It was my first day as head of media relations at Pittsburgh International Airport and I was hustling past the security checkpoint so as not to be late.
That’s when I passed Marilyn, who I had met before in my job as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
She immediately greeted me and started asking how I was.
“Marilyn, I’ll have to come back later and chat. I can’t be late. It’s my first day,” I said, and kept moving.
Over the next few years, Marilyn Darnley – the Salvation Army bell-ringer with the crazy hats and bright smile – would greet me and thousands of travelers every morning as we arrived at the airport.
Where’s the Delta ticketing counter? Marilyn knew. Where’s the closest bathroom? Where can I get a good sandwich? She knew. A nervous flyer needing a good luck charm? She was there.
We got word a few weeks ago that Marilyn, of Scott Township, died on Feb. 9, 2019, of respiratory failure. She was 77. Word spread quickly among airport and airline employees alike. She was a kind of institution at PIT – she spent nearly 20 years collecting money in her red kettle.
“She lived for the airport. She just liked being a part of it. It was a big part of her life. She developed a lot of personal relationships there with people,” said Larry Jenkins, 62, who retired from Aviation Safeguards as an airport skycap in August. “She would meet people and find out about them.”
Marilyn often talked about her friendships with local sports figures who would donate to her kettle, including Steelers greats Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.
“I told Franco she had never been to a game and he got her tickets along with me and her Salvation Army captain,” Jenkins said. “She brought her bell to the game and was ringing it (for noise). She loved it.”
Harris said he has fond memories of Marilyn.
“Marilyn always brightened my day when I was flying out and always welcomed me home with a bright smile and a warm hello,” Harris said. “I will miss her.”
Marilyn often wore Steelers or Pittsburgh Penguins hats among her colorful fedora and holiday hat collection. She stopped coming to the airport about two years ago after health issues slowed her down.
“My mom was a people person,” said one of her two sons, Richard Darnley, 49. “She talked to everyone – Steelers, Penguins, TSA agents, pilots. And she had a hat for every occasion.”
Reindeer antlers for Christmas, a turkey hat for Thanksgiving … she even insisted on dressing up as Darth Vader at her assisted living home last Halloween, her son said.
Besides her sons, she also is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren.
Marilyn and I met when I was a reporter and the Airport Authority moved to ban solicitations in 2014 that would have meant Marilyn would be forced from her post. I wrote a story, and television and radio followed up.
The airport ultimately did not impose the ban but later imposed a new policy banning solicitations in 2018, long after Marilyn’s departure.
She thanked me for that story and we later became friends. I showed her pictures of my first son when he was born and always made sure to drop a donation in the kettle when I was flying.
I specifically remember her promoting the noticeable airport turnaround during the past several years.
“This airport is really on the way up – all the new airlines here and making it look nicer. I tell people all the time how everything here is so positive,” she would often say.
We think so too, Marilyn. We just hope we’re making you proud.