Remembering John T. Kociela by Scott Propeack

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Buffalonians take pride in our reputation as a community of good neighbors, and this quality was exemplified by the life of John T. Kociela, who passed away on February 27, 2019.

John, along with his wife of 49 years, Carol, had done so much to make Western New York better and, as Carol has often said, their good works came from John’s sincere concern for and love of our community.

Originally from Syracuse, John came to Buffalo to study at the University at Buffalo, where he received his degree in civil engineering and met Carol. His connection to their alma matter continued for decades, as John served for over 30 years on the board of the University of Buffalo Engineering Alumni Association and was a season-ticket holder for UB basketball, regularly attending games with Carol.

Shortly after he graduated, he took a position with the Erie County Department of Health, where he spent his entire 42-year career. He was also an avid cyclist, completing many 100-mile “century” rides and multiple trips across New York State, as well as an enthusiastic tennis player who served on the board of the Buffalo Racquet Club.

Much of his legacy, too, will live on in the dedication that John had to Buffalo’s architectural and cultural organizations. It was both deep and broad and, as with nearly everything else in his life, it was shared with Carol.  

John began his involvement with the Darwin D. Martin House as a docent when it was still owned by the University of Buffalo. His commitment was such that he essentially made himself available on-call: Whether visitors had traveled from across the world or just from across town, the fact that they wanted to learn about something that he held dear was motivation enough. For example, once while in Clarence with Carol, he received a call that a fellow docent was unable to make it in for a tour. Instead of declining to lead the tour, he was there in 15 minutes.

In addition to architecture, John and Carol shared a love of gardening. John served as a board member at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, a role he held until Carol became the board’s director after retiring from her career in banking. He was also a member of the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society and enthusiastically shared his knowledge with fellow Society members and anyone else that needed help.

Many other arts and cultural organizations have been fortunate to benefit from John’s and Carol’s shared passions and commitment, too.

For example, knowing that if works in collections are cared for and conserved, they’re more likely to be enjoyed by the public, John and Carol continuously supported the conservation of many works at the Buffalo History Museum. In addition to recognizing their importance, John wanted to ensure that the stories that the works represented would continue for future generations.

In recognition of their broad community involvement, John and Carol received the Buffalo History Museum’s Red Jacket Award in 2016. To best understand the importance of this award, it’s helpful to mention some other past recipients: Charles Burchfield (1958), Robert Kresse and Robert Wilson (1992), Robert Wilmers (1995), Joanne Falletta (2008) and Cindy Abbott Letro (2011). John, in his quiet and unassuming way, clearly lived up to the legacy of the worthy recipients that came before him.

With their interests in the art, history and culture of our community and the Burchfield Penney’s dedication to the art and artists of Western New York, it was natural, too, that John and Carol became enthusiastically involved with our museum.

Their involvement began as members of the Burchfield Penney’s Collectors Club. Through this, they learned more about the collectors and artists that make Western New York a great arts community. Through the Club, they’ve also had additional impact as contributors to the fund for the purchase of new art for the museum’s permanent collections.  

As Carol became more involved as a trustee and, eventually, the director of the Burchfield Penney’s board, John also became more involved with the museum. For example, while reviewing works by the artist Alexander Levy, John realized that these paintings told an elemental story of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century art and the story of one of the most important members of the Buffalo Society of Artists. John and Carol also recognized that the paintings by this historically significant artist would never be shared if they weren’t conserved – an undertaking that involved the restoration of an entire collection of 26 paintings, something that is typically very difficult to fund and that they generously sponsored so that this collection can be enjoyed for generations.

Telling the story of art and art history through Levy’s works made John even more curious about the livelihood of artists living in our community today, and he and Carol asked the Burchfield Penney how they could help support them.

When they recognized that there were few opportunities for artists to get direct financial support for the growth in their careers, John and Carol were inspired to create an annual grant that artists could use in any way that would positively impact their career growth. Since its inception about three years ago, the fund has benefited more than 20 artists. And, again, it was less about the love of objects that motivated John; rather, it was his concern for people and community.

After a conversation with a teacher from a Buffalo Public Schools charter school, St. Joseph University School, about their art classes, John again wanted to help. Knowing that funding for field trips to museums is a continuous challenge for schools, John and Carol established a fund to create a partnership between the school and the Burchfield Penney that would support visits throughout the year, ensuring that these students benefitted from in-depth learning.

This single act inspired multiple donors to step forward and sponsor other schools, enabling deeper and more meaningful connections to the arts for hundreds of students.

These are just a few examples of how John quietly looked for ways to make the community better and those who knew him could tell hundreds more. These are stories of a life of community involvement and the essential qualities that John embodied: love, concern, humor, sensitivity and humility.

Although we feel a void from John’s absence now, his good works will be present in our lives, every day. Hopefully, too, his legacy will inspire others to do well for our community and, like John, to quietly enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that we’re leaving Western New York better for all.