Reflecting on Latrobe ‘miracle’ quadruplets

LATROBE, Pa. — Before Arnold Palmer, Fred Rogers and Rolling Rock beer put Latrobe on the map, a family of Byzantine Catholics who believed in miracles made the city about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh a household name.

The world marveled at the Zavada quadruplets when they arrived early at Latrobe Hospital on a Feb. 15 Sunday morning 70 years ago. But it was all their parents, Andrew and Barbara Zavada, could do just to keep their names straight.

“My mom got confused — they had to put name bands on us when we were little because they couldn’t tell us apart,” Anna Mary “Amy” Thomas, the last surviving sibling of the Zavada quadruplets, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Thomas, shortly before her 70th birthday, reflected on a childhood spent in the limelight, back when newspapers and radio stations ruled the media landscape and documented every time she and her famous siblings got a new tooth.

“It’s hard when you don’t have a private life,” she said from her Ligonier Township home, surrounded by newspaper clippings yellowed with age. “It was a long, hard 16 years because we couldn’t turn around without somebody taking pictures.”

Growing up a Zavada quad definitely had its downsides, she said, but they were outweighed by the blessings.

“It is a mixed bag because I had a very good mother and dad,” she told the Tribune-Review. “I really miss my mother and dad because we did have a good life at home. I just had a wonderful family.”

Thomas lost her father in 1995 and her mother in 2006. The other quads also are gone — John Michael died in 2008 at 60, Bernadette Elizabeth Palmer died in 2014 at 66, and Barbara Rose Jackman died in 2016 at 67.

The quads weren’t her only siblings. Thomas has a stepbrother, Larry McBryar, 74, of New Florence, and a younger sister, Frances Getz, 67, of Orangeville, Columbia County. McBryar was Barbara Zavada’s son by her first husband, who died in the Normandy invasion during World War II.

Thomas described her father as protective to the point of not wanting his three identical daughters to date. Her mother was resourceful enough to make most of their clothes and host large neighborhood birthday parties. They both were strict by today’s standards.

“If we turned our heads in church, we’d get our ears pulled,” she said, noting that the family faithfully attended St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Bradenville.

The Zavadas were barely in their second year of marriage when an X-ray in November 1947 revealed that Barbara was pregnant with quadruplets. At 17 weeks of gestation, it was the earliest positive diagnosis of quadruplets on record, according to a 1949 article in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The world learned a month later, when newspapers across the country announced the rare pregnancy (1 in 550,000). Contemporaneous news accounts carried the dateline of Dorothy, Pa., a coal mining town near Latrobe, and headlines like “Hope and fear alternate as couple awaits birth of quads.”

American Pathe News, the popular producer of newsreels, sent a letter to Barbara Zavada congratulating her and asking for permission to film the family after the quadruplets’ anticipated arrival in April 1948.

“We know how thrilled you must be about it all, and we would be most pleased to have the exclusive pictures of the quadruplets to show to our motion picture audience thru-out the world,” the letter said.

The births came two months early and by C-section, the second successful delivery of its kind in the United States, the medical journal article said. Latrobe “baby doctor” J. Wiley Hartman assembled a team of doctors and nurses, including two specialists from Pittsburgh, to handle the delivery.

“All were vigorous, though small (each slightly more than 3 pounds) and obviously premature,” according to the medical journal. “All have survived to date and are growing well.”

The Rev. Theodore Hodobay, pastor of St. Mary’s, was on hand to administer speedy baptismal rites “in case the babies should be in danger of quick death,” according to one news account.

Wire service photos showed the 25-year-old mother and the 34-year-old father looking exhausted but happy. Andrew Zavada, an inspector and packer at the Latrobe Die Casting Co., was described as “all smoked out” as he sat in a hospital stairwell.

News stories even noted Zavada’s salary — $48 a week — and the fact that he had recently won $640 on the CBS radio game show “Strike It Rich.”

There was a fifth birth at Latrobe Hospital that day — Pam (Johnston) Ferrero, who is now treasurer of the Latrobe Area Historical Society.

Ferrero said her mother recalled watching as the nurses carried the quads down the hospital hallway one by one.

“When they were young, I would always send them a birthday card,” she said. “Everyone in Latrobe knew about them.”

No sooner had the quadruplets been born than offers of donated items began to pour in — the most important being two extra incubators funded by the Carnation Milk Co. The equipment arrived via state police escort from Wilkinsburg, according to news accounts.

Lowenstein’s Department Store offered a complete Easter layette for each child and an Easter outfit for “many years to come.” Dainty Pastry offered to bake the Zavadas’ annual birthday cakes, while a local jewelry store gave each baby a diamond ring, Thomas said.

“We had so many things given to us as gifts. We were never without, because we were always in the limelight,” she said.

News coverage continued as the children grew, never missing a Christmas or a birthday or a milestone. “Quads sleep late after birthday anniversary” read one headline. “John already has three front teeth and will probably have another by Christmas,” read another story.

Thomas said her parents turned down a lot of promotional offers but couldn’t avoid the news coverage. Letters, including some hate mail, came in from as far away as England and Germany, she said.

As the children grew older, more was expected of them — although nothing like the ordeal of the Dionne quintuplets of Canada.

“We took bowling lessons — they took pictures of us with bowling balls. Swimming lessons, whatever. We did all kinds of lessons. We weren’t allowed to do anything until we took lessons,” Thomas said.

A full-page newspaper ad in 1954 announced the Zavada quads as the feature attraction of the Wilkens Amateur Hour’s All-Twin and Triplet Show on KQV and WDTV. “You will see and hear those cute little Zavada Quadruplets sing a Christmas song. It’s going to be a great show,” the ad said.

At home in Latrobe, however, life was quieter. Thomas said all four siblings were close, but the girls were closer. Brother John got blamed whenever something in the house was broken.

“We were so close that if somebody did (something) to my sister — watch out. I went and stuck up for her,” Thomas said.

The Zavada quads attended St. Vincent Catholic School through eighth grade and then attended Latrobe High School, graduating in 1966.

Ferrero remembers the quads as a high school cause celebre. “I talked to John more than the girls,” she said.

The 1966 Latrobean yearbook listed the three Zavada girls as majoring in homemaking and John in general studies.

The Latrobe Area Historical Society has a research file on the Zavada quads, and author Joseph Comm included them in his 2015 book “Legendary Locals of Latrobe” (Arcadia Publishing).

Thomas went on to marry and have her own family, as did the other quads. Life became more normal in adulthood, even if the occasional milestone kept them in the public eye.

When the quads turned 50 on Feb. 15, 1998, their mother reflected on what it was like back in 1948.

“It was really something to see those X-rays,” she told the Tribune-Review. “All those little heads, little ears, little spines. To me it was a miracle.”