May 2, 1949 – June 25, 2017
William J. Mariani, who for nearly a decade steered Erie Community College with an outsized personality and a working man's sensibility, died unexpectedly Sunday in Gates Vascular Institute. He was 67. The cause was a heart-related ailment, said his son, William J. Mariani II.
Mr. Mariani of Hamburg served as the eighth president of ECC from 1997 to 2006, working his way up from faculty member and founding dean of the college's Division of Development and Community Services. He moved onto a second chapter in higher education administration at D'Youville College, where he most recently was working an executive vice president for administrative affairs.
The Lackawanna native was a graduate of St. Francis High School in Athol Springs. He did not seem destined for a career in academia. While Mr. Mariani was in college, his father, Bruno J. Mariani, a foreman at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, helped him land an office job at the steel company. Mr. Mariani enjoyed the job so much he told his father he planned to stay at Bethlehem and drop out of college. The next day, he found himself working in a slag pit. Mr. Mariani learned the lesson quickly. He didn't again consider quitting college.
He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Bonaventure University. Later in life, he earned a doctoral degree in education from D'Youville.
"He sold tires. He worked in the steel mill. He had a million different jobs," said William Mariani II.
Known as Bill, Mr. Mariani started teaching as an adjunct faculty member at ECC in the late 1970s. He joined the full-time faculty in 1983. He was named interim president in 1997 and appointed to the post permanently in 1999. Mr. Mariani pushed the college to focus on workforce development and on forging new partnerships and collaborations with area employers that would help ECC students land internship and job opportunities.
Outgoing and friendly, Mr. Mariani was an energetic story teller who frequently relied on his sales skills and sense of humor to seal deals with companies and government leaders. "He was smooth and he did his homework," said William D. Reuter, who Mr. Mariani hired as the college's chief financial officer in 1998.
Mr. Mariani was credited with helping turn around enrollment declines and budget deficits in the late 1990s. He crafted a deal with Erie County to give the college greater autonomy. The agreement ultimately led the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to lift threats to remove the college's accreditation due to too much governmental interference in its operations.
Mr. Mariani also was at the helm of ECC when former County Executive Joel A. Giambra pushed to consolidate the college's three campuses into one downtown campus. Mr. Mariani opposed the idea as not being in the best interest of students. His abrupt resignation in 2006 was widely viewed as the result of his growing frustration in dealing with the politics of the job, although Mr. Mariani didn't comment publicly at the time, other than to say he had become burned out. Last year, he acknowledged in a brief conversation with a reporter that he quit in part because of continuing political attempts to interfere in the operation and governance of the college.
"That position was 24-7. A person can only sustain that for so long," said William Mariani II.
Mr. Mariani landed at D'Youville in 2007 as an associate professor of business and by 2009 he was promoted to vice president. He was a close adviser to Sister Denise A. Roche, the longtime D'Youville president. "He was a calming influence and had a very big perspective that was helpful to a lot of people," said Roche. "He was quickly a mentor to a lot of D'Youville people."
When Roche retired in 2016, Mr. Mariani served for several months as interim president. He became executive vice president for administrative affairs when Lorrie A. Clemo was installed in January as president.
Mr. Mariani gave up riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle a few years ago after a close encounter on the highway. He continued to enjoy spending time outdoors, especially deer hunting and clay trap shooting.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, the former Marcia Granica; a daughter, Dr. Mara Mariani; his mother, Elisabeth, and a sister, Deborah Palumbo. Funeral arrangements were not yet finalized.