(Editor’s note: This story by former New Castle News sports editor Kayleen Cubbal was first published Sept. 11, 2016, on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks).
When Ludwig Picarro wanted to sit next to a cute girl he liked in ninth-grade English class, Bob Michalojko traded seats with him.
Already good friends after meeting in seventh grade at George Washington Junior High, their relationship continued to grow as they went on to play football for New Castle, vacation together and talk about their hopes and dreams. Picarro asked Michalojko to stand by his side when he married Susan Wilson, that cute girl he liked in ninth grade. Michalojko did the same when he married his wife, Charla.
And so it was without hesitation that when he learned his lifelong best friend was in the South Tower at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Michalojko spent three frantic days trying to find him.
Now, 15 years after Picarro died at the age of 44 in the the second of two World Trade Center towers taken down in an act of terrorism, Michalojko says he still thinks of his friend with sadness — yet he remembers the good times with the big-hearted man who loved to laugh.
A FOREVER FRIENDSHIP
Michalojko well remembers the first time he laid eyes on Picarro, who most everyone called ‘Lud’, at George Washington Junior High.
“He sat at the lunch table behind me and when I turned around, I decided he was the biggest kid I’d ever seen,” Michalojko said. “But when I met him, I found out he was kind and soft-hearted and just a lot of fun to be around.”
The two were part of New Castle’s 1973 WPIAL championship football team before graduating in 1975. Michalojko was the starting quarterback in 1974 and Picarro was a two-way lineman. Both went to Pitt. Picarro decided that college football really wasn’t for him and quit after one year to concentrate on his studies. They graduated and went their separate ways, but never lost touch.
“I was at his house in Basking Ridge (New Jersey) in July, not long before 9/11,” Michalojko said. “I am so glad that I got that one last chance to spend time with him.”
On the morning of the attacks, Michalojko left his home in Marshall Township near Pittsburgh to take his eldest son to school and his youngest son to daycare when he heard the news of the first World Trade Center tower being hit by a plane. He immediately tried to call Picarro, who was the senior vice president for diversified products at Zurich American Insurance Group in 1 Liberty Plaza. Picarro’s secretary said he was not in the office, but across the street attending a business meeting at Aon Insurance, in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
“I told her to tell him to give me a call when he got back to the office,” Michalojko said. “Then I called his house. Susan said she was on the phone with him and he was OK. Of course no one was really thinking terrorism at that point.
“I got home from dropping my son off at daycare just in time to see the second plane hit,” he added. “I just sat there and said, ‘No.’”
A SEARCH MISSION
Later that night, after Susan still had not heard from her husband, Michalojko and Charla decided to drive to Basking Ridge. They left early the next morning after picking up Susan’s mother, Patty Wilson.
Picarro usually drove to Jersey City, where he rode a ferry or train 40 miles into Manhattan for work. On Sept. 10, he took his car to work since he had a corporate dinner that evening at the 21 Club in New York City. There, he met baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who took a photo with Picarro and gave him an autographed bat. Picarro spent the night in the city rather than face the late-night commute home.
With still no word on the morning of Sept. 13, Bob and Charla, along with the Picarros’ oldest son, Andrew, who was 15 at the time, and a neighbor, took a subway into Manhattan. Andrew’s 9-year-old brother, Matthew, remained at home.
“We posted pictures of Lud and checked the lists of those who had been taken to various hospitals,” Michalojko said. “I think the thing I remember most was that it was just so quiet. Everyone was walking around in a daze as they searched for their loved ones.
“When we first went there, I thought that we were going to find him. It was just a matter of where he was.”
With no sign of Picarro, Bob and Charla returned home on Saturday and headed to the Mahoningtown apartment of Picarro’s mother, Antoinette. Michalojko knew he would have to tread carefully since Antoinette was a widow and Ludwig was the last of her three sons. Son Donald died at age 46 in 1993 after undergoing three liver transplants. Eldest son Nicholas died of leukemia in 1999 at the age of 53.
“We filled her in on all that we knew,” Michalojko said. “We were honest with her, but still very hopeful at that time because so many people had yet to be located.”
The hope faded quickly as hundreds of bodies were found under debris. Many victims, like Picarro, were never found.
Michalojko still grieves for Picarro, but remembers his friend by laughing at his antics, like the one in which he orchestrated sitting next to Susan Wilson in ninth grade.
“We were in Mrs. Fee’s English class and I was assigned the seat next to Susan. Lud was in the back of the room,” Michalojko said. “Lud had hurt his collarbone at football practice and on a day when I wasn’t there, he convinced Mrs. Fee that the seat in the back wasn’t good for him with his injury, and he thought he would be better off sitting in my seat.
“I came back the next day and looked at him and said, ‘why are you in my seat?’ and he just laughed and said I really need to sit here. and so I let him. I’m glad I did because he was a great husband to Susan and father to their kids.”
Larry Graziani was the center on the New Castle football team in the mid-70s and Picarro was a tackle.
Like Michalojko, he and Picarro were extremely close. Picarro, Michalojko and Graziani went to Hawaii together as a gift from the New Castle YMCA following their high school graduation.
“It was definitely a memorable trip,” said Graziani, went to Notre Dame on a scholarship after high school and now lives in Evergreen, Colorado. “Kool and the Gang was just becoming well known and they stayed in the same hotel as us.
“We laughed our way through our vacation,” he added. “Lud was such fun to be around. He just had great conversations with people, he was friendly and funny and really smart. and he did everything he could to help other people. There was nobody more good-hearted than him. I was just devastated when I heard the news that he had died. The world lost a good man much too soon.”
‘A GENTLE GIANT”
Picarro graduated a year behind Dennis Elisco, but they became close nonetheless.
“Weightlifting was just coming in back then and we worked out together at the Y,” Elisco said. “Lindy (then-New Castle coach Lindy Lauro) had us working out all year ‘round and the lineman just always ended up hanging out together. Lud’s mother made the pizza at the Villanova (Inn) and we would go there and she would feed us. He always talked about Susan, he said from the first time he met her, he knew that he was going to marry her.
“Lud was very intelligent, he was a big guy, but a very soft, gentle giant,” he added. “When I heard he was gone, I just felt so bad. He had so much of his life left.”
‘A SPECIAL GUY’
Neshannock Township resident Tom Tommelleo was perhaps Picarro’s oldest friend. They grew up blocks apart in Mahoningtown and attended kindergarten at St. Lucy’s before going on to Mahoningtown Elementary School.
They started their football careers in Pop Warner, then played at George Washington and New Castle High together. When it came time for Picarro to go to Pitt, Tommelleo and two other friends took him in a panel van, “laughing the entire way there.” Like Michalojko, Tommelleo was a groomsman in the Picarros’ wedding.
“I would consider him one of my lifelong best friends,” Tommelleo said. “I kept in touch with him and in July of that year, I was in New Jersey on business and we met in New York City for a drink.”
Tommelleo was flying to Tampa Bay on business the morning of 9/11 when his plane was forced to land in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“We didn’t know what was going on at first, but when we landed, they told us what had happened in New York City,” he said. “I couldn’t call home because the cell signals were scrambled, and finally, two hours after we landed, I was able to use my phone. I saw that I had a missed phone call and it was Bob Michalojko’s number. Right away, I knew. Bob told me that Lud was in the second tower.”
Tommelleo said that he will never forget the way that Picarro treated his mother.
“Lud was a very, very good son,” he said. “He was the light of her life, especially after her other two boys died. He took her places, like New York City, and made sure that her life was a little better. I think what a lot of people didn’t know was how intelligent and thoughtful Lud was. He was very well-read, in fact, we used to call him street-corner philosopher because he liked to discuss the things he read.
“You couldn’t find a more loyal friend or a better person,” Tommelleo added. “I think about him often. I really miss him.”