When William Reed Wingo went out one Saturday, he figured on it being a wild night—“wild” by his standards, anyway.
“A wild Saturday night for me is dancing at 11 and being home by 1 and in bed,” Wingo said.
The night got crazier than he anticipated—before it even began. According to Wingo, he was walking along Smallman Street past the Heinz History Center around 11 p.m. A group of five men were in front of him. One turned around and “sucker-punched” him in the face, Wingo said, knocking his head back into a wall.
Wingo heard his jaw crack, then lost consciousness for a moment. When he came to, he pulled out his cell phone and called police. The men were just a few feet ahead. His attacker doubled back and appeared to be reaching for a weapon.
Being a runner, Wingo booked it up the street to the restaurant Eleven, where he waited outside for police to arrive. Embarrassed of his bloody face, he didn’t go inside.
The men were gone by the time officers arrived. In the process of fracturing Wingo’s upper jaw and sending two teeth into his lower lip, the attacker hadn’t said a word.
That was July 21. About a month and a half later, Wingo took off his apron and sat down in the Square Café to talk with a Patch reporter. At 30, he’s a slender 5-foot-9, with tattooed peacock feathers wrapping around one of his biceps. He wore running shorts and a few days’ stubble.
He apologized if he was speaking funny and raised his lip to expose a wire that held his teeth in place. He had recently undergone the second of “many” dental procedures, he said, the cost of which would likely top $25,000.
He didn’t have health insurance. But even if he did, he said he wouldn’t have carried a policy covering that much dental work. As for the hospital bills, Wingo is hoping the nonprofit Center for Victims of Violent Crime will be able to help him get state funding available for people like himself.
In Wingo’s mind, there isn’t much to understand about what happened to him. Asked whether he thought his sexual orientation (he’s gay) had anything to do with the attack, Wingo shrugged.
“It was a random act of violence,” he said, reiterating that the man hadn’t said anything to him. “I don’t think about revenge; it won’t do me any good.”
Wingo is well-liked among café denizens and fellow runners. They call him William, gush about his kindness and can’t understand who could be inspired to hurt him.
“You can’t provoke William,” said Heather Adams, who first met him while eating at the café and later joined Square Run Club. “He’s one of the most thoughtful people I’ve met in my entire life.”
What goes around comes around: There's a reason why journalists shudder at the sight of a hoary cliché. But in Wingo’s case, the phrase is as right as it is wrong.
Coworkers at the Square Café set up an account for him on Indiegogo, a website used for independent fundraisers. In a few weeks, a hundred donors pushed the fund past its $5,000 goal.
After the incident, neighbors brought him soup, flowers, cards, magazines. They offered to walk his dog. He was back to work in a week. He started running again. Cards and money kept coming in. He collected another $4,000.
"Only $16,000 to go," Wingo joked. It belied his wounded pride; he's worked since he was 15, he said, and it's anathema for him to accept money he hasn't earned.
"I've had people I don't even know, which is tough, send me money or send me cards," he said. "The other day, I was walking my dog and somebody stopped their car, got out and gave me a hug.
“I feel like I'll never have a community like this again—ever."
Police haven’t caught the man who punched Wingo. A surveillance video shows five men walking by Heinz History Center shortly before the assault happened, but it didn’t capture the attack itself.
In a report for WTAE, a reporter stopped a couple of passersby in the Strip District and asked them if they feel safe in the area. Both said yes. One man said people will be safe if they are aware of their surroundings.
When Wingo saw the report, he said, he was happy to see media contributing to the search for his attacker, but he felt that the randomness of the violence had been simplified. It wasn’t that he’d been aloof to his environment, he said; the attack happened on a well-lighted sidewalk at a relatively busy time for that area. Anybody could have been in his place.
“I lived in New Orleans, where people will jump you out of nowhere,” he said. “I know how to read people.”
Wingo grew up in Brookline before heading to New Orleans in 2000. He wasn’t fond of Pittsburgh, he said, and he felt New Orleans was a better fit.
“I never thought I would come back to Pittsburgh and often laughed when people would ask me when I was coming home,” he said. “ ‘I am home,’ I would tell them.”
But Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city in 2005, and he came back.
“There really wasn’t anywhere else to go,” he said.
When Wingo came to Regent Square in 2009, his opinion of Pittsburgh changed. He fell in love with the community’s social diversity and artistic flair, which he found a stark contrast to his memories of growing up in Brookline.
He started working as a server at Square Café in February 2009 and became catering manager in September 2010.
Around that time, Heather McGinnis had just moved to Regent Square from Tucson, AZ. She began serving at the cafe and got to know William quickly.
“We instantly bonded over our mutual love for New Orleans,” McGinnis said.
Wingo was making changes in his life. He had weighed 250 pounds and dropped 25 of them by dieting and walking. He gained confidence and began running. Soon, he was training for a marathon and eating healthy food, in addition to watching his portions.
“I watched him just transform himself,” McGinnis said. “He inspired me to get back into running.”
Wingo now weighs 158 pounds. Three or four times a week, he runs to Urban Active Fitness in Bakery Square, lifts weights, swims 400 meters and runs back home.
But it wasn’t just about himself; Wingo founded the Square Run Club in the summer of 2011. About a dozen people met at Square Café to embark on the first of their runs. Now, a Facebook group for the club boasts more than 140 members. Wingo sees the group as a welcoming forum for people who want to start running.
Wingo doesn’t take too much credit for the club’s existence. He has a busy schedule, he said, and others, including McGinnis and Heather Adams, have done a lot to keep the club going.
Adams describes the club as a tight-knit, family-like group.
“I’ve just met so many people who I would have never met otherwise,” Adams said, “people who are caring and warm individuals.”
Adams credits Wingo with helping to build a better community, and it didn’t surprise her that so many people came to his side after he was attacked.
“It’s a sense of community and a sense of trying to pull together when someone needs them,” Adams said. “(The runners) are literally some of the best people I know.”
McGinnis said the outpouring of sympathy was remarkable—even considering the kindness and generosity she said is typical of Regent Square residents.
“It looked like he was living in a flower shop,” she said.
‘Community Still Exists’
Without the help from the community, Wingo said, he doesn’t know what kind of position he would be in now. For the most part, he’s back to normal and optimistic about the future.
He’s still not sure if he’ll have to settle for cheaper teeth replacements than he’d like, but he hopes a fundraiser run he’s setting up on Oct. 6 will help close the gap. Revive Marketing Group, whose clients include Bakery Square and WYEP, volunteered its services for the run.
When he’s not working or running, Wingo takes classes at CCAC and is teaching himself Arabic in the evenings. He hopes to transfer to the University of Pittsburgh to study language and linguistics.
It’s a busy schedule, he knows. But considering the support he’s gotten from the community, he wants to find more time to give back. He plans on volunteering with Gay For Good, a national organization with a Pittsburgh branch that acts as a liaison between volunteers in the LGBT community and social welfare and environmental service projects.
“Your attitude and how you take things can make or break you,” McGinnis said. “William continues to be an inspiration for me. He really refuses to let it get him down.”
“If it had to happen ... William was the best person for it to have happened to,” Adams said. “He’s always thinking about what’s happened to him and how to turn it around and make things better for someone else.”
Wingo said he almost feels guilty; he thinks he will move after finishing school, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to repay the kindness he’s been shown.
“The community here—they’ve just been amazing,” he said.
Adams said it’s hard to draw a lesson from a senseless act of violence. But she knows what she’s learned from living in Regent Square, meeting Wingo and joining the Square Run Club.
“Community still exists.”