Frank Duci, Schenectady’s longest-serving mayor, turned 95 on Saturday.
The first Italian-American mayor of Schenectady laughed at his age and said he is slightly over 21. “And I thank the good Lord everyday,” he said.
Duci defied all odds after battling lung cancer about a decade ago. He now lives happy and healthy in Largo, Fla., with his wife, Pat Duci.
In an interview with The Daily Gazette on Thursday, Duci said he moved to Florida about five years ago and loves the area and his friends but misses his hometown.
“The 42 years I served in elective capacity, I loved every minute of it,” the Republican warhorse said. “The people were so nice, whether they agreed with me or not.”
Throughout the interview Duci repeated, “I love the people.”
And the people love him. Duci said he received nearly 500 emails and letters from Schenectadians wishing him a happy birthday.
“I’ve had so many messages, into the hundreds, that come over the computer from people who are wishing me happy birthday,” he said. “There are so many heartwarming messages that are on the computer you just can’t believe. That’s something you can’t buy. We still love each other to this day.”
Al Jurczynski, who succeeded Duci as mayor in 1996, said his ideas were crazy but he was endearing and people couldn’t help but love him.
“Everybody loves Frank,” said Nancy Denofrio, Duci’s daughter who lives in Saratoga Springs. “It never dies off. As long as they see the name everyone says something. I love to pass those things on to him.”
Duci, who worked at General Electric and served in the Navy, said he threw himself into politics in 1947 because he loved working with people and wanted to fight for issues they cared about.
Duci said being mayor wasn’t easy and that he always had an uphill battle with the City Council, which he said was Republican-controlled during his first four years in office but led by Democrats the following 12 years.
“That’s the way politics goes,” he said.
“Unfortunately that’s how it is. Eventually some of the issues I promoted they did support. But many of them I had uphill battles with.”
He recalled losing the position as mayor in 1983 to Karen Johnson, who served as the city’s first and only female mayor, as the most discouraging point of his political career.
That was also the saddest point of his life, as his first wife of 40 years, Elizabeth Kelly, was fighting a battle with cancer she would ultimately lose.
“When she beat me I was in New York City with my wife who wasn’t expected to live,” he said. “When the reporters called me I didn’t want to tell them the story about her condition. Karen Johnson said I was hiding to avoid debating her. I didn’t want to get involved. I had my wife, who was my priority. I wanted to stay with her.”
Duci was also fighting for the office in an era when Schenectady was losing jobs and state aid, and voter enrollment was gradually shifting from Republican to Democrat.
Duci lost the election by 302 votes out of 24,000. He decided to re-enter politics in 1985, winning a seat on the City Council along with Republicans Al Jurczynski and Henry DeLegge.
He then decided to run for mayor when Johnson’s term was up in 1987. But the Republican Party backed DeLegge and Duci lost by 1 percentage point.
He married Pat Duci in 1990 and returned to the mayor’s seat in 1992, where he served until 1995.
Duci said his accomplishments, while serving in ward and county-level politics in addition to serving as mayor, were a combination of things.
He is best known for spearheading the purchase of the former Hotel Van Curler as a home for Schenectady County Community College, building a new county library, and fighting a proposal to build a four-lane extension of Nott Street.
“I also promoted the sales tax to help offset the real property taxes for the people,” he said. “The sales tax revenue unfortunately they use some of it for Metroplex. I’m not too happy about that. The Central Park pavilion we attracted volunteers to construct it at no cost to the taxpayers.”
Jurczynski said Duci’s ideas were never-ending and that he was sometimes impossible to deal with. He said he believes the word “colorful” best describes him.
“One thing is for certain, he is perhaps the most colorful elected official that ever served in the history of city government in Schenectady,” he said.
Jurczynski recalled a time when Duci suggested that the council members buy Lottery tickets with the hopes of winning one day and then turning around the city’s finances.
Duci said he proposed bringing gambling to Schenectady’s riverfront on several occasions but that the council wouldn’t support it.
“I urged them to get a casino,” he said. “Then I tried to promote at the same time riverboat gambling. I had three people from a casino company come to Schenectady and they went up and down the river with me and loved what they saw. I tried to point out that the revenue would be terrific and we would be able to help the people.”
When asked about the Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor, which is expected to open in March off Erie Boulevard along the Mohawk River, Duci said he believes it will be beneficial for the city.
Duci led the push for shifting Schenectady’s executive power from a city manager to mayoral control. He said he did so to allow for him to better address the people’s issues, and the electorate approved the change in a referendum.
“At that point what I wanted was for the people to be closer to their government and be aware of what was happening,” he said. “I just thought the government would be closer to the people under the mayor as chief executive.”
Duci grew up on Green Street in the Stockade, later moving to Avenue A in Goose Hill. He served as mayor from 1971 to 1983 and again from 1991 to 1995.
Duci said he loves Schenectady and that his friends send him news clippings so he can keep up with what’s happening in the city.
He said he would like to see some changes in Schenectady with a shift back to Republican control.
“I hope the Republicans take over,” he said. “They really need a change. I know the current mayor, and some of the things he does I do not quite understand. From what I have seen in the past and what I hear today I think it would be in the best interest of the people if there was a change.”
Politics aside, Duci said he hopes to return to Schenectady one day for a visit.
Denofrio said she is working on a book about her father growing up in Schenectady and his time serving the people in politics.
“He is healthy,” she said. “He went through tons of surgeries and came out of everything. The cancer went away, amazingly.”
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.