How the Steelers’ Terrible Towel Funded a Special Needs School

by Varda Epstein

When Danny was born, I was six. My mother got a phone call. From the next room, I could hear her end of the conversation. She sounded first happy, then quieter, concerned. I tried to eavesdrop but my mother’s voice had gone too soft for me to make out the words. I heard “oxygen.” When my mother hung up the phone, she peeked outside the kitchen door where I was standing and said, “Aunt Mildred had a baby boy.”

Until now, I had been the baby of the family. Not just the baby of my immediate family but of our extended family—I was the youngest of all my siblings and cousins. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being displaced. Shouldn’t someone have asked before taking my spot as family baby?

A few weeks later, in spite of my silent misgivings, we made the trek from Pittsburgh to Mt. Lebanon, the Pittsburgh suburb where my aunt and uncle lived. Danny looked like an angel with his blond hair and blue eyes. He was perfect. I was smitten.

Danny appeared flawless, but as time went on it became clear something was wrong. He never made eye contact or smiled. Aunt Mildred, a nurse by profession, kept taking him to specialists—maybe he was hearing-impaired? But the doctors pooh-poohed Aunt Mildred’s concerns about Danny.

Only when he was four, long after appropriate interventions might have been implemented, was Danny diagnosed with autism. My mother explained that Danny had trouble relating to people.

Meanwhile, Danny’s father, my maternal uncle, was a sports writer and color commentator whose career had just begun to take off.  Sports were sacrosanct in Pittsburgh and with time, native son Myron Cope became a local legend as a radio and television personality. In his autobiography, Double Yoi, Uncle Myron wrote about always remaining a “big fish in a small pond.”

He could have had an illustrious national career having been approached to become editor of Sports Illustrated. His books had received critical acclaim. But Uncle Myron’s local WTAE radio show had unbeatable perks in the form of comprehensive medical coverage, now a prime consideration because of Danny’s condition.

Uncle Myron had a thick Pittsburgh accent and rolled his r’s. He thought he was supposed to yell into the microphone. His voice was obnoxious, but he was knowledgeable and became a much-loved Pittsburgh icon. In spite of Uncle Myron’s loud public persona, in private he was quiet and modest. I could feel Uncle Myron and Aunt Mildred suffering as they came to terms with Danny’s diagnosis. But no one spoke about any of this at family gatherings.

Back then, those gatherings consisted of my mother’s siblings and their families. When we gathered at the Copes’ suburban home, Danny was endlessly fascinating, especially when given a jigsaw puzzle to put together. He’d look at the puzzle piece. Then he’d look at the puzzle. Finally, he would set the puzzle piece in its exact spot, first time out. He never spoke a word.

On tiring of his puzzle, Danny would roam around the room, never making eye contact with any of us but would occasionally double back to my aunt and lean in on her for a millisecond, before roaming the room once more. Danny had favorites among the cousins. As he went around the room, Danny would brush against my cousin Larry for a split-second, and then do the same to me.

Each time we visited, he did the same thing. He liked me—that beautiful blond cousin of mine who inhabited a different world. I liked him, too.

Autism was still new. Little was known about the disorder. Danny entered an experimental treatment protocol with unfortunate consequences.  In addition to his autism, Danny had developed an intellectual disability.  It became difficult to care for him at home. After trying several facilities, a warm environment was found for the now-teenaged Danny at Allegheny Valley School, in 1982.

Seven years earlier, Uncle Myron attended a meeting at the station. The executives at WTAE where my uncle’s obnoxious voice held Steelers fans in thrall wanted Uncle Myron to come up with a gimmick to whip up fans during the playoffs. Pittsburgh being a blue-collar town, Uncle Myron couldn’t see suggesting pompoms. He hit on towels. You could use them to keep warm in blustery football weather, or wipe spilled beer off a stadium seat.

Towels, in the official Steelers colors black and gold, seemed a practical choice. Uncle Myron named his creation, The Terrible Towel. He told the fans to wave black or gold towels at the next game, a Steelers/Colts playoff game.

Uncle Myron didn’t expect much of a response. But the crowd fell in love with The Towel. At least half of them showed up with Steelers-colored towels, waving them maniacally throughout the game.

The Towel never lost its appeal. Now trademarked as “Myron Cope’s the Official Terrible Towel” and mass-produced, The Towel is a runaway hit. Hundreds of thousands of Terrible Towels are sold each year, to the tune of around $7 apiece.

In 1996, Uncle Myron strode into Allegheny Valley School CEO Regis Champ’s office. In a New York Times article, Champ described the meeting as follows: “He came into my office, and he had a pile of papers,” Champ said. “He threw them down on my desk and said, ‘Regis, I’m giving you the Terrible Towel.’ I said, ‘Myron, I have about 10 of them. I’ll take another one, but . . .

“He said, ‘No, I’m giving you the rights, and you’ll be able to get all the proceeds from the Terrible Towels.’ I was speechless. I knew that this would be the legacy that outlived Myron.”

And so it was. Uncle Myron died in 2008, but The Towel continues to generate sales in the millions of dollars. From 1996-2005, for instance, The Towel generated sales of $2.5 million. Danny’s alma mater receives a check for tens of thousands of dollars each month.

Uncle Myron was very specific about how the money from The Towel was to be spent. He didn’t want gleaming new edifices erected in his name. Instead, he specified that income generated by The Towel be spent on equipment to serve students’ individual needs.

The Towel has funded top-of-the-line, specialized wheelchairs and programs that allow quadriplegics to turn lights on and off with their eyes. The Towel also underwrote the purchase of adaptive communication devices that help the mute voice their thoughts. Among the recipients of the latter is my cousin Danny who, unlike his famous dad, has never spoken a word.

Today, Danny lives in a supervised group home with four other intellectually-disabled adults. He works an assembly line packaging pretzels, and likes to shop and attend sports events. His younger sister, my cousin Elizabeth, visits him whenever she can. With Aunt Mildred and Uncle Myron both gone, the two siblings are what’s left of the Cope family.

At the age of 18, I left Pittsburgh for good and came to live in Israel. As my family grew, trips back to “Da Burg” grew few and far between. Four years ago however, I had a rare chance to go “home” and see my ailing mother. I took some accrued vacation time from my job as a communications writer at the car donation charity, Kars4Kids, and boarded a plane. It had been 14 years since my last visit to Pittsburgh.

I called Elizabeth and we arranged to get what was left of the family together for dinner. We’d once needed numerous card tables to accommodate us all. Now we were just a small group of women plus Danny, still blond and blue-eyed. My angel-child all grown up.

Danny proved a picky eater, leaving his vegetables, but downing quantities of Coca Cola and cake. Elizabeth gently chided Danny and he hung his head. I said, “Anyone would prefer sweets over salad, right Danny?”

Danny looked up at me with those mournful blue eyes and nodded agreement. At that moment we connected.  I felt he knew me, remembered me, though it just wasn’t possible. Too much time had elapsed. We looked different than we had as youngsters. But like so many years ago, we just liked each other.

I don’t know that Danny will carry any memory of that meeting—but for me, seeing Danny again made it all come together for me. My uncle sacrificed wider fame and fortune to protect Danny and give him the best life possible. Danny has gainful employment, a supervised home, and a loving sister.

Getting Danny settled and happy was huge. But Uncle Myron didn’t walk away once Danny’s “issues” were squared away. Instead, he found a way to “pay it forward,” by offering the proceeds of the Terrible Towel to help kids like Danny.

To those outside of Pittsburgh, the man with the weird grating voice may have seemed ridiculous. But judging from the way Pittsburgh still honors Myron Cope I can tell they were never fooled by his radio act. They know that Uncle Myron was deep down good, a shining example not just for Pittsburgh, but for the world at large.

Varda Epstein is an expatriate Pittsburgher who tries to keep her late uncle’s legacy alive by blogging for Kars4Kids. This charity’s proceeds underwrite educational initiatives for children.