By Jamie Wiggan
Much has changed in McKees Rocks since Jack Muhr first took office as a school director in the 1970s, and still more has changed since he was born there in 1939 under the shadow of World War II.
Much of the change has run in the wrong direction, according to Muhr, who remembers a town once alive with the clamor of industry and commerce.
“This used to be a hell of a town at one time,” Muhr said, recalling main streets teeming with grocers, boutiques and jewelers. “We were booming.”
After peaking above 18,000 residents in 1940, McKees Rocks steadily hollowed out as manufacturing jobs dried up and many sought more comfortable living in the suburbs.
According to the 2020 census, the borough now has less than 6,000 permanent residents.
But Muhr believes during nearly 40 years of public life he’s consistently fought for the good of his hometown despite harsh economic headwinds.
After serving a two year-stint on the school board, Muhr took a short reprieve from local politics before putting himself forward for borough controller in 1985. Winning the election, he served in that role for four terms before running for mayor in 2001 and securing three successive re-elections. Muhr ran again this year but lost out to political newcomer Dave Flick, who will assume office in January.
Foremost among his priorities, Muhr has spent untold hours during the past 20 years enforcing borough codes on property upkeep and maintenance.
His devotion to the task – “code enforcement free of charge” as he puts it – has earned Muhr enemies as well as supporters.
A friend involved in county politics once expressed to Muhr surprise over his persistent electoral success, given his reputation for hunting down every unmowed lawn and weed-smattered driveway with citation in hand. But to Muhr, this is a mayor’s duty.
“I’m trying to clean up this town,” he said. “We never had a mayor who put in the time I did, and I do.”
Muhr’s commitment has also won him loyal friends. He says many residents call him over their council representatives to voice problems and concerns, knowing he’ll do what he can to help.
Contrasting with the strongman image, Muhr’s also sought ways to help struggling residents, regularly giving out free turkeys ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday and personally footing the costs.
During his first year in office, Muhr helped a local priest organize a distribution event fronted by a fellow cleric who brought in a tractor-trailer laden with food, clothes and other supplies. In other years, Muhr said he worked with local HVAC firm Tudi Mechanical to install furnaces in homes at risk of losing heat.
“I contributed to the needy people in the borough,” Muhr said.
Muhr’s time in office has also involved taking a tough stand at times.
During his second term, Muhr said he lost a few long-time friends in the police force after overseeing a departmental restructuring in response to a series of irregularities uncovered.
One time early on in his career, he had to refuse a bribe. And, despite frequent requests, he routinely refuses to pull favors like fixing tickets, he said.
“That used to be a big thing around here,” he said.
Muhr acknowledged disappointment over his recent election loss but said he may seek an appointment on the zoning board or another lesser position at the borough to stay involved.
While he said he wishes Flick well and harbors “no hard feelings,” he also offered a word of caution to his former opponent.
“He’ll find out when he gets in it’s not as easy as it looks,” he said. “You’ve got to work together.”