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April 2005

Lee Coppola –
Journalism’s Renaissance Man

by Joseph H. RADDER

At 61, Lee Coppola has done it all. As a journalist he has worked in print and broadcast media, and currently he is dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

As a lawyer he has prosecuted drug dealers and put them behind bars. And as a family man he has loved every minute of his life, from a happy childhood on Buffalo’s West Side to enjoyment of his grown children and much-loved grandchildren.

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One-year-old Lee with father Frank and brother Vince. Lee at 12 with father and mother, Lucy Puma Coppola.
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With brother and grandmother, Anna Puma. Lt. Coppola, U.S. Army.

While a student at St. Bonaventure in the 1960s, Lee Coppola interned at the Associated Press Buffalo office. When he graduated in 1964, the AP wire service offered him a job, and that began a long and illustrious career in journalism, punctuated by a tour of duty in the military and a five-year stint as a federal prosecutor.

An ROTC cadet at St. Bonaventure, Coppola went on active military duty six months after completing his college degree. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army and served for two years at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The military is known for assigning people in fields where they have no training and few skills. However, Lee Coppola was the exception to the rule. While in the service, he was able to continue his journalism career as editor of the post newspaper.

The next stop on his career path was the Buffalo Evening News, where he spent sixteen years as a general assignment reporter, rewriteman and investigative reporter.

Most journalists spend their entire career in one branch of the field. Some work for a lifetime in print, either newspapers or magazines. Others spend their entire career in broadcast, either radio or television. True Renaissance man that he is, however, Lee Coppola worked “both sides of the street.” In 1983 he joined WKBW-TV, Channel 7, where he worked for four years alongside Irv Weinstein, Tom Jolls, and Rick Azar as the station’s “Troubleshooter.” In 1987, he moved to WIVB-TV, Channel 4, where for five more years he was that station’s investigative reporter.

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Lee and his wife, Lee Elardo, dancing at their wedding. Lee and Lee, now married 40 years.
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Escorting daughter Julie down the aisle. With sons Frank, left, and Michael.
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Lee and Lee with brother Vince and his wife, Sandy, at their mother's 90th birthday.
Lucy Coppola is now 93.

His specialty was reporting on the Mafia. In fact, Hollywood’s movie, “Hide In Plain Sight,” was based on articles Lee wrote about the Witness Protection Program. James Caan starred in the film, and actors played the parts of Lee Coppola and State Supreme Court Justice Salvatore Martoche, a friend of Coppola’s since their days together at Bishop Fallon High School.

So how did a journalist get to be a federal prosecutor? “When I was 36 and working at the News, I had this wacky idea that maybe I should go to law school,” Coppola remembered. After four years of working full-time at the News and attending classes at UB, he graduated with a law degree in 1983 and was admitted to the Bar. But he didn’t actually practice law until 1991, when then U.S. Attorney Dennis Vacco offered him the opportunity to be a federal prosecutor.

While Lee was practicing law in the Justice Department, St. Bonaventure decided to upgrade its journalism department to the academic status of a school. A dean was needed and a search committee went through a number of choices before deciding on one. The person selected eventually declined the offer, and the president of the university called Lee Coppola and asked him for some suggestions. “I rattled off three or four names,” Coppola said, “but, he said, ‘actually, I’ve got somebody in mind already.’ When I asked who it was, he said, ‘I’m talking to him.’”

Shocked, Coppola thought to himself, “I’ve got a great job as a federal prosecutor, with security and future retirement benefits, and I love prosecuting drug dealers.” But, Coppola said, “ every time I put a roadblock in front of changing my career at that time, he knocked it down.”

Lee then consulted with his wife and three grown children. “Somehow, they all felt this was the perfect job for me, and they turned out to know more than I did.” And so, in mid-1996, Lee Coppola became dean of St. Bonaventure’s Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication, returning to where he learned the foundation for his career and following in the footsteps of Dr. Jandoli, the founder of St. Bonaventure’s journalism program and Lee’s journalism professor and mentor.

As one talks to Lee Coppola, his strong work ethic shines through, and it makes the visitor curious about the origin of that work ethic. So we went back to his childhood.

“I come from a big Italian family,” he said happily. “Most of my childhood memories center around the dinner table with my mother and father and assorted cousins, uncles, and aunts. His father, Frank A. Coppola, was a city employee “He worked two jobs to put my brother and me through college,” Coppola said. “When he’d finish his day job for the city, he’d go to work loading freight for the Red Star Express lines. I used to pick up my father at Red Star at one in the morning, and I’d watch him wearily trudge down that ramp to the car. Believe me, that sort of experience makes you appreciate what your parents do for you.”

Lee’s mother, Lucy Puma Coppola, is alive and well at age 93. “I learned a lot from her about love of family and strength of character,” he said. Lee’s older brother, Vince, is a retired guidance counselor from the Williamsville school system. “Our dad always stressed the importance of education, even though he wasn’t an educated man himself,” Lee noted. “Vince carried on that tradition in his work as a guidance counselor, and I guess now I’m doing a little bit of it as a dean.”

In 1964, the year he graduated from St. Bonaventure, Lee and Lee Elardo (yes, they’re both named Lee) were married at St. Joseph’s Church on north Main Street. They have three grown children, all married—Julie, communications manager at National Fuel Gas, married to Doug Cox; Frank, an artisan who works in metal design, married to Katherine O’Day, and Michael, a supervisor for a flooring company, married to Marie Turner and living outside Ft. Collins, Co. His grandchildren include Lincoln, a freshman at Canisius High School; Noel, a sixth-grader, and the latest, Julie’s18-month-old Allison, “who turns me into mush.”

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Son Frank and his wife Katherine with grandchildren Lincoln and Noel. Son Michael and his wife Marie. They live in Colorado.
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The Coppola family at Julie's wedding, Lee and Lee, daughter-in-law Marie, son Michael, Julie and husband, Doug Cox, son Frank, daughter-in-law Katherine and grandchildren Lincoln and Noel. Holding Allison, "who turns me into mush."
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Surrounded by grandchildren, high school freshman Lincoln, 18-month Allison and
sixth-grader Noel.

Where were the seeds for his career planted? Lee said, “I went to work on my high school newspaper, at the urging of my brother, and I think because of that I found my vocation, avocation, and passion for the rest of my life.”

While at St. Bonaventure, he worked as head of the crew that washed dishes in the dining hall, and after his freshman year his summer job was picking up garbage in the city. “I learned a lot about life working as a garbage man for the city,” he said. After his sophomore and junior years, he was able to get a job that made better use of his talents, as an intern with the Associated Press. “I tell people I must have ink in my veins. I started delivering newspapers when I was seven years old, helping my brother on his paper route.”

Getting back to education, we asked Lee for his thoughts on Western New York as an education center. “When you look at the area, you see a depressed area, a depressed economy, but I think it’s a vibrant educational center. Obviously, U.B. is the bed-rock of it because it’s a large institution and a major research center in the United States, but then you have places like Bonaventure, Canisius and Niagara which, I think, add character and another dimension to the education opportunities in Western New York along with a variety of other state and private colleges. Of course, I think Bonaventure’s a special place; that’s why I went back when I was 53.”

When asked about the future of education, Coppola said. “I don’t think education will suffer the kind of depression that the economy suffers. I think people always want something better for their children than they had. The parents of the world will continue to be the moving force behind a vital educational system.”

Lee Coppola told us something then that many of our readers may be aware of, but it came as something of a surprise to this writer. That is the influence the internet is having on students’ choices of colleges.

“We have students at St. Bonaventure from places all over the world,” he said. In other words, geography is not important any more when it comes to finding the right college or university to attend. Students, he said, do their research on the internet to help find the school best suited for them. ‘For example, we’re having to dinner one of my former students who returned for graduate school. She’s a young lady who was born in Nicaragua and spent most of her life in Miami. She wanted a small journalism school and found us on the internet, and the first time she ever saw snow was when she came to this area to go to school at St. Bonaventure. Twenty years ago we would never have enrolled a student like that.”

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Lee and now State Supreme Court Justice Salvatore Martoche and James Caan during the filming in Buffalo of “Hide in Plain Sight,” a movie based on stories written by Coppola. Lee with a crop of marijuana displayed by law enforcement officers for one of Coppola's television stories.
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Lee and his wife in the West Wing with presidential aide Karen Hughes. Dean Coppola in academic regalia at St. Bonaventure presents Buffalo's Tim Russert for an honorary degree.

Moving on to awards and honors, Lee Coppola has many. Two years ago he was inducted into his now defunct high school’s Hall of Fame, plus he has more than 30 national state and local journalism awards. Illustrating his role as a Renaissance man, Lee won the Associated Press’s investigative reporting award for print journalism when he worked at the News, and then won the same award for broadcast reporting when he worked for Channel 4. But the one of which he is most proud is the George Polk award which, we’re told, is, in journalists’ eyes, the next best thing to a Pulitzer Prize. He won that for exposing the fraudulent practices of a Buffalo business school.

Lee Coppola sort of summed up his philosophy when he said, “When I was a reporter, the most satisfaction I ever got was doing stories that helped people. I enjoyed going to battle for the ‘little guy’ who didn’t have any ammunition, but I had a weapon called television and before that the newspaper. If I could use that weapon to make somebody’s life better, that was the most enjoyable thing I found in my career as a journalist.”

Joseph H. Radder, a frequent contributor to Living Prime Time, is author of the book, Young Jesus, the Missing Years. For more information, phone 1-888-280-7715 or visit

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