John J. Pignatelli dies at 95; 'cared deeply' about his Berkshire constituents

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LENOX — John J. Pignatelli, a longtime local politician who was regarded as the "ultimate public servant," died Wednesday night surrounded by family. He was 95.

Pignatelli, father of state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, served for 20 years as chairman of the Lenox Select Board and eight years as chairman of the former Berkshire County Commission.

He died just over a month after the death of his wife, the former Mary Jane Flood, at age 94. The Pignatellis would have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary Feb. 20.

"Our hearts go out to the family," said Robert Coakley, of Lenox, a longtime friend of the Pignatelli family. Mary Jane Pignatelli was Coakley's English teacher at the old Lenox High School. "They've been through a rough patch."

Those who knew and worked with Pignatelli remembered him Thursday as a well-liked and decent man who could use humor to defuse a tense political situation and who genuinely cared about his constituents.

"A very common type of person who cared deeply about the people who he could help," said Fairview Hospital President Eugene Dellea, a longtime family friend. "He was always interested in the political arena. He always reached out when he could help, but he did it very quietly. He didn't seek to be in the spotlight."

Pignatelli served on the Lenox Select Board for 32 years — from 1961 to 1993 — and on the Berkshire County Commission from 1972 to 1992. The County Commission, once one of the most powerful political entities in the Berkshires, was disbanded in 2000 when county government was dissolved.

In an interview with The Eagle in 1974, Pignatelli said the most important thing that he learned about politics was that meetings should be as informal as possible. Common sense, common decency and a "fair shake" are the virtues he said he held dearest, the article stated.

"I grew up poor," said Pignatelli, the son of a gardener at the former Bellefontaine Estate on Kemble Street, now Canyon Ranch, "but my parents always insisted that I get, and give, an honest deal."

"He outworked other politicians," Coakley said.

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, had known Pignatelli since 1976, when he was elected to serve with him on the County Commission.

"I'm deeply saddened by it," Barrett said of Pignatelli's passing. The former longtime mayor of North Adams was an elementary school teacher before entering politics 42 years ago.

"As a young, wet-behind-the-ears politician, he guided me and offered me a lot of sage advice, which I still use to this day about people, politics and what it's all about," Barrett said.

"The most important thing he said to me was, 'We're here to serve the people,' " Barrett said. "He was the ultimate public servant."

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"John Pignatelli was one of the great guys of Berkshire County; a great man," said former Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto. "He committed himself to public service and he did it with the best of intentions.

"When I was in office, he would often call to just give me his verbal support and encourage me to continue to try and innovate ... and move Pittsfield forward," he said. "I'm going to miss him."

Pignatelli, born and raised in Lenox, also served on several other boards, commissions and community organizations, including stints as president of the Berkshire United Way and the Kiwanis Club. He was a grand knight of the Knights of Columbus.

The 1942 graduate of the old Lenox High School on Housatonic Street also was an outstanding athlete in baseball and basketball. Pignatelli, the founder and 25-year president of the Lenox Little League, was the first person inducted into the Lenox High School Hall of Fame.

He also was an original member of the Lenox Merchants, a semipro basketball team of the 1950s that used to play exhibition games against barnstorming NBA teams like the Boston Celtics in the early days of professional basketball. In 1955, the Merchants twice beat the then-NBA champion Syracuse Nationals.

"When I was a young kid in grammar school, I idolized him as an athlete," said Coakley, a retired guidance counselor at Taconic High School who, during his career, coached the Taconic boys basketball team and the Williams College baseball team. He remembered seeing Pignatelli in a barbershop the day after he sank a buzzer-beating shot to win a game for the Merchants.

"It was like seeing Mickey Mantle," Coakley said.

Coakley's father ran a small store near Lenox Town Hall from 1916 to 1966. He said Pignatelli was very kind to his father, especially after his two other sons, William and Joseph, died tragically within six weeks of each other.

"With the [store's] proximity to Town Hall, John was constantly consoling my father and particularly my mother," Coakley said. "You can't imagine the amount of solace he brought to my parents. And that was the way John was. It wasn't an isolated case."

Family friend Dick Piretti served with Pignatelli on the Select Board during the 1970s and '80s.

"He always listened to both sides," Piretti said.

Piretti's father, Henry, and Pignatelli were business partners, forming an electrical contracting firm together in the late 1950s.

"He was in business with my father for I don't know how long," Piretti said. "I don't know how many years I would go to town meeting with my father and see him make a presentation. I had a great amount of respect for the guy.

"There's a big hole with Johnny passing," Piretti said. "He was a big influence on a lot of people and on the town."

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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