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February 2003

Meet the Other Joel Giambra

by Joseph H. RADDER

You know Joel Giambra, the County Executive, now we want you to meet Joel Giambra, family man and survivor of crises.

His fondest childhood memories are of growing up in the Lakeview Housing Project. “I didn’t realize until I was about eleven or twelve that not everybody had concrete floors,” he said. Joel’s experience there would serve him well in later years. “I grew up with Native Americans, African-Americans, Spanish-Americans and several other ethnic groups. It was an environment where everybody was poor but we didn’t know it.”

The child of a single parent, Joel Giambra was raised by his mother and grandmother. He recalls meeting his father for the first time when he was thirteen years old. Yet, the closeness of his family, cousins, uncles, aunts and his beloved “Nana” filled the fatherly void in his life.

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Joel Giambra - 1958. Joel - 1959.

Eventually, Joel’s mother would re-marry. “Salvatore Panaro was not my natural father but he was my real father. I called him ‘Dad’,” Joel said. Clearly this was a loving relationship.

The Panaros had a daughter, Angela, giving Joel a half-sister. She is now age 24 and lives in New York City.

Like most Italian-American families, the Giambra-Panaros were faithful Catholics. Joel attended Holy Angels grammar school, Grover Cleveland High School and Erie Community College. He is perhaps more religious today than ever before. Soon after being diagnosed with throat cancer he and his wife, Michelle, embraced a new approach to Christianity.

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Joel - 1967.

Speaking of his illness he says “It was unbelievable. Two days after undergoing twelve hours of surgery, I’m on the phone with Bruce (Fisher) and Carl (Calabrese) and we’re putting an administration together.” We asked if the fact that his diagnosis came just two days after his election as County Executive had affected his approach to the job. “It made me the most humble politician who ever walked the face of the earth” he answered.

“All my life, I have been able to take stumbling blocks and make them building blocks,” he said, reminding us of the philosophy “When life deals you lemons, make lemonade.”

On the other hand, Joel Giambra’s life has had its pleasant side as well. In 1982 he married Michelle Lettieri. “We have four beautiful children,” he beamed, “Gabriella, 14, Nicholas, 13, Dominic, 11 and Joel, 4. Noting that he will have three kids in college at the same time he said “That means I’ll never be able to retire.”

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Back row: Nicholas (13), Joel, Michelle, Dominic (11).
Front row: Joel, Jr. (4), Gabriella (14) - 2002.

When he was about Nicholas’ age he pumped gas at a station on Porter Avenue. Later he would have a job in the City Parks Department.

He remembers that Mayor Frank Sedita was the public servant who was the biggest influence in his life, encouraging him to enter the world of politics. As a result he was one of the youngest men ever to serve on the City of Buffalo Common Council. Later he became City Comptroller and then was elected overwhelmingly as County Executive.

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“Babe” Panaro (Joel’s step father), Shirley Panaro (Joel’s mom) and Joel.

One of his passions is Erie Community College, not only because he is an alumnus, but because “it is a very important piece of this community.” Speaking of his ideas to consolidate the ECC campuses downtown, he said “It will have to happen. We’re prepared to address the (opposition’s) issues”. He sees this happening within the next five years. “We hope that by the middle of the summer of 2003 we will have a document that tells us whether or not it's feasible economically.” When he said “I’m serious about this happening” it was typical of his strong positive attitudes on issues which will improve this community.

It’s also refreshing to hear him express his opinions on political cronyism. “We never knew the party affiliation of 70% of the people we hired (to work in County government) and none of them ever bought a ticket (to a fund-raiser).”

A walk through the Rath County Office Building to meet some of these people proves that Joel Giambra has high quality standards when it comes to human resources. Honest, industrious, committed, vibrant, these are the words that come to mind when one tries to describe the qualities of these people. And it’s obvious that they are simply reflecting the character of the County Executive.

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Joel and Michelle - 1980. Michelle and Joel on their wedding day -
November 14, 1982.

Perhaps the best-known Giambra philosophy is his belief in regionalism. The idea that Buffalo could jump overnight from 54th to 11th largest city in the country excites a lot of people. And many believe that the savings to taxpayers resulting from elimination of duplication would be significant. “I believe it will happen before the end of my next term” he said with conviction. “We need to change the state laws to allow city and county governments to merge.” Giambra believes that will happen in the next session of the State Legislature. “I’m convinced”, he says, “that the public is way ahead of the politicians in this community. In other words, the people want change. As soon as elected officials catch up, the better it will be for all of us.”

On the issue of casino gambling, Joel is ambivalent. He explains his position this way: “I’ve never been a huge proponent. However, being a realist, the moral issues are something we need to pay attention to, because casino gambling is already here. I believe that in a controlled environment it could be beneficial but it’s not the panacea that has been suggested.”

In addition to a very busy life running the county government, Joel Giambra finds time to serve his fellow man in non-political ways. For example, his experience with throat cancer qualifies him eminently to address youth on the issue of smoking.

And he still finds time for his favorite sport, golf. He believes strongly that golf is the most character-building of all sports. “It teaches honesty,” he says, “as no other sport can.”

It should not come as a surprise that the symbol of Joel Giambra’s administration is a lighthouse. Miniature lighthouses and pictures of them are all over his office. They symbolize the “beacon of hope” Joel Giambra offers to all who believe in what he is trying
to do.

Joseph H. Radder is a freelance writer.


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