June 6, 1946 – Feb. 27, 2019
John Kociela had a high-profile position as director of environmental health in the Erie County Health Department, but he was more celebrated for what he did outside the office.
For many years, he and his wife, Carol, a retired bank executive, have been leading supporters of Buffalo’s architectural and cultural organizations.
Among other things, their philanthropy has restored paintings at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and renovated the Palm Dome at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
The Buffalo History Museum recognized their generosity in 2016 by presenting them jointly with its prestigious Red Jacket Award. At first he didn’t think he was worthy.
“He wanted to turn it down,” his wife said, “but we convinced him he had to accept it.”
He died Feb. 27 in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Amherst, after a brief illness. He was 72.
Born in Syracuse, the oldest of four children, John Thaddeus Kociela earned a degree in civil engineering in 1968 from the University at Buffalo.
At UB, he met Carol V. Schwartz on a blind date and they were married after she graduated in 1969. He joined the Erie County Health Department and she began a career with Marine Midland Bank.
“He was a civil engineer, approving water lines and sewer lines,” his wife said, “then he got into the managerial side of that department. They did everything except medical.”
Mr. Kociela served for more than 20 years as director of environmental health, overseeing concerns such as sanitary inspections in restaurants, water quality testing at public beaches and the eradication of mosquitoes bearing the West Nile virus. He retired about 10 years ago.
A love of architecture led him to become a docent at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House, where he led tours for four decades.
“A friend of his, Jason Aronoff, got people together to give tours while it was still owned by UB,” his wife, Carol, said. “He gave 60 to 70 tours this past year. He was getting calls constantly. He would always go if he had nothing pressing.”
“He was content to quietly lead by example,” said Mary Roberts, executive director of the Martin House. “He influenced so many people. He really was an individual of many talents and passions and commitments.”
The Kocielas shared a love of gardening and were Botanical Gardens board members.
A 2009 Buffalo News feature article noted that their Eggertsville home has “a front yard garden that causes walkers to stop and take notice. This is just the prelude to a back yard that is as good as many public gardens.”
Mr. Kociela also raised orchids and was recording secretary for the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society, which is naming an annual award in his honor. He joined the group in caring for the orchid collection at the Botanical Gardens every Wednesday morning.
Both also served on the board of the University at Buffalo Alumni Association and he was a board member of the UB Engineering and Applied Sciences Alumni Association.
He worked with engineering alumni to name a building at UB in honor of Greg Jarvis, one of the astronauts who died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Mr. Kociela was a classmate of Jarvis at UB and they continued as friends long after graduation.
Mrs. Kociela said she and her husband began collecting art in the 1980s and “soon realized we had to narrow the focus, so we did Western New York art. A friend of ours got us involved in the Collectors Club at the Burchfield Penney and we got invited to join the board there.”
Their support has provided for more than seven dozen acquisitions for the Burchfield Penney collection and supported the conservation of more than two dozen paintings by Art Deco artist Alexander O. Levy that were found in a derelict building.
At the Burchfield Penney, they created an annual grant to support local artists and established a fund to bring school field trips to the museum. In 2014, they were inducted into the museum’s Peterson Society, which recognizes leading donors, and they received its Esprit de Corps Award.
A cyclist, Mr. Kociela was a former member of the Big Wheels Bicycle Club, completed many 100-mile “century rides” and took bicycle trips across New York State. Also a tennis player, he served on the board of the Buffalo Racquet Club.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two brothers, Thaddeus and Joseph; and a sister, Mary Anne Clary.
A gathering of his friends will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 17, in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.