With his booming voice and imposing figure, Joe Dominelli often seemed larger than life.
The former Rotterdam police chief was never afraid to speak his mind and never needed a microphone to do it. He was a presence.
“If he walked into a room, everybody would know he was there, he was that big of a presence,” recalled John Grebert, who succeeded Dominelli as executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. “He was fearless, but at the same time he was a very friendly and approachable person.”
Dominelli’s charisma and dedication to law enforcement helped transform the position of police chief from a patronage job requiring no prerequisites to an accredited civil service position. He authored the exam that candidates for chief now take. He also helped modernize the chiefs association, bringing the organization back from the brink of insolvency and irrelevance to make it a legislative force in Albany.
“He really played on a bigger stage,” said Tom Constantine, former state police superintendent and a close friend to Dominelli. “A lot of the things we see now and we take for granted were really a product of his efforts.”
Dominelli, a decorated World War II veteran and longtime member of the state Commission on Investigation, died Wednesday at the age of 93. His life was characterized by a dogged determination that took him from a hardscrabble upbringing in Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood to becoming one of the state’s most influential law enforcement advocates.
“He battled for his profession every day, just like he did in World War II,” said John Poklemba, the former state director of criminal justice and counsel to the chiefs association.
Born the son of an Italian immigrant, Dominelli was a gifted basketball player at Mont Pleasant High School and received an offer to attend Syracuse University on a full basketball scholarship. He was about 6 feet 2 inches tall and powerful.
But when his father died in an industrial accident, he decided to forgo college in favor of working at General Electric to support his family.
Dominelli worked at the plant until 1943, when he was drafted into the Army. Less than year later, he found himself pinned down by gunfire on the shores of Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
“You never see the enemy … you just fire at them,” he told the Gazette during an interview published on the 50th anniversary of the invasion. “We were lying on the ground. It was chaotic. Nobody knew who was who.”
Dominelli took a piece of shrapnel in his leg during the invasion. He mended, only to be wounded twice more in the war, including a bullet wound that almost destroyed his left wrist.
For his valor, Dominelli won three Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars. After recovering from his injuries, he returned to GE and took up residence in Rotterdam.
Then, in 1947, one of Dominelli’s co-workers and a fellow Rotterdam resident urged him to consider a job with the town police department.
At the time, the department had six officers — Dominelli became the seventh.
Dominelli rose through the ranks quickly, making lieutenant within nine years. He became known for his knack of helping troubled youth, and his union experience at GE made him an ideal leader for the Rotterdam’s Police Benevolent Association.
In 1963, Dominelli was appointed chief of the department. Shortly after, he became involved with both the state chiefs association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Grebert said Dominelli once held executive positions in both the state chiefs association and the Police Conference of New York, the state advocacy organization for police unions.
He said Dominelli’s indomitable character enabled him to advocate for two organizations that sometimes had conflicting goals.
“Nobody but Joe could have ever pulled that off,” he said.
Some of Dominelli’s most cherished work was leading the state association, a position he earned at a time when the Oneida County-based organization was nearly broke and facing irrelevancy. He took personal responsibility for a $15,000 loan to move the association to the Capital Region and tide it over until it could get back on solid financial footing.
Over the next two decades, Dominelli would be instrumental in helping to pass a dozen pieces of legislation in Albany. His tireless advocacy caught the attention of Gov. Mario Cuomo, who appointed him to the investigation commission in 1987.
“I called him the chief of chiefs,” Cuomo said in an interview Friday — he maintained contact with Dominelli up until his death. “He was a really strong guy, a really good guy and very devoted to his task.”
But Dominelli’s character transcended his work for law enforcement. His outgoing attitude made him a household name during his days working in the Capitol.
“He knew every secretary, and he knew all the people working the elevators,” Poklemba said. “From the Senate majority leader to the speaker of the house, everybody knew Chief Joe.”
Dominelli also never forgot the department where he started. Years after retiring, he would still counsel young officers coming onto the job or lend some sage words to a veteran.
“It was very apparent he was still involved in the police community,” said current Chief James Hamilton. “He was someone we could look to for advice.”
He is survived by his wife of 72 years, Florence, and daughters Jo-Ann DeLuke and Carol Oropallo.
Oropallo, the older daughter, remembered him as a devoted father who loved his job and always stayed young at heart.
She said her father reveled in his involvement with the police and would never turn his back on the job, even when he approached his late 80s.
“He found something that he loved,” she said. “It wasn’t a job to him. It was a real love.”