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A fitting tribute: 17th Street bridge honors late Rep. Rick Geist

Jeanie Geist, wife of late state Rep. Rick Geist, speaks with state Rep. Lou Schmitt during the bridge dedication held on Friday morning at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona. Schmitt introduced the law to name the 17th Street bridge over I99 “The Honorable Richard A. Geist Memorial Bridge.” Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

When Jeanie Dillen began to date Rick Geist, one of the first things she noticed about him was his indefatigable interest in other people and an “uncanny” ability to remember details of their first encounters.

Rick was in his mid-20s then and wasn’t planning to become a politician.

But then he decided to run for state House of Representatives, and those “natural” capabilities helped him win the 79th District seat, which he held through biennial elections for 34 years — a tenure recognized Friday in a ceremony to mark the naming of a local bridge for the late assemblyman.

Rick Geist, who died in 2019, had a “servant’s heart,” according to Jeanie, who was raised along with Geist in the congregation of the First Church of the Brethren in Altoona.

“He was more focused on others than on himself,” Jeanie said after the ceremony, which took place at the Railroaders Memorial Museum during the unveiling of new signs where 17th Street crosses I-99 — now called The Honorable Richard A. Geist Memorial Bridge. “He would bend over backwards for others,” she said.

Jeanie Geist, wife of the late state Rep. Rick Geist reacts to kind words honoring her husband’s accomplishments during the bridge dedication held at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona on Friday. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Having met someone once, Geist wouldn’t forget the circumstances of the meeting or information about the person’s family he’d learned, which helped him reconnect with those people later, Jeanie said.

His dedication to maintaining constituent connections wasn’t always easy on her.

Shortly after he won his seat, they began to get phone calls at home — often complaints, often lengthy, often late in the evening, often fielded by Jeanie, because Rick was often in Harrisburg — and often when she was tired from her job teaching third grade.

Shouldn’t they get an unlisted number, she asked him.

“No,” Rick said, according to Jeanie. “I was elected to serve.”

She came to accept it.

“Sometimes people need to vent,” she said. “People need to be heard.”

Her husband was a good listener, she said.

He did a lot of listening at Mama Randazzo’s restaurant in Juniata, according to state Rep. Lou Schmitt, who currently holds Geist’s old seat, and who introduced the law naming the 17th Street bridge for Geist.

“Rick would sit there, and he would hold court,” said Schmitt, who organized the event at the museum. “Like a king.”

He seemed to know everybody who came in, Schmitt said.

“They would walk right past me,” he said. “They wanted to talk to him.”

Schmitt ran for the seat in 2018 on the urging of Geist, who had lost it to a conservative backlash in the 2012 primary.

“I said, ‘I’ll think about it,'” Schmitt said. “Don’t give me that ‘think about it’ crap; you’re running,” Geist told him.

Schmitt wrote a short biography of Geist that was printed in the program for Friday’s event.

In contrast to the more typical problem of having to “pad out” such a piece, Schmitt struggled with what to leave out, he said.

Geist was majority chairman of the House Transportation Committee for 16 years and at various times, was chairman of both the House Minority Caucus and the House Republican Committee on Committees, Schmitt wrote.

Geist helped reform the laws on teen drivers’ training, was the prime architect of the state’s DUI law, was an important promoter of laws to improve work zone and truck safety; authored legislation to create the Rail Freight Advisory Committee and legislation to create the Ben Franklin Technology Partnership, as well as “his signature piece,” House Bill 3, which allows for public-private partnerships for transportation projects, according to Schmitt.

Geist was also instrumental in founding the Tour de Toona bike race and conceived of and contributed to development of Penn State Altoona’s four-year Railroad Engineering Degree program, Schmitt wrote.

The bridge named for Geist is one of 425 state bridges that have been named based on legislation, said Tom Prestash, District 9 executive.

There are more than 25,000 state bridges, so such an honor is “not very common,” Prestash said.

Retired state representative and current state Secretary of Agriculture Sam Hayes said Geist was an expert throughout his career in building the metaphorical bridges necessary to generate the unglamorous “grist” that goes into any legislative accomplishment.

The 17th Street bridge dedication Friday, then, serves as a fitting tribute to Geist’s focus on Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure.

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