When D. Mark Cavalcoli was elected to the Hamburg Town Board in 1983, he came with a reputation as a "tree hugger."
But he also came with a background that included working at Bethlehem Steel during summers and working Fridays and Monday second shifts at the Ford Stamping Plant to make ends meet during his early years as a Frontier High School science teacher.
It's that balance of awareness of people's needs and concerns for the environment that Cavalcoli says he hopes is his legacy as he leaves the Town Board after 24 years in office.
"I think it gave me a much better understanding of the everyday worker," he said. "I worked alongside these guys . . . I learned a lot about labor, about workers and people and what it takes to survive. I got a better understanding of our own community."
Along the way, he saw the community change.
It was a different Hamburg when Cavalcoli got involved. He was a member of the town's first Conservation Board at the start of the 1970s, when Bethlehem Steel was still rolling and the McKinley Mall site was largely grass and scrub brush.
And the town had been a rural, Republican area as long as there had been a Republican Party, until Democrats started making inroads, capturing their first Town Board majority in the early 1970s.
Cavalcoli says he has tried to avoid the politics, leaving it on the campaign trail. The main reason he became a young Democrat was so he could land a vacation fill-in job with the Post Office.
He said he decided to run for office after 13 years on the Conservation Board, 10 as chairman. He had complained to the Town Board that his group's recommendations weren't being followed.
He said then-Supervisor Barbara Wicks told him if he wanted to get the Town Board to act on them, he'd have to run for councilman and be elected. She said she would run for re-election alongside him.
Wicks died from complications during surgery during the campaign, but Cavalcoli was elected.
Cavalcoli said some of the achievements he's most proud of include getting public water to parts of town that had never had it and helping establish the Penn Dixie fossil site run by the Hamburg Natural History Society. Both came after tough fights. He fought some of his fellow Democrats over the water issue and lost a townwide referendum before reframing the issue and getting neighborhoods to approve their own water districts.
"I probably still have scars on my back from the water project, from the whip lashes," Cavalcoli said. "But it was worth it. To this day, I still have people come up to me saying, 'If not for you, we wouldn't have water.' "
The fossil site was called "Cavalcoli's gravel pit" by some of his election opponents.
He still regrets, though, the town's failure to create a townwide garbage district like most towns have. It would have provided townwide pickup and reduced costs from about $230 per household to about $160.
It was turned down in a referendum, which Cavalcoli feels was largely a result of mailings by Waste Management, one of the four companies in town contracting with homeowners.
"Waste Management controlled about 50 percent of private pickup in the town, and they stood to lose about $2 million a year," he said. "But people were convinced by letters that Waste Management sent and ads they bought in the paper . . . with things that were incorrect information and were put out there to scare the public."
Thomas Quatroche Jr., who has been on the board with Cavalcoli for 14 years, said he has admired Cavalcoli's willingness to take on the tough issues.
"He's the consummate visionary and peacemaker," said Quatroche. "I can remember when he came to us with the Penn Dixie quarry.
"He came to us with a group of individuals who were interested in developing a fossil site because it was so rich in fossils there, and it was not on our radar at all. I, for one, was skeptical. But it's proven to be a great tourist attraction. It attracts people from all over the world.
"And behind closed doors, he's been -- for lack of a better word -- the referee in our discussions."
Supervisor Steven Walters has clashed with Cavalcoli at times since taking office in 2006 but said the councilman's expertise will be impossible to replace.
"I would be hard pressed to think there's anybody in Erie County, much less the Town of Hamburg, who knows as much as Mark knows when it comes to the planning and engineering side of town government.," Walters said. "Those are going to be some hard shoes to fill."
"It's a real loss for the town," said Councilwoman Joan Kesner. "I'm going to miss him, but I know he and his wife love to travel."
Cavalcoli said that travel -- and cameras and photos of old fallen-down barns and a trip to Europe -- are indeed in his future.
He intends to remain in Hamburg and stay involved at some level. He's proud, he said, of what he's accomplished since that first run for office.
"I'm very appreciative of the people who took a chance on me the first time and allowed me to be elected the first time, who trusted me enough to vote for me the first time," he said. "I've tried never to let them down."