RICHLAND TWP, Allegheny County — Former Gov. Tom Ridge came to tour St. Barnabas Health System's sprawling facility Thursday morning and meet with residents.
Ridge, who was the nation's first Secretary of Homeland Security, also came to accept St. Barnabas' Hance Award, given annually to a nationally known public figure who exemplifies the values of service, benevolence and patriotism. The award is named after Gouverneur Hance, St. Barnabas' founder.
Dozens of residents with large posters welcomed Ridge to the health care facility about 10:30 a.m. Thursday. He gave a 10-minute speech in the chapel before touring the campus as part of the annual Founder's Day celebration.
Since Ridge has spent his entire career in public service and also fought in the Vietnam War, the ceremony took on a patriotic theme, so much so that the 67-year-old Ridge proclaimed he was ready to re-enlist in the military.
“I don't think they'd take me,” he said. “I can't run as fast or do as many push-ups as I used to.”
Dozens of St. Barnabas residents who served in the military packed the chapel, while members of the Mars VFW also came to show their support.
But Ridge geared most remarks during his short speech to the younger people in the crowd. Indeed, the Pine-Richland High School choir performed at the event, as did the school's JROTC chapter.
“To me, government has always been about the possibilities of tomorrow and the next day,” he said, looking over at the choir. “If you do nothing else, pay attention to who you put in office. Those are the people who make the decisions that impact your tomorrows.”
Later in the day, Ridge appeared at the Marriott Pittsburgh North hotel in Cranberry Township for a fundraising dinner to benefit St. Barnabas Charities.
The ceremony on St. Barnabas' campus didn't lack in fanfare. Politicians like state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-28th, and Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-40th, flanked Ridge as he spoke. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey also sent along an aide to present a proclamation.
Jim Roddey, the former chief executive of Allegheny County and a spokesman for St. Barnabas, laid the foundation for Ridge's speech by calling him a “great American with a great American story.”
He told the crowd how Ridge grew up “in public housing with humble beginnings” in Erie before earning a scholarship to Harvard University. He graduated with honors in 1967 before being drafted into the Army, where he earned a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam.
Ridge came home and earned his law degree before becoming one of the first Vietnam veterans to be elected to Congress. He was elected governor in 1994 and served in that capacity until 2001, when former President George W. Bush tapped him to become the first director of Homeland Security.
Many residents on campus were thrilled to meet Ridge.
Jack Snyder, 88, is a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He came dressed in a military uniform, ready to meet a fellow veteran.
“He's done some great things for this country,” Snyder said. “I thought it was only proper to attend.”
Resident Rocco Colonello, a former Army medic, listened to Ridge intently during his speech. He waited patiently to shake the man's hand as he walked down the chapel's aisle afterward.
“Very inspiring,” he said about Ridge's story.
Past Hance Award winners include former President Gerald Ford, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and actor Charlton Heston.