When Sister Denise A. Roche convened her first meeting as chairwoman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on Thursday, she must have felt a sense of business as usual.
As president of D’Youville College for 37 years, she commanded the attention of thousands of college students. And as a member of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart for 53 years, she also held the attention of thousands of grammar school pupils before that.
By all reports, the transit commissioners she faced Thursday fell into order immediately. Not one command of “Sister is waiting” – so familiar to generations of Catholic school students – appeared necessary.
But now she must rely on all her educational and managerial experience as she assumes the helm of upstate New York’s biggest and most multifaceted public transportation system. Following her nomination by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and confirmation by the State Senate earlier this year, she succeeds Howard A. Zemsky as head of the agency that runs Erie and Niagara counties’ bus and subway systems as well as two international airports.
She becomes the first woman to head the authority’s board of commissioners, and certainly the first member of the religious to hold such a key post in local government.
For Roche, it’s different – but not different.
This is her chance to provide services to the poor and at the same time bolster one of the region’s economic backbones as very much a part of her vocation.
“It’s a basic human need for the underserved in our community who require a consistent and efficient transportation system,” said Robert D. Gioia, the Oishei Foundation president who served as NFTA chairman in the 1990s.
Gioia agreed that the religious perspective Roche brings to the authority will help underscore a service mission that provides for the poor, immigrants, and those unable to drive their own car for physical or financial reasons.
While the head of the transit authority’s board should be ready to handle the job’s political realities, that doesn’t mean that person must spring from the back rooms of party headquarters, he said.
“Is she a veteran politician? No,” Gioia said. “Will she be able to manage her way through all these challenges? Absolutely. I have no doubt in my mind that she will and that we will be proud of her.”
While serving on several previous boards, and running D’Youville for nearly four decades, she maneuvered her way through her share of politics. She feels she is more than ready to accept this next assignment.
“I’m from Buffalo and love Buffalo,” she said Thursday during an interview in her new office at NFTA headquarters. “For me to now be engaged with something as fundamental as public transportation and a whole new category of work is interesting and exciting.”
Roche, 73, said local Cuomo representatives approached her about the post even before she announced her retirement from D’Youville in May 2015.
“I said then it sounds intriguing, but I know absolutely nothing about transportation,” she replied.
But she was convinced when the governor’s intermediaries said they believed the job would fit with her own personal mission.
Roche’s appointment generates significant interest inside and outside the NFTA, mainly because it is so unusual. Chairmen of the authority in years past emerged from politics, not from the convent.
A few local clergymen had served in government posts before. Monsignor James A. Healy of Buffalo – the “labor priest” – was chairman of the State Mediation Board in the 1980s. The Rev. John Gaglione was emergency services coordinator under former Mayor James D. Griffin.
Those who know Roche well say this appointment – and her background so different in almost every respect from her predecessors – will serve the authority well.
“After 37 years at an institution with a Grey Nuns heritage, it’s clear she has a passion just by her vocation,” said William J. Mariani, the former Erie Community College president now serving as D’Youville’s interim president. “But the NFTA will be particularly rewarding because it’s a service organization, and that means it will be extremely important to her.”
Sources say Cuomo turned to many of his Western New York advisers for suggestions to replace Zemsky and that everyone signed on when the retiring D’Youville president’s name surfaced.
Former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello – a Cuomo confidant who lobbies in Albany for both D’Youville and the NFTA – said she was chosen for her “ethics, intelligence, and fact that she’s a leader.”
“The governor was looking for someone qualified and competent with the ability to lead, and she fits that to a ‘T,’ ” he said. “It’s different, but it’s very good for all the right reasons.”
Another longtime associate, Paul D. Bauer, served on the D’Youville board of trustees for 18 years. The former chief financial officer of Tops Markets said he was always impressed by Roche’s ability to be an “incredibly strategic thinker with the ability to also delve into details.
“She will bring a very different perspective the political crowd is not used to hearing,” he said.
Roche realizes she has much to learn as she takes over her new post. She acknowledges while she is “not a politician,” she is no stranger to the process after advocating for years in Albany “for things I believe in.”
“It’s freeing for me,” she said, “when I am advocating for students.”
The new chairwoman said she knows the NFTA must adapt to a changing community that is building in some areas and declining in others – all requiring new approaches to transportation. She said she will rely heavily on Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel and her staff.
“This is very different for me because it’s a public board and a big and important organization,” she said. “But I have a lot of confidence in the people who work here.”