As founder of the former Dwelling House Savings & Loan, Robert R. Lavelle was as much preacher as banker in his evangelistic crusade to increase homeownership among the low-income residents of Pittsburgh who had trouble getting loans from mainstream banks.
For him, the Hill District financial institution was a Christian mission and his means of spreading the Gospel. He included Bible verses on the bank statements mailed to clients. He personally visited their homes when payments were late, counseled them on money management and prayed with them when they fell on hard times.
Mr. Lavelle died Sunday at Forbes Hospice in West Penn Hospital as a result of a stroke he suffered on Father's Day. He collapsed at the pulpit in Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Schenley Heights while delivering a keynote speech about his own father and the legacy of fatherhood. He was 94.
"Even in the two weeks that he had been hospitalized, every word that came from his mouth was related to Scripture," said Adah Lavelle, his wife of 67 years. "He loved the Lord.
"Anyone who knows him would think of him as a Good Samaritan because he helped so many people during his lifetime," she said. "So many people wouldn't have owned homes if not for him. But above everything else he was a Christian."
A handsome man even in his advanced age, Mr. Lavelle was charming, dignified and distinguished by his erect posture and the subtle radiation of his words, deeds and his commitment to serving the underprivileged.
When armed robbers came into his bank and demanded money, Mr. Lavelle often tried to talk them out of committing the thefts. He never considered moving out of the Hill District, would not allow protective barriers between bank tellers and customers, and was vehemently against installing iron bars on the bank's windows and doors.
Mr. Lavelle rescued the bank, which had been chartered in 1890 as a state mutual bank owned by its depositors, in 1957 and reinvented the institution to assume a new mission. He helped build its capital reserves over the years by taking a modest salary, which reached a maximum of $15,000. He even performed janitorial services himself at one point to limit expenses.
After dedicating much of his life to running the small savings and loan at the corner of Centre and Herron avenues, Mr. Lavelle turned the bank over to his son, Robert M. Lavelle, in the late 1980s.
Dwelling House was shut down in August despite a community rally to save the institution when bank regulators determined the 119-year-old thrift was bankrupt and had no reasonable hope of recovering.
Cyber thieves were blamed for tapping into the computer system and electronically transmitting up to $4 million out of the bank's capital account. No one has been arrested for the thefts and federal officials say incomplete financial records at the institution made it difficult to determine what happened.
The family continues to operate Lavelle Real Estate company in the same building that had housed the bank.
A lifelong Republican, Mr. Lavelle was unabashedly conservative in his political views, but he changed his voter registration so he could vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.
"Bob was one of my heroes in Pittsburgh. I had a lot of love for him," said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project.
Mr. Stevens said Mr. Lavelle was the one who called him in 1969 to announce he had been selected as the Pittsburgh NAACP executive director.
"Bob and I were extremely close," he said. "He was truly one of the ones I most respect in Pittsburgh and beyond. It was an honor to have known him and to be his friend."
Mr. Lavelle is survived by his wife and two sons, Robert M. Lavelle and John F. Lavelle, all of the Hill District, and two grandchildren.
Viewing will be held Thursday from 2 to 9 p.m. at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1000 Bryn Mawr Road, Hill District. The funeral will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at the church. Arrangements are being handled by Samuel J. Jones Funeral Home.
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