The Amen Corner originated from spontaneous gatherings beginning in 1870 of an ambitious group of young professionals, who held spirited discussions on the steps of downtown buildings about current events, political issues and anything else they deemed relevant.
The group evolved over the many decades from an informal, exclusive old boy's network to an influential Pittsburgh institute that eventually diversified and elected its first woman president, but not until the year 2000. Members were doctors, lawyers, judges, business owners, actors, musicians and politicians.
As far as we know, the first Amen Corner annual dinner was held on a Saturday night - May 23rd, 1925 - in downtown William Penn Ballroom.
The founding invitation reads: "The Amen Corner, Pittsburgh's most unique association of men of many minds, respectfully requesting..." and drew 781 men together that night to honor retiring president, Pennsylvania Senator John P. Harris.
Times change and so it has been with Amen Corner. Originally, politics were involved in a number of Amen Corner affairs as this article will cover. Today, however, Amen Corner is truly a social organization which is not affiliated with any political party, promotes no particular religion and does not stand for or oppose any particular social issue. In the following section, we have tried to capture Amen Corner over the years.
Distinguished Pittsburghers and early members included: Andrew Daugherty, Cluss Lawrence, John F. O'Toole, B.A. Joyce, John Shepard, John McKelvey, Wm. Brennan, P.J. Berry, Chas. Flinn (brother of Senator Wm. Flinn), John Dunn, Judge John Sweeney, John Flannery, Joe Joyce, James McKay and William Lang.
The Amen Corner was frequently identified as having strong political ties. Initially nearly all members were registered Republicans. However, upon perusal of the old dinner programs, there was a sprinkling of prominent Democrats. Among them is David Leo Lawrence, who later became Pittsburgh's mayor and Pennsylvania's Governor, and is credited as a leader of Pittsburgh's first renaissance. Then there is Oil Baron Joseph Guffey, who became a U.S. Senator in 1934. An interesting sidelight, he defeated incumbent David A. Reed, Republican. They both lived in Shadyside within a block of each other and voted in the same precinct of the 7th Ward.
A former Amen Corner President, Judge Elder W. Marshall, often mentioned that at one time "every candidate chosen from this area to run for office in the state of Pennsylvania was elected at meetings in the Amen Corner rooms."
Since the inception of its grandiose annual dinners, the Amen Corner was known to bring to Pittsburgh a coterie of after-dinner entertainers and speakers of national distinction and worldwide significance. The dinners presented annual forums to members, their guests, and the local news media members, comprised of persons who made history in their respective areas of participation -- entertainers, sports, industry and politics.
Over the years, Amen Corner developed deep and lasting friendships with Washington D.C. officials who assisted in obtaining prominent speakers for our programs, including Ed Martin, Jim Duff, Hugh Scott, John Heinz, U.S. Senators all from the state of Pennsylvania, along with Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia.
In the early years, picnics were held at various farms and groves. In the 20s, the picnics were held at "Indian Mound" in McKees Rocks; in the 30s picnic spots included "the Dells" at Wildwood, (PA), Turner Park in Perrysville (PA), Rainbow Park in Versailles Township, (PA), and the Henry Townsend Farm near Carnot, (PA); in the early 40s Daniels' Grove was the site of these outdoor parties. In the latter 40s and early 50s these gatherings were at the Stanton Heights Golf Club. In 1956, no trip was planned. The group instead took a boat trip to Wheeling Downs, and no annual picnics were held from then until 1975 when the tradition was re-instituted by President Thomas J. McCaffrey; first at Lovuola's Farm in Greentree, and then in Scott Township Municipal Park.
The annual Holiday Party has always been a favorite. The first of these events was held in the 30s on New Year's Eve afternoon, between 2-5 p.m. The tradition continued until many years afterward, when in 1964 the date was switched to the Friday before Christmas. Today, the annual event is held in early December.
Beginning in 1965, and for a number of years thereafter, we hosted affairs honoring the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania when it was sitting in Pittsburgh. Originally luncheons were held, but since time during their working day was so limited, we transitioned to cocktail parties in the 1970s. These parties were popular with practically all of the federal judges attending, as well as members of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Common Pleas Court of Allegheny County, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania and Judges from the Courts of Western Pennsylvania Counties. In 2001, we honored women in the Judiciary of Western Pennsylvania. The Annual Judicial Reception continues to honor the outstanding work of our statewide branch.
In addition to the aforementioned events, which really are the traditional ones, from time to time social events were planned such as evenings at the Meadowlands Race Track, a Pirates ballgame, cruises and a dinner on the Gateway Party Liner.
A number of events in the 1930s included Saturday luncheons and entertainment.
What's In A Name?
The origin of the name "Amen Corner" and how it came about should be forever archived for future historians to know and savor. The progenitor of the "Amen Corner" was called "The Steps" because the group always met on the steps of a building, be it a downtown church or a pharmacy on Liberty Avenue and Market Street. Legend has it that when "The Steps" began to meet in the corner of the lobby of the William Penn Hotel, lively discussions would be punctuated with "Amen" when a valid point was made. And, thus, a name was born.
Starting in 1927 and until his death on June 16th, 1962, Fred E. Obley was the so-called man behind the scene. Fred was, for several years, one of the City of Pittsburgh's voter registration board members. He was also active in the Republican Party, and for years served as its headquarters manager and handled many campaigns.
Upon his death, the Amen Corner Board of Governors presented an annual award for a number of years given to an outstanding Pittsburgher in Fred's honor and memory. Those so honored included Colonel Joseph Walker, Chief Test Pilot of the U.S. Air Force and, at the time the person who held the world's speed record; Frank L. McGee, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Alcoa; Fred C. Foy, Chairman of the Board of Koppers Co.; Col. Willard F. Rockwell, Chairman of the Board of Rockwell Manufacturing Co.; and Adm. Ben Moreell, Chairman of the Board of J&L Steel.
Pomp and Ceremony:
It's been our custom to present the retiring Amen Corner president a gift on occasion of the annual dinner. Prior to 1960, each honoree received gifts like cameras, golf clubs or other recommended signature items. However, in 1962, Franklin A. West, the Amen Corner's 36th President, changed all that.
Mr. West was very interested in heraldry, and introduced and added dimension to the organization's tradition. He suggested a silver tray as a gift with the simple engraving of the name "Amen Corner," including the name of said recipient and the year of his tenure. Along with that innovation, another magnificent contribution was made.
He designed and had local jewelers John M. Roberts and Son execute in sterling silver a ceremonial necklace, to be presented to the incoming president as the last act on the banquet's yearly agenda. The president retains the necklace for the year.
The links of the necklace are triangles -- representing the Golden Triangle of Pittsburgh. Besides that fine symbolism, the design remains simple, practical. The names of the Presidents receiving this necklace are engraved with one name on each side of the triangle. When these links are filled in with names, the necklace can be reversed and the same number can be engraved on the opposite side. This tradition continues up to the present.
The Amen Corner has been called the organization of tradition. This, we believe, is its most apt description. We hope it never changes.
We march to no man's drum.
We believe in friendship and loyalty.
We believe in the right to meet and be informed, and we provide the forum.
We champion no political cause or person.
We believe in the rights and privileges of each individual.
We believe in the Golden Rule.
We honor each man's religious beliefs.
We believe in the United States of America.
We are Patriots.
We are AMEN CORNER!
Over the years, men who have been dedicated to its principles have headed the Amen Corner and they have been men of prestige in our community and in their chosen professions and fields of endeavor. All of them have found their tenures rewarding. One of our past Presidents, Harold A. McKamish, said it best when he wrote "My term as President of AMEN CORNER was truly an honor; the honor in being associated with good people. Any organization is only as good as its people. That's what makes AMEN CORNER so successful." Today, those heading Amen Corner include the great women leaders of Pittsburgh.