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‘He really had a heart of gold’

January 28, 2019

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk will be remembered as a selfless community leader who worked tirelessly to improve the county.

Those who knew Vatavuk were saddened Sunday with the news that he had lost his battle with cancer about three weeks after he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer had metastasized to his brain, spine and the lymph nodes of his abdomen. He passed away Sunday afternoon. He was 69.

Vatavuk announced in November that he would not seek a fourth term in office.

Vatavuk was a teacher with the North Star School District. He served 16 years as a Windber school board member.

Somerset County Commissioner Pat Terlingo worked with Vatavuk both in the North Star School District and as the appointed commissioner to finished James T. Yoder’s term.

“I’ve always found him to be honorable, a hard worker who wanted to help people and do anything he could for Somerset County, which includes the Windber school district, the North Star School District and the county in general,” he said.

Terlingo said he worked closely with Vatavuk during his tenure as a teacher.

“In my opinion he did a great job in the classroom,” he said. “When I became the superintendent I would visit every classroom and was always happy to go into John’s. He made learning fun for the kids.”

Terlingo said that Somerset County lost a good person.

“He will be missed,” Terlingo said. “He is appreciated and I just feel so sad. Sadness for myself and sadness for his family. Words cannot express it.”

Vatavuk also served as chairman of the Somerset County Democratic Party. At that time former State Rep. Bob Bastian led the Republican party. Bastian said that he and Vatavuk always had a mutual respect.

“John and I had a lot of common goals,” he said.

Vatavuk was a champion for the Route 219 project. In a November Daily American interview, Vatavuk said he is most proud of his work supporting the USS Somerset Commissioning and the Route 219 project. In fact, he quipped at the Route 219 opening that he spent a lot of time working on the project, announcing that he was planning to speak for seven minutes. He talked about the history of the project and his trips to advocate for it to be finished.

“Our goal is to get the $250 million to complete the last 5.5 miles,” he said at the ribbon cutting in November. “Hopefully the next group of commissioners will be able to link up with Maryland.”

Bastian said that Vatavuk would attend any meeting he could, to try and move the project forward.

“He was a real champion of the 219 project and he probably did as much as anybody for that project,” he said.

“John was a hard worker. He loved the county. He worked very hard to take care of his projects. He was a true champion of the county. There was no doubt about it.”

Vatavuk also worked tirelessly to support the USS Somerset, a Navy ship that is named after America’s County. It honors Flight 93’s 40 passengers and crew who died on Sept. 11, 2001. He served on a committee that raised nearly $50,000 to help with the commissioning.

“One of the proudest moments I ever had in my life is when I was on that stage down there in Philadelphia and looked out and saw all those people from Somerset County,” he said in 2014 about the commissioning.

Always by his side at the many social events was his wife, Janet. Somerset County Commissioner Gerald Walker said he and Vatavuk’s family had become close during the last four years.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family right now,” he said.

Yoder said he is thankful that he got to visit with Vatavuk last week.

“I’ve had a lot of good conversations over the years,” he said.

He said despite the fact that they were members of different parties, they often agreed on many issues.

“He really had a heart of gold,” he said. “John is just a really good human being.”

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