High-profile Central New Yorkers talk about their retirement life
By Mary Beth Roach
One was involved with county government for more than 40 years; one helped to guide a philanthropic organization for more than 20 years; and one ran a local coffee company with his cousin for nearly 30 years.
They all supposedly retired, but recent chats with Nick Pirro, Peggy Ogden and Paul de Lima prove that they have done everything BUT retire from the community.
A glimpse into their so-called retirements
Nick Pirro, 69, served in the public sector for more than four decades—22 years in the Onondaga County Legislature and 20 years as the Onondaga County executive.
During his career, he was instrumental in such projects as the county’s trash-burning plant; Syracuse’s downtown convention center, which bears his name; the Onondaga County Justice Center and Alliance Bank Stadium.
Although he retired in 2007, he continues to remain active in the community.
“I live here. I want it to be a good place,” he said.
He’s an advocate for the North Side neighborhood he grew up in and where he and his wife, Patti, still reside, living in the family home.
He volunteers as treasurer for the Central New York SPCA, an organization near and dear to his heart; he teaches a local government course at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School; he’s a business adviser for Gilberti Stinziano Heintz & Smith, P.C.; and has his own consulting business, NP Associates LLC.
“There’s a lot of time in the day,” Pirro chuckled.
It’s obvious that he’s putting that time to a lot of good use.
After his retirement, he had a lot of requests to go on boards, but he joked that he had had enough meetings for awhile, so he decided to become more involved with the SPCA, a group with which he’s had a long-time association.
Before the three Labrador mixes they have now, the Pirros had had two dogs that they got from the SPCA.
Of their current canine collection—Jeter, named for the New York Yankees star; Rudy, who they got shortly after 9/11, and is so named in honor of then-New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani; and Rocky—one came from the SPCA, another came from Wanderers Rest, and the third was a stray.
For about 20 years, he has played Santa Paws in the SPCA’s annual fundraiser, “Picture Your Pet with Santa Paws.” According to a news feature on this event in 2008, over the years that he has played Santa Paws, he’s been photographed with snakes, llamas and all kinds of animals, in addition to dogs and cats.
When the organization faced serious financial times a while ago, Pirro suggested that it make the public aware of the situation, and it paid off.
“From my experience, this community responds when there are serious issues with things that people know are important,” Pirro said, noting that the public response helped them a great deal.
His long-term goal is to work with the group to expand its base of ongoing operations and increase the public’s awareness as to all that the SPCA does. Not only does the organization take in and care for abandoned dogs and cats, it operates an animal cruelty program; assists the Onondaga County Health Department with its rabies clinics; and has an education program focusing on the care of animals.
But this is only one side of Pirro’s retirement.
Shortly after his retirement, he was approached by William Coplin, professor and director of public affairs at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, to design a local policy government course. While many of the classes were on state, national and international government, Pirro said Coplin wanted a class that would focus on local and county government. So for the past two years, he’s taught the local government class during the fall semester.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s great working with the college students.”
The Syracuse native is also part of the McBride Street Homeowners Group, which has been expanded to Prospect Hill and is working with St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center on the multi-faceted Prospect Hill Project, aimed at improving and expanding the business base in that area and stabilizing housing.
“I like living in the city, certainly like our neighborhood,” he said, and he is encouraged that some positive things are happening.
After 40-plus years in government, does he miss it?
He said that he gave the job as county executive everything he could.
“I wanted to go out at 100 percent effort, and I didn’t want anything less than that,” he mused. “I have no regrets.”
“I wanted to make sure I could stay connected to people and to causes that mattered.”
This statement summed up Peggy Ogden’s plans as she retired in June of 2008 as president and CEO of the Central New York Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization. She then developed a new consulting company that enables her to continue to make positive changes in the area by connecting donors with not-for-profits.
With her company—Peggy Ogden Solutions in Philanthropy—she is able to utilize her talents to match donors’ wishes with the needs of various not-for-profits, while maintaining her own work schedule and pace.
And perhaps find a little time for golf and visiting her grandchildren, she said with a smile. Her husband is Tim Atseff, from The Post-Standard, and together they have five children and three grandchildren.
“Right now, it’s the perfect balance between what I think I can offer. I have experience. I have expertise, and I think there’s a value to using that in the community. I get my rewards from doing that,” she said.
During her 24-year tenure with the Community Foundation, its assets increased from $7 million to more than $120 million.
According to the Community Foundation’s Web site, it annually makes more than $5 million in grants and provides leadership support in the fields of arts and culture, community and economic development, education, environment, health and human services.
“The Community Foundation gave me a lot of advantages,” she said, enabling her to go into all different parts of the community and meeting a lot of different people.
“It is the best job in the whole wide world,” she said with a big smile.
One of the projects she was most proud of during her time with the Community Foundation was the neighborhood leadership training program, in which citizens were taught how to better serve their neighborhoods.
She has taken her passion for such grassroots initiatives as evidenced in an endeavor she took on through her consulting firm—the establishment of the Cayuga Community Fund, which is a fund of the Community Foundation.
Prominent businessman Jerry Bisgrove, who was raised in Auburn but lives in Arizona, was visiting his hometown in 2007, and he suggested that the area build a community endowment that would help the county reach its potential.
He had been involved in the community foundation in Phoenix, Ariz., and saw how instrumental it could be in the development of an area. So, his private foundation, The Stardust Foundation, issued a challenge grant of $250,000, matching contributions raised for the new fund. A leadership council was established that has raised $250,000, and it will begin its first grant-making work within the next several months, Ogden said.
“It benefits the Cayuga community and the Community Foundation,” she said.
Ogden is also helping with some organizational work with the St. Agatha Foundation, created by well-known and much-loved Central New Yorker Laurie Mezzalingua, who valiantly battled breast cancer, but passed away last summer.
In addition, to determine where the foundation might be the most effective in providing care and support to those people with breast cancer, Ogden and Laurie’s mother, Kathy, who serves as foundation president, are researching where there are gaps in services.
She has also become involved in helping Jessie Keating, a fellow member of the Dewitt Community Church, to start “Imagine Syracuse,” which offers enrichment opportunities to those on the near west side of Syracuse.
She will soon be joining the boards of the United Way and the MOST Foundation.
While her work continues to leave a mark on neighborhoods, community service agencies, and individuals throughout Central New York, Ogden has left her mark by breaking down some gender barriers over time.
“I think there have been opportunities for women in this community to break down some of those barriers,” she said. “It’s just my style to want to do that in a way that is gracious but also makes a powerful statement.”
She was among the first women to become members of the Century Club, a club of community leaders and business professionals, but which had been a men’s-only club for more than a century. Her “crowning” moment might have been when she was elected president of the club two years ago. “I pulled a tiara out of my bag and promised that I wouldn’t let it go to my head,” she said with a chuckle.
The tiara has a place of honor in a bookcase at the Century Club. “That tiara is going to stay there,” Ogden joked.
And Ogden is dedicated to stay here in the community for quite a while, too, active, connected and making positive differences.
Paul de Lima
Paul de Lima has had plenty brewing since he retired five years ago as CEO of the coffee company that bears his family’s name.
“When you spend 30 years of your working life managing a rather small business, everyday you’re fully immersed in it,” said de Lima, 67, who ran the Paul de Lima Coffee Co. with his cousin, Peter Miller, for decades. “It’s pretty intense, and when you leave that it takes awhile to move to a different level of thinking.”
Yet, he has always been mindful of how he can make a difference in the community where he was born and raised, grew his company and raised his family. He continues to serve on numerous boards and has taken on a few new projects as well.
“It’s pretty rewarding when you look backwards,” he noted. But, “You have to move onward and provide some value.”
He chooses his volunteer efforts by two criteria—“Can I be useful?” or “Can I make a contribution?”
“I do it if I think I can make a contribution and help either some person or some organization,” he said.
The second criterion is to find those projects in which he feels he has the time and the expertise to do the work satisfactorily.
While still working with the family, de Lima served on a number of boards for a range of organizations, among them Hospice of Central New York, American Red Cross, and the YMCA Foundation. His long-term commitment to the Salvation Army has earned him the status of lifetime board member. His business acumen has served these groups well.
His business skills also prove beneficial for another one of his endeavors—SCORE, a volunteer consulting organization that, partnering with the Small Business Association, provides guidance to those who are starting or trying to grow their own businesses or those experiencing troubles in their existing businesses.
“The theory is that retired people have been through many of these problems,” he explained.
“If you’re involved in managing a business, typically a smaller business like my cousin and I were involved,” he said, “you’re going to learn a few things—some good things and some not-so-good things,” he added with a chuckle. “You’re going to learn a lot through the school of hard knocks. To the extent you can share that with somebody else, you can maybe help them avoid some of the same issues or help them figure out a problem which they’ve never faced but you might have faced.”
With their deep roots to this area, he and his wife, Melanie, are firmly planted here.
De Lima’s grandfather, Paul, founded the coffee manufacturing company in 1916. His father, Paul W., was in the family business from 1936 to 1943, when he went in the Army. He was killed in World War II at Normandy in 1944.
Paul W. Jr. (although he doesn’t often use the “Junior” these days) was just about a year old.
His mother, Kathryn, decided to remain in Syracuse and joined the faculty at Syracuse University.
He graduated from Nottingham High School in 1960 and from Harvard in 1964; he served from 1964 to 1967 in the U.S. Navy, where he was on a minesweeper from 1965 to 1967. He went on to graduate from Syracuse University’s Law School in 1970.
Having grown up in the business and having worked there for a few summers while in school, he and his cousin had often talked about the business.
Miller joined the company in 1967, but de Lima went on to Syracuse University’s Law School and then moved to Illinois, where he practiced law for two years. He and Melanie then moved to Arizona, but between the time they left Illinois and moved to Arizona, his grandfather died, and his uncle, David de Lima, took over the company.
It was 1973, and Paul W. was 30. He and Melanie decided that if he was going to become part of the family business, now was the time.
When his uncle died in 1981, he became CEO, Peter became president, and the two co-managed the company.
In looking back on his career, he reflects on the enjoyment he got from the business and from working with his cousin, his pride in their product, their ability to grow the business amid the changing trends and demographics, and the opportunity to work with good people.
He should also take pride in the company’s initiatives to be a good corporate neighbor.
“From a business point of view,” he said, “you can commit your time, your money or both.”
The de Lima company tried to do both—giving financial support when possible and giving time, serving on boards or volunteering in other ways, he said.
The strategies for profit or not-for-profits are similar, he explained, in that both are concerned about the financial stability of their organizations, their clients or customers and about the development of plans for marketing and growth.
While the social service agencies are helped, he believes that companies and their employees benefit as well.
“It’s good for the corporate culture,” he noted. “It’s good for people within the company. They feel good working for a company that contributes to the community. It’s self-fulfilling in many ways.”
Even when he and his cousin decided to sell the company in 2004, they were mindful of the family legacy and the relationship between their Syracuse-based company and its impact in the community.
They decided that the best way to ensure the company’s continuity was to find a local buyer. And they did.
The cousins sold it to another Syracuse family business, the Drescher Management Group. The Drescher family had sold their own food distribution business about four years prior, and wanted to get back into a food-related operation, de Lima said.
In addition to his interest in community endeavors, de Lima said he enjoys the intellectually challenging courses he has found through OASIS in Shoppingtown in Dewitt and Syracuse University’s Lifelong Learning Institute.
He has also become involved with the planning committee of his 50th class reunion, a project that is taking up more time than he had anticipated since there is so much swapping of stories and memories.