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A novel experience: Couple born here month apart met in KC bookstore

This is a 22-year-old love story created at Barnes & Noble, but not sold there.

It began Oct. 2, 1998, at the national bookstore chain’s Kansas City store. Sharon Irwin, an employee of several months, turned 26 that day, creating a buzz among her co-workers.

Eric Vajentic had just been hired. He was turning a page in his life, getting acclimated to a new area after moving from Iowa. Eric congratulated Sharon and asked, in classic small-talk style, whether she had plans on her natal anniversary.

“I said, ‘My best friend came out to visit from back home,’” she recalled over the telephone last week. “He said, ‘Where’s that?’ and I said ‘a little town in Southwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up.’ Then he said, ‘I was born in Southwestern Pennsylvania.’

“I told him the small town was Washington, then he said ... ‘I was born there.’”

He certainly was, on Sept. 2, 1972 – exactly one month before his future bride. And in the same medical facility, Washington Hospital.

A quarter-century after their births, 816 miles to the west and, seemingly, against 800 million to 1 odds, these Washington natives met and, quickly, captured one another’s heart in America’s heartland.

Theirs is a storybook romance that culminated with a wedding back home, less than a year after that serendipitous birthday exchange, and has remained at a peak while raising two teenage sons, working and cheering a transcendent football team.

They are 47 now and still living in Kansas City. Parts of their hearts, however, reside in this corner of Penns Woods.

“I’ve always considered Pennsylvania my home, even though I lived there for only six years,” said Eric, a financial analyst. He initially resided in Burgettstown, but his family relocated to Montrose, Iowa, in 1979 after his father was transferred by his manufacturing company. Eric and Sharon made it a priority, though, to return to Washington County at least twice a year afterward.

Sharon was from Amwell Township and graduated from Trinity High School in 1991, but she and her family moved to Kansas City soon afterward for the same reason: dad’s job.

The Vajentics have traveled back to their roots many times, visiting relatives and friends. Eric and Sharon still have aunts and uncles living here, and Eric has a grandmother outside Eldersville, but they don’t make it back as frequently as they once did. It’s not easy commuting long distance when you have two maturing kids – Dominic, now 19, and Ben, 14.

One such return will always stand out – it led to a subsequent trip down the aisle on Sept. 11, 1999, when the couple exchanged vows at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Burgettstown, where Eric’s parents were married a generation earlier.

The couple’s ties to the tri-state, not surprisingly, extend to sports. That was evident when they opened their wedding gifts, which included a brick engraved with their names that would be placed on a walkway outside PNC Park, which was under construction on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.

Both are avid Steelers fans in enemy territory, in the energized hometown of the Chiefs, who Sunday night made their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years when they confronted the San Francisco 49ers.

“We’re going to watch the game at home, and Eric will be wearing his Steelers gear,” said Sharon, a medical coder at at a Kansas City Hospital.

“Sharon and I have differing emotions,” Eric said, laughing. “I’m somewhat sad because the Steelers aren’t playing, but it’s hard for me to get emotionally invested with the Chiefs. She’s happy for the city.”

“Even though the Chiefs aren’t our top team,” Sharon added, “everyone around here is excited.”

Her 26th birthday may be an indelible memory, but the couple closed the book on their Barnes & Noble careers long ago. They’ve had a prosperous journey together, longer lasting than a 16-hour drive back to Washington County, back to the roots that – incredibly – became intertwined on the western border of Missouri.

It has been a novel experience.

Traveling Heinz History Center World War II exhibit lands in Donora

DONORA – Mr. and Mrs. Peter Bunardzya were awaiting word in late June 1942 as to the manner of death of their son, who was the first World War II casualty from Donora during World War II.

Little did they know at the time that their son, Airman PFC Nicholas David Bunardzya, died while he and 18 others were being evacuated by heroes and their unarmed plane came under attack by the Japanese and crashed off the island of Java.

Part of his story is being told at the Donora Public Library as the town’s contribution to a traveling Sen. John Heinz History Center exhibit on World War II, which opened Saturday.

“It’s a way to draw attention to Donora,” said Donora Historical Society volunteer Mark Pawelec, referring to the reason his group is cohosting the exhibit.

“It’s a way to give back to the community,” Pawelec added.

The “We Can Do It! World War II” exhibit, which began its journey three years ago in Beaver County, will be at the library, 510 Meldon Ave., through April 7, along with a full schedule of events.

A highlight of those events will be an appearance at 2 p.m. April 5 by Judah Samet, who survived both the Holocaust and the Tree of Life mass shooting last year in Squirrel Hill.

Visitors will learn about the development of the Jeep, a uniquely American invention produced by the American Bantam Car Co. in Butler, and hear the stories behind Rosie the Riveter and the local Tuskegee Airmen whose contributions helped to turn the tide of the war, according to a History Center news release.

The center has a great partnership with Donora, which is the exhibit’s last stop, said History Center staff member Robert Stakeley.

He said the History Center selected Donora library’s basement for the exhibit because it has the space and it’s secure.

“They have a built-in audience,” Stakeley said.

The historical society’s contributions are upstairs as a way to draw people into the library, Pawelec said.

The June 29, 1942, front page of the Donora Herald-American above-the-fold announcement of Bunardzya’s death was framed and displayed in the library.

He was reported missing March 3 of that year, the newspaper reported. He had joined the Air Corps three months after graduating from Donora High School in 1938 and died in the Far East Theater.

His plane had just taken off when it came under attack, crashed into Roebuck Bay, broke apart and sank upon impact with the water, according to the 2014 book, “The Search That Never Was: The Untold Truth about the 1948-49 Search for World War II American Personnel Missing in Action in the South Pacific,” by J.L. Wright.

The exhibit is free and available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

100 Objects

Can you guess the significance of this object? Hint: It’s part of the collection of artifacts housed by the Washington County Historical Society. Check back next Monday for an explanation as well as a new object to ponder.