Byrne remembered for action

When Tom Byrne ran for Altoona City Council, he described himself as a working man for the working people. And that’s a reputation he lived up to in the late 1970s and the 1980s as the retired firefighter went head-to-head with fellow councilmen.

Byrne, 89, who retired in 1992 when the city switched to the council-manager form of government and abandoned the era when full-time councilmen managed city operations, died Saturday at home.

“Taxpayers are paying money to get these damn streets done,” Byrne told fellow council members in March 1978 when they started backing away from a plan to set aside additional money for repairing streets damaged by an unusually harsh winter.

And in the 1980s when some East End residents with poor water were frustrated by City Council’s lack of action, Byrne told them to fill jars with the yellowish liquid and come to City Hall. There, Byrne lined up the jars in front of the other council members.

“How would you like to do your wash in water like that?” he asked.

“We had our go-arounds with Tom,” former Altoona City Councilman Travis B. Young said Wednesday. “And in the end, he was a good councilman because he was very much looking out for his constituents.”

“I came to know Tom better after he and I got off council,” Young said. “We’d meet up at Mike’s Court for a sandwich.”

When the pair were on council, they had their differences.

“Some days were real frustrating,” Young said. “He was tenacious when he got on a subject that he felt strongly about.”

At a March 1978 council meeting where Byrne proposed spending more money on street repairs, Young suggested tabling the vote for a week. But Byrne, who thought he went into the meeting with support for his project, rejected that suggestion.

“I’m not going to go through this song and dance,” he said. “This is not a situation where I’m going to wait ’til the last minute.”

“Tom could be a little gruff,” said Blair County Controller Richard J. Peo, who became city treasurer in 1988 during what became Byrne’s last four-year term on council.

“But you always knew where you stood with him. And if it you didn’t know, you’re weren’t paying attention.”

Peo said he got along well with Byrne.

“He was a big help to me during my rookie year with the city,” Peo said. “And really, he was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.”

Retired Altoona City Fire Chief Reynold D. Santone Jr. offered similar sentiments for his former boss and co-worker. Byrne spent 23 years as a city firefighter before retiring in 1973.

“He would tell me not to spend any more money than I had to,” Santone said. “But he bought us a couple of new fire trucks. You had to prove to him that they were needed, but he knew better than anybody what the fire department needed.”

On the city’s longtime controversial issue of backyard burning, Byrne never wavered on supporting a practice that the city eventually outlawed. When retiring in 1992, the Mirror published a photo of Byrne standing beside a burn barrel decorated with a poster declaring “I love my Byrne Barrel,” presented to him by Andy Pappas, a former mayor who strongly opposed burning.

“There are still some older people who would like to go out and stand by a burn barrel and suck in all the toxic fumes,” Santone said. “But in their defense, those people were used to burning. That’s what they did, and when they burned, they weren’t burning the kind of plastics and stuff like we have today.”

In the story that accompanied that photo, Byrne said he spoke up on behalf of Altoona’s average working man or couple.

“I felt there were things those people didn’t say or couldn’t say,” Byrne said. “They needed somebody to represent them. The people elected me – that’s the greatest honor I could ask for. I don’t look for accolades. That’s the way I operated. That’s the way it should be.”

Calling hours for Byrne are 3 to 8 p.m. today at Jones Funeral Home, where a vigil for the deceased will be celebrated. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Altoona.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.