Joe Mastrianni’s Rainbow

by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

for the Sunday Gazette, 11/25/2007

 


                                  

                                                                 “Aren’t we lucky!

                                                                         —Joseph E. Mastrianni (1935-2007)

 

In the lingering spirit of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the life of Joseph E. Mastrianni and lead with his favorite saying. After a year-long battle with leukemia, Joe died on election day, and although he never aspired to elective office, he loved everyone, even politicians. I know this by logical inference, because more so than anyone I ever met, he obeyed the greatest commandment, ending with the biblical admonition  …to love thy neighbor as thyself.”


Joe was a native Schenectadian, born in the midst of the Depression of Italian immigrants Joseph and Mary Mastroianni. Joseph senior was a barber who, in a good week, earned all of  $12. But there passed from Joseph to Joe a strong work ethic, and at age 16 in 1950, Joe became the Schenectady Soap Box Derby champion. In 1953, he graduated from Draper High School where he was a star halfback.

  

Most of the stories I relate herein were told by one or another of the several excellent speakers at the Celebration of the Life of Joseph E. Mastrianni held at the Sagamore in Bolton Landing on Saturday, November 10: sons Joe and Jim, nephews Rob Coughlin and Steve Tyre, close friend Jerry Shelton, and older brother Ernie Mastroianni (who, unlike Joe retained the central vowel in the patriarch’s last name). Jerry said that Joe was the most honest man he had ever met, a characterization in accord with everything I know about him.

As Ernie told it, Joe’s prowess at Draper prompted him to try for the Syracuse University football team as a walk-on. At an early practice, Joe was running a wind-sprint down the field and out of the corner of his eye, he sensed that some big black fellow was gaining on him. (Remember, African-Americans hadn’t been invented yet.) Thinking that this guy must be some poor kid from New York City, Joe allegedly pulled up to let the pursuer win, only to find out later that he was the Jim Brown who is now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the greatest running back ever to play the game. So Joe figured that if only he hadn’t slowed down that day, it would have been his own plaque sitting in Canton, Ohio.

But Joe did go on to graduate from Syracuse with a degree in economics in 1959 and then  earned a master's degree in economics and public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Administration, also at Syracuse University. He was an excellent trombonist who, while serving in the army in 1957, wooed his high-school sweetheart, Miriam Hallenbeck, by playing for her over the phone. He married her later that year and the two celebrated their golden anniversary just months before his death.

In 1964, Joe became the commissioner of planning for Schenectady County, a post he held for 11 years, so it must have been in the 1970s when I was Niskayuna Supervisor that I first met Joe and Miriam while, most likely, I was out ringing doorbells on Lexington Parkway in an election year. But then our respective jobs led to our working together and with Congressman Sam Stratton to obtain a federal grant that was used to build the first section of the Mohawk-Hudson Hike and Bike Trail in Niskayuna, still the town’s most popular recreational facility.

Brother Ernie’s second story told of Joe attending the retirement party of a much older colleague and noting that he had received a gold watch. Joe, an entrepreneurial spirit burning within him, then thought “I’m not going to wait for my gold watch; it’s time to strike out on my own.”

 

So, in 1975, Joe founded Joseph E. Mastrianni, Inc., a consulting firm on Union Street specializing in the administration of federally funded low-income housing programs. Recognized as an expert in the industry, Joe helped thousands of families in the Capital District and went on to train many other housing professionals in the Northeast.

Some time in the early 1980s, Joe called me and asked if I, as president and only employee of Cybernetic Information Systems (anyone wish to buy a corporation?), would write a program for his Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II in BASIC, the only high-level language available on that small a computer at the time. I did, and Joe accepted my recommendation that it be named HAPPY, for Housing Assistance Payments Program Yearly. I figured that successor programs would be called HAPPIER and HAPPIEST, with the acronyms to be invented later. And, through triumph and adversity, there was no happier man than Joe.

Well, the program endures to this day, recoded into a more modern language by Joe’s oldest son (Joe, too, of course). And in 1997, Joe and sons Joe and Jim co-founded HAPPY Software, Inc., a Saratoga company providing services to a national client base and for which Joe served as chairman of the board until his passing.

Although I never heard him say it quite this way, I believe that the source of Joe’s unflagging optimism was his constant wonder that of all the teeming collections of molecules in our vast universe, there should be one particular self-aware conglomeration that happens to be Joseph E. Mastrianni. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it less floridly, “Think of all the mud that never had a chance to sit up and look around.” Aren’t we [all] lucky.

A resident of Niskayuna and Bolton Landing, Joe moved full-time to the latter in 2001. A lover of Lake George and the Adirondacks, Joe lived life to the fullest, enjoying the outdoors, skiing, sailing, kayaking, and—“going green” long before it became fashionable—cruising Lake George at 8 mph in his electric boat.  Like himself, the boat is called "Popper," a nickname given to him by his grandchildren, a name similar to the “Poppie” bestowed on me by my and Jean’s youngest granddaughter. (She’ll be the first one out from under the mother’s skirts in the Nutcracker production at Proctor’s on December 9. “Aren’t we lucky.”)

As mementos of the Celebration of Life, all who attended were offered a smooth black stone from an Adirondack stream. Mine fits comfortably in my pocket, clicking against a pen drive of about the same size that holds the extensive chronological sequence of snapshots from the life that was celebrated that Saturday.

The day Joe died, November 6, was very overcast, but just as his body was carried from his home, there was a break in the clouds. The Sun shone through to form a rainbow that dipped down into a patch of still-bright orange foliage on the side of a mountain on the other side of the lake, a more fitting landfall than any pot o’gold could possibly be. And if he could only know that his son took the picture that will be known as “Joe’s Rainbow” forever, he would be sure to say, one last time, “Aren’t we lucky.”


 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.