Dec. 26—Ken Bacha's father, Leo, served as Westmoreland County coroner for almost 24 years before he retired in 2001.
At first, Ken Bacha didn't consider going into the family business, which included ownership of two local funeral homes in addition to the elected coroner duties.
"I am the fourth generation out of five generations of funeral directors in our family, so the calling was always there," he said. "I went to school for safety engineer and worked at a nuclear power plant that was under construction for a few years and moved back and worked for a consulting firm in Murrysville.
"And then we had a couple of employees at the funeral home die suddenly and unexpectedly, and my dad told my brother and me, 'If you were planning to get into this, now is the time,' so we did."
Bacha went to mortuary school. He worked at the family's funeral homes and then went to work for his father as a deputy coroner in the late 1990s. When Leo Bacha stepped down less than a year before his sixth term in office expired, his son was ready to fill the vacancy.
Ken Bacha easily won in his first bid for an elected seat and took office in 2002. He held the job for 20 years. Bacha, a lifelong Democrat from Greensburg, was defeated in November by Republican Tim Carson, a Scottdale caterer.
After an initial period of bitterness, Bacha, now 60, recently took stock of his long career and his family's nearly half-century role in leading the coroner's office.
His tenure saw the job change. Bacha said he saw it differently than his father.
He pushed certifications for his deputies. He looked to soften edges in dealing with families and use the power of the office to bring attention to drug addiction and the impact it was having in the community.
"It's not so much about pronouncing people dead. It's about what happens after that," he said. "You're not going to bring them back. It's about how they are treated, how their loved ones are treated."
During his two decades as coroner, the office handled 42,187 cases, including 134 homicides and more than 1,700 drug overdoses.
Overdoses became a focal part of Bacha's message about a decade ago as the number of fatalities attributed to drugs skyrocketed in Westmoreland County, setting record numbers every year until peaking in 2017. After a two-year interval of decline, overdose numbers started to climb again in 2020.
As part of his effort to bring attention to the opioid epidemic, Bacha focused on statistics that publicized what was killing residents. It's an effort that intensified in 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Bacha became one of the first voices who talked about the impact the virus was having on the elderly community, especially in nursing homes.
Tim Phillips, executive director of the county's Drug Overdose Task Force, has worked for years with Bacha in the fight against drug addiction and overdoses.
"He did a lot of public speaking and outreach, and I know it really affected him. He really ratcheted up his efforts, and he would talk firsthand about what he and his staff were seeing," Phillips said. "He was really invested, and he cared about the families, the victims and the survivors."
Bacha's contributions extend beyond just the stats and death investigations.
He was instrumental in moving the coroner's office from a small, sixth-floor office at the courthouse to spacious digs in Hempfield that serve as headquarters for forensic investigations. A decade ago, Bacha lobbied county leaders to build a stand-alone structure and helped to secure grants for what became a $1.4 million project that converted a shuttered waste-to-energy plant into an 18,000-square-foot, three-story facility that houses the coroner's office, a morgue, an autopsy suite, forensic operations for county detectives and additional space to house records.
Bacha — as did his father as coroner — contracted autopsies to renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. For decades, deputy coroners transported bodies to Pittsburgh for Wecht and his team.
In 2017, Bacha negotiated a plan for Wecht to move his private autopsy business to Westmoreland County and operate out of the forensics center. It's a move county officials touted as one that saved thousands of dollars annually in transportation costs.
Wecht, who has performed autopsies for Westmoreland County since 1968, said the move is an example of Bacha's forethought.
"He's a highly respected colleague," said Wecht, who served two 10-year stints as a coroner in Allegheny County and worked as the county's medical examiner. "Ken is a fourth- or fifth-generation funeral director and someone I think was born with a sense of compassion and empathy for families. It is important in that job to understand what families are going through."
Bacha did not expect to lose in November, but he said he understood that the political shift in the county has made it harder for Democrats to win races. Among Democrats who ran for county offices in the fall, he came closest to winning, falling about 2,000 votes short.
He has spent the past several weeks packing up his office, removing pictures, diplomas and other awards from his walls and readying to move back into private life, where he'll focus on work at the family's funeral homes.
"It's all the relationships we built that I'm sad to see go away. What we built between us — law enforcement, EMS, fire departments and funeral directors — I'd like to see that continue," Bacha said. "It was disappointing, but it was never about a dynasty.
"I was exposed to this office through my dad, and I fell in love with it. So whether I had the same last name or a different last name, I fell in love with it."
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, email@example.com or via Twitter .