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2 Mayors Share More Than a Title: Civic Revivals and a Deadly Disease : With Unfinished Work in Erie, Tullio Isn't Ready for Death

February 21, 1988|TARA BRADLEY-STECK | Associated Press

ERIE, Pa. — Louis Tullio's presence envelops this Great Lakes city like the mist rising from its harbor.

The mayor's name is emblazoned on a civic center, a college athletic field and a senior citizens tower. His face, to the people of Erie, is as recognizable as President Reagan's.

His social life mirrors his political life, taking him to any function to which he is invited--anniversary and birthday parties, confirmations and bar mitzvahs, baptisms, weddings and funerals--mostly by people he doesn't know.

He even keeps his phone number listed so citizens don't have to wade through a sea of bureaucrats to resolve pressing problems.

For more than two decades, Tullio, 71, has been the only mayor this city of about 120,000 residents has known or wanted.

Has Incurable Illness

But doctors say Tullio has less than 18 months to live because of an incurable disease that is daily weakening his heart and lungs. It means that he has only 18 months to wrap up unfinished projects. His fervent wish is to be granted an extra six months to complete his sixth term, which expires at the end of 1989.

"I wake up in the morning and figure: 'Well, gee, I have another day.' I have a challenge. And I need a challenge. If I don't, I'm not happy," he says cheerily.

"My next challenge is to see if I can beat an incurable disease. I don't think there's any such thing as an incurable disease because God created the body and he can cure it too."

In 22 years--he claims to be now the second-longest serving mayor in the nation--Tullio has helped to turn Erie from a decaying manufacturing town into a thriving port city with a respectably low--6.6%--unemployment rate.

But Tullio says he has much more to do, including spearheading a renaissance of the industrialized harbor area into a showcase development of condominiums, marinas, recreation areas, history trails, shops and a hotel.

Bay-Front Project

"I'd like to finish the projects down at the bayfront area, which we're just starting," he said. "I'd like to see that come to fruition and I think that after that my work is completed."

Tullio's first wife of 28 years, Ceil, died in 1969. They had three children. He married his second wife, Grace, an Erie area businesswoman, two years later. They have no children.

Tullio is a big, strong man, a former football star and coach who isn't accustomed to battling illness. But over the last year, he has struggled with his health, undergoing quadruple bypass surgery and losing about 45 pounds.

Ironically, Pittsburgh Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri, upon seeing Tullio last summer, suggested that his problems might be related to his own illness, amyloidosis.

Amyloidosis, a rare disease usually striking only men of Mediterranean descent, infiltrates and destroys the body's vital organs through an excessive buildup of proteins.

Tullio mentioned the disease to his doctors, who conducted the necessary tests and confirmed Caliguiri's suspicions.

Dubbed 'Mayors' Disease'

In less than two weeks in October, the mayors of the state's second- and third-largest cities announced that they suffered from the ailment, suddenly dubbed the "mayors' disease."

Both vowed to remain in office as long as possible.

Tullio says it is the only way he can fight it.

"When I first knew about this disease someone said: 'Lou, why don't you just give it all up and go home?' And I said: 'It would be better to be carried out of City Hall than my home,' " he said.

"If you're going to die, you want to die being happy with what you're doing, not to go home and fade away."

Tullio's lone concession to his affliction is to trim his office time to four hours a day and curtail his social activities.

The problem, says administrative assistant Pat Liebel, is that leaves everyone else exhausted.

"His time may be a little less with people, but he's accomplishing in four hours what he normally accomplishes in an eight-hour day," she said. "I always feel by the time he leaves here I've put in a full day, and I've got another half day to go."

Too Involved, Some Say

Critics--and there aren't many--charge that Tullio gets involved in too many things, however minute, and is averse to delegating responsibility.

Liebel says that's not only because he's a "detail person," but also because he likes to be in control.

Tullio has been an effective mayor in part because he has known how to get things done, from acting as mediator in labor disputes to bringing in $295 million in state and federal funds for urban renewal projects.

He persuaded the state to buy the Art Deco-style Warner Theater, slated for demolition, for $250,000 and made it the city's home of the arts, music and drama. He was responsible for acquiring $18 million in state and federal funds to build the 8,000-seat Tullio Convention Center, boasting all the while that it never cost the citizens of Erie "a dime."

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