered with a quick, “no.”
“Brother, all they can say is no,” Jimmy once told me. “But you don’t get yes without risking getting a no.” But from the level of success he’s had over the years, I doubt he heard “no” very often. I also know that besides donations, Jimmy put a lot of his personal money into the program. And the poetry that ran in the Pittsburgh Current and in the City Paper before that was all done in exchange for an end of the year donation to the toy drive.
Anything for the kids.
Jimmy the Friend
I am one of many people who was proud to call Jimmy Cvetic my friend. We met nearly 20 years ago when I was working as a reporter for the former In Pittsburgh Newsweekly. However, we became closer in the past five years or so and even more so since the launch of the Current.
Even when he was at his sickest, Jimmy came to the office a couple of times a week. He’d drop off poetry, talk about the state of things in the world and generally make sure all was well. In the past six months, we began talking about some of his old cases, mostly unsolved ones. He talked a lot about a man incarcerated in Florida for committing several murders. Jimmy suspected the guy was also responsible for some murders in this area. He wanted to take a road trip and we could talk to the guy and make him give it up and then we’d write the book.
Another time he came to me with a project about writing a piece in verse about some of Pittsburgh’s women poets. The piece was impressive and we published it a couple of months back. “Man,” he would say. “These women are powerful. Their work will blow your mind.” We were also planning a video project around that story, but, it would seem, that we ran out of time.
Looking back on the time I spent with Jimmy the past year, I think he was assembling a bucket list of things he wanted to do before that motherfucker, cancer, won the last round. I’m glad we could do some of it together and hopefully, I can do a couple of them for him. Because I know there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me or you. Regardless of how many favors Jimmy asked for over the years, they will never equal the good that he was able to do with them.
One of the last times I saw Jimmy was before Christmas. I had a load of toys to give him that I had purchased. We engaged in small talk as we walked to the back of my car.
“What about that one,” Jimmy said pointing to a boxed Spider-Man action figure still in my trunk.
I replied, “I think I’m going to keep that one.” I explained that it fit in nicely with the collection of action figures I displayed in my office.
“I think it’s great that you have those toys in our office,” he said. “We need to act like kids sometimes to stay young.”
“Thanks, Jimmy,” I replied as I started to close the trunk.
“But,” he quickly added. “Sometimes we have to act like adults, so give me the goddamned Spider-Man, I got kids waiting.”
We both broke out in laughter as I handed over the doll. “You’re a good kid, Charlie,” he said as he hugged me, still laughing. “Behave yourself and maybe Santa will bring you one next year.”