May 14 – Happy Birthday Mario Villa

MarioVilla222My first exposure to today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was a Letter to the Editor he wrote right around the time the Kent State killings took place and Richard Nixon was taking over the Presidency. In it, Mario Villa blasted colleges for letting celebrity anti-war protesters like Jane Fonda speak to their students at rallies and commencement exercises. His argument was that these speakers knew nothing about war so they were only giving opinions and kids in college should be learning facts not listening to opinions. Needless to say, this was not a very popular attitude with many in my generation at the time but many from our parents generation agreed one hundred percent with him.

My first face-to-face impression of Mario Villa was also a bit polarizing. I had just started bowling in the old Port Jackson League at Windmill Lanes in the early seventies. Mario had been a long-time member of that league and a very good bowler to boot. But he was also very competitive and I will never forget during the first match between his team and mine, one of his teammates failed to convert a spare by missing a five pin and Mario actually yelled at him. At first I thought he had to be kidding but when he did it again later on in the match I realized he was serious. But you know what? All the guys on his team absolutely loved bowling with him.

Still, these two early impressions of Mr. Villa led me to conclude that the guy was wound tighter than a spool of sewing thread. He wasn’t at all shy about telling people what he thought  they were doing wrong. Of course that also happened to be his job. He used to work as an inspector for New York State and the oft-repeated rumor was that he’d write up his own mother if she wasn’t following whatever regulations he happened to be inspecting.

Villa formally entered the local political arena by running for Fifth Ward alderman during the Gomulka administration. Those of us alive back then remember that era as a time of tumultuous change for the City of Amsterdam, when huge sums of money were being spent to literally change the character and face of this place. Old homes and buildings with noble and glorious histories were being continuously torn down to make way for what we were told and all hoped would be the traffic patterns, access routes and new downtown we needed to prepare for a better and brighter future.

This dramatic change required a huge monetary investment, which was largely subsidized by taxpayer dollars  being routed in Amsterdam’s direction by the federal government. Those dollars funded not just the feasibility, planning, design, demolition and construction but also the property acquisitions necessary to implement all this change and it wasn’t long before questions about how efficiently those dollars were being spent and where they were ending up began surfacing first in coffee shops and bars around town and then in the local media. And then State investigators in Albany announced a probe of illegal gambling in Amsterdam that included charges of corruption in the police department that extended up to City Hall.

Suddenly the pages of the Recorder were being dominated by stories of government failure and corruption not just in Vietnam, or at Attica prison, or a Washington DC hotel but also right here in Amsterdam. The time seemed right for a new sheriff in town, one who was not afraid to dig for the dirt, speak truth to power and get rid of any bad and incompetent apples and that new sheriff turned out to be Mario Villa….

The rest of Mario Villa’s birthday post will be published in the second editionof A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam NY Birthdays, which will be available for sale right after Thanksgiving. To make sure you get your hands on one of the first copies, join my mailing list here.

The first edition of A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam NY Birthdays, which features my birthday posts for 320 current or former Amsterdam residents, is currently being sold at Liberty Fresh Market, on Route 30 in Amsterdam. You can also purchase it online here.

The former Mayor shares his May 14 birthday with this former member of Amsterdam’s Company G.

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