Tony Novosel: Looking for trouble

Written by Matthew Monroy
Photos by Wu Caiyi
April 20, 2020

Forging a life in academia was the last thing on Anthony Novosel’s mind when he was in high school. A poor student, he graduated from West Mifflin North High School in 1970 with lackluster grades. 

“I took the SAT twice and I got a 952 on both of them,” Novosel said. “If I remember, I was a 2.75 student in high school.”

Anthony — or “Tony,” as he commonly goes by — had also never left western Pennsylvania by that point. Now, the Pitt alum has been teaching history at his alma mater for 29 years, specifically the history of Northern Ireland, a country to which he’s traveled nearly 80 times. Novosel is an expert on “the Troubles,” Northern Ireland’s sectarian war lasting from the late 1960s to 1998. He’s given countless speeches to factions from the struggle, all in the work of reconciling the almost 40-year conflict that continues to divide. 

“I gotta be honest, it was totally serendipitous,” Novosel said. “And that’s the honest truth, I never planned any of it.”

From the unruly mustache that he’s been sporting since his 20s to the loose ponytail that rests on the back of his neck, Novosel doesn’t immediately seem like an erudite world-traveler who has spent years facilitating the peace process of a violent conflict. And although he sits in an office surrounded by typical professor paraphernalia — framed awards, including one from the Belfast City Council for his work in Northern Ireland’s peace process, and countless books — the path that Novosel took to becoming a studious academic is far from typical. 

Forgoing college, the Pittsburgh native chose to go to trade school for auto mechanics after graduating from high school. This path was not unusual in West Mifflin, where most of his classmates’ parents worked in the steel industry, including his father. Novosel went to Vale Technical Institute in Blairsville in 1972, and shortly after graduating, went to work at Steelmet Inc., a small steel scrapyard in Pittsburgh. 

He worked as a “burner,” cutting scrap steel so that it could be melted and reused at the big mills. Although the job was unionized, the pay was poor and the benefits even worse — seven years of work to get two weeks of vacation. So, he, along with his coworker, decided to quit and hitchhike.

“We’re both 20 years of age and it’s the early ’70s, and we were both like, ‘Screw this,’” he said. “So we kept talking and we ended up quitting.”

Courtesy of Anthony Novosel

The two journeyed up the East Coast together, splitting up in Elizabethtown. Novosel continued by himself, eventually making his way to Wildwood, New Jersey. This, as Novosel put it, is “the weird part of the story.” After randomly running into a friend on the beach that he hadn’t seen for years, Novosel was invited to where she was staying to have dinner with her guests — 20-some Irish students who were working in Wildwood for the summer. 

It was that chance encounter with the girl on the beach that he says completely changed his life and set him on a crash course for Northern Ireland. 

“I wasn’t doing anything — I was 20 to 21 years of age, hadn’t seen anything outside of western PA until I went to Wildwood,” Novosel said. “And I met these people and thought, ‘Well this is interesting. I think I'll go to Belfast for the first time.’ And I did.”

Novosel moved into that house in Wildwood for the summer, working at a restaurant and liquor store for money and becoming good friends with the Irish students. His interest in Northern Ireland was piqued, and he returned to Pittsburgh after the summer, working as a mechanic to save enough money to travel to Northern Ireland for the first time in April of 1974. 

But traveling to Northern Ireland wasn’t without its dangers. Novosel was in Belfast during the height of The Troubles, Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict between multiple factions, primarily the Protestants and Catholics. During the mid-1970s, the killings in Northern Ireland amassed to more than 100 people per year, creating a volatile environment for innocent citizens and the slew of groups involved. Although he always managed to stay safe, Novosel said that he saw some of the destruction firsthand.

“I was in buildings that were evacuated. I’ve seen bombs go off,” Novosel said. “It was a pretty bad time. People did not go to Belfast for holidays.”

During his trip, Novosel split his time between Belfast and Portrush, a heavily Protestant area on the north Antrim coast. Almost all of Novosel’s initial Irish friends were Catholic, but he also developed friendships with Protestants in Portrush. These opposing friendships allowed him to view the struggle from both sides — something that would later inform his pedagogical approach to teaching The Troubles.

“...I go in this area in Portrush, surrounded by Protestants and then all of a sudden they’re having conversations with me — and it didn’t mean that I had to agree with them — but it meant that I had to at least see the conflict through their eyes as opposed to just simply my friend's eyes in Belfast," he said. 

Although college was still not on his radar, Novosel said that his time spent soaking up information about Northern Ireland’s conflict from his friends — most of whom were college students themselves — planted the seeds for a desire for learning that he never had in high school. 

“I was alway fascinated by Northern Ireland history because I learned a lot when I was there because I was there in the midst of a sectarian war,” Novosel said. “I got to learn, read the papers, and talk to everybody.”

With his newfound Irish friends and growing passion for Northern Irish history, Novosel returned to Europe shortly afterward in 1975, but this time spent the majority of his trip hitchhiking through England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium and Turkey. 

The free time he had and friends he made while hitchhiking had allowed him to discover classic literature that he never had an interest for in high school. 

“We were always trading books when you were on the road because there would be times you'd be sitting on the side of the road five or six hours with a car not coming by,” Novosel said. “So you just sit there and read, waiting for a car to come by.”

He continued to learn when he returned to the United States, reading more books from authors like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Tolkien, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky that he had discovered while traveling. Most of his favorite writers were Russian, which inspired an interest in that country’s culture and history as well.

Novosel continued to flip-flop between Europe and North America for the next 14 years, working any jobs he could while in the States to fund his travels. Steel factories positions, bartending, washing UPS trucks, carpentry, delivering newspapers, coaching — anything to pay the rent.

Then, in 1984, the steel crisis hit and the Pittsburgh economy collapsed. As getting laid off every couple of months became the new norm, making ends meet was harder than ever. To make matters worse, Novosel tore all four ligaments in his knee in a soccer injury in 1984, leaving him stuck with a cast from his knee to his toes for seven months and little in his bank account. When he did finally return to work, wearing the brace while working proved to be a challenge. After a miserable day working at a scrap yard around flames, Novosel had finally had enough.

“My hard hat was melting, my shield was melting, my gloves were crinkling — I’m standing in a puddle of water and it’s snowing,” Novosel said. “And at the end of the day I just said ‘F this.’ And I didn't quit because I didn't have enough money, so I took a shower and went to the College of General Studies and applied to go to college.”

Since he already had some experience with union law from his time as officer of his local union, Novosel went into college intending to graduate and advance to law school for labor law. 

But he was in college during the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was undergoing political changes that would lead to its dissolution in 1991. These developments, combined with his past travels and interest in the USSR, led him to decide to double major in political science and history. He continued to work while completing his undergraduate, coaching girl’s soccer at Fox Chapel Area High School and working intermittently in the steel factories.

Since he was so busy juggling working and taking classes, Novosel hadn’t given any thought to what he wanted to do after graduating. In fact, he figured that he would just take a gap year. However, he said that a chance encounter in Posvar Hall with William Chase, who would go on to be the chair of Novosel’s Ph.D. committee, made him decide to pursue teaching.

“He said ‘Why don't you apply for grad school?’” Novosel said. “And if I hadn't run into Bill, I would not have applied. That wasn’t even on the radar for me.”

Although Novosel’s unusual story might have put him out of place in grad school, Randy Scott Smith, who completed grad school with Novosel, said that his humble background made him feel comfortable.

“We both came from a working class family so we had a little bit of solidarity at the time to help each other out,” Smith said. “Because I felt a little bit like a fish out of water, but when I met him I thought ‘Well there’s someone else who’s doing this too.’”

Novosel graduated with his bachelors in 1989, and went on to complete his masters in Soviet and Russian history in 1991. He started teaching shortly after getting his masters with his first class, Western Civilization II. He then went on to get his Ph.D. in Soviet history in 2005. 

It was during this time that Novosel started working for Study USA, a program that allows Irish college students to live and take classes in America for one academic year. Novosel’s involvement started in 1996 as a counselor for students who were having difficulty acclimating to life in the United States.

This eventually became an official position, where he would travel to Northern Ireland every June to give an orientation speech to students preparing to leave for America. Novosel said this opportunity allowed him to start work on his next project: writing a book on Northern Ireland. 

“I always wanted to go back on a regular basis, which I could never do,” Novosel said. 

“Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism,” the culmination of four years of primary document research and interviews, was published in 2013. The book examines the political history of two of the main Protestant paramilitary organizations, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando. To Novosel the book was a personal project, something that he didn’t think would amount to much. So, when it proved to be the impetus for invaluable opportunities in his work in conflict reconciliation, he was surprised.

“It actually blew the door off a lot of things without me intending to,” Novosel said. “I was writing it for myself.” 

As the author, Novosel was invited by the senior commands of both the UVF and Red Hand Commando to present his research on how both sides could demobilize their volunteers. He’s held countless meetings with factions involved in The Troubles and political parties, all focused on reconciling the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Although the conflict technically ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, Novosel said a peaceful coexistence will take years of work.

“You talk about conflict reconciliation, and those of us who do this stuff on the ground everyday, we’re in conflict transformation,” Novosel said. “It's a long way before we’re gonna reconcile the two communities.”

The connections that Novosel made through his work in Northern Ireland impact his teaching. He invites many guest lecturers to his classes, providing his students with perspectives from a variety of sources. As a teacher, he is engaged and kinetic, holding his students’ attention throughout his Protestant class’ entire two-and-a-half-hour length. Circuitous class discussion takes up most of the class period, and Novosel is ecstatic when a student draws the perceptive historical connection that he was getting at.

He’s also honest, admitting his own incertitude at Northern Ireland’s muddled political situation. After stating his opinion on the outcome of an upcoming election, he joked that he had once thought “the Soviet Union would never collapse, so take my words with a grain of salt.” 

Wu Caiyi | Senior Staff Photographer

Novosel’s colleagues praise him as a skilled professor. William Chase, a professor emeritus in Pitt’s history department, said that Novosel is great at captivating his students.

“He’s very effective because he has a very good sense of when to talk and when not to talk,” Chase said. “A lot of teachers know how to talk and are very bright and they’re very good at talking but sometimes that can knock you out. So having to be intellectually on your toes and engage with stuff really makes it a much more effective set of dynamics in the class.”

Novosel lives a life that’s radically different from anything he would have ever predicted. The jump from working the night shift at a steel factory to penning a book on Northern Irish history is a far one. But when asked if he ever thinks about what his life would have been like had he not had that chance encounter in Wildwood in the ’70s, Novosel remains confidently unsure.

“If I hadn’t taken off I would have continued working. I don't know what I would have done — would I have gotten married? Would it have been a better life?” Novosel said. “I might have been able to adapt to life working in the factories, because I would not have left the factories if the layoffs hadn't hit in the early '80s. I wouldn't be sitting here.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Novosel's expertise and interest lies in Northern Ireland specifically, not just Ireland.