By Ziggy Edwards
Family, friends, and neighbors gathered on March 11 and 12 to say goodbye and celebrate the life of Alexander Jozsa Bodnar, 79. Mr. Bodnar, who died on February 26 after a yearlong battle with cancer, was a beloved fixture in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh—especially in Hazelwood, where he lived and worked over four decades.
“In my mind, Alex and Hazelwood are inextricably linked,” said Heather Mull, whom I spoke with by phone on March 12. Ms. Mull credits Mr. Bodnar with introducing her to the neighborhood. The two met at his Jozsa Corner Hungarian Restaurant in the 1990s when Ms. Mull was a customer and food photographer. They soon became friends—then neighbors, after Mr. Bodnar gave Ms. Mull a tour of available houses and she chose one just up the hill from his.
Mr. Bodnar arrived in Pittsburgh with his parents in 1957, having fled Budapest, Hungary after participating in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. He bought the Jozsa Corner building in 1982 to use as a center for the preservation of Hungarian language, dance, art and, of course, food. In a 1989 Pittsburgh Press article, he called himself “a crazy Hungarian with a big dream.”
Over the years, Mr. Bodnar served as a member and past president of the Hungarian Ethnic Group of Western Pennsylvania; a past president of the 15th Ward Chamber of Commerce; a member, council member, and trustee of the First Hungarian Reformed Church; and a member of the Hazelwood Greenway Committee. Mr. Bodnar’s wife, Jennifer Vickers-Bodnar, shared a story about their 1992 wedding reception on the third floor of the Jozsa Corner building.
“We put in chandeliers, sanded the floors,” Ms. Vickers-Bodnar said when we spoke by phone on March 13. “When he said he wanted to cater the reception I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ But it was important to him. He wanted people to have his food at his wedding. We didn’t have an elevator, and people had to run up and down the stairs with enough food for 150 guests. Everyone who could pitched in. It was so crazy, but he did it—he made it work, and everyone had a good time.”
Producer and writer Rick Sebak liked Jozsa Corner so much, he decided to include a story about it in his television program “What Makes Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.” Like many of Mr. Bodnar’s friends, Mr. Sebak remembers being nurtured with delicious home-cooked food. I spoke with him by phone on the day of Mr. Bodnar’s funeral.
“Three years ago, I fell and was stuck at [UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital] for seven weeks. One day Alex and our mutual friend David Bennett brought me food—enough for all the nurses, too. It was like we were having dinner at Jozsa’s Corner, but in the hospital.” Two weeks later, Mr. Bodnar returned with another meal.
“It’s weird thinking about Hazelwood without Alex and his restaurant on that corner,” Ms. Mull said. “That landmark can’t be replicated, ever. I feel lucky to have had the time I did with Alex.”
As part of his legacy in the neighborhood, Mr. Bodnar sold his building to Hazelwood Initiative two days before he died. He agreed to the sale in February. At that time, Dave Brewton, the organization’s senior director of real estate, told The Homepage that, "We bought it so the community, rather than outside developers, will get to decide what happens with the building."
Mr. Bodnar is survived by his wife, Jennifer Vickers-Bodnar, his mother, Ari Bodnar, his brother, Dr. Peter (Suzanne) Bodnar, and three children: Geneva Wentz, Peter Kenneth Darcy, and Alexis Bodnar.