By Sarah Lehr
Pat Ungaro, former Youngstown mayor, insists one day he will retire for good. Just not right now.
The life of leisure does not agree with Ungaro, 76.
“I tried it for a short time and it was awful,” Ungaro said. “I know that’s not how most people would feel, but I’ve still got all this energy. I want to be going all the time.”
Ungaro, a former quarterback at East High School, The Rayen School and Youngstown State, now uses a cane after several back operations but keeps active by walking on the treadmill.
He resigned his full-time position as the Liberty Township administrator in June. Trustees have agreed to rehire him as a part-time administrator earning $1,200 monthly beginning Aug. 1. In the meantime, Ungaro is advising the township informally without pay.
When he first signed on as Liberty’s administrator in 2002, Ungaro had a $59,000 salary, according to Vindicator files. He left the full-time position with a $44,229 salary after agreeing to a series of pay cuts, in part, because of the township’s state-designated status of fiscal caution since 2013.
Ungaro is not sure how long he’ll stay on as a part-timer for Liberty – maybe six months, maybe two years. There are development projects in the township that he wants to see through.
He is adamant that he’ll stay busy no matter what.
Ungaro has been using his phone to record himself reminiscing and plans to write a book about his life. His experiences as Youngstown mayor – especially his run-ins with the mob – likely will feature prominently in that book.
Ungaro, who was Youngstown’s longest-serving mayor from 1984 to 1997, says the dominance of organized crime was the greatest challenge of his time in elected office.
“It was out of control,” Ungaro said. “You talk about a cesspool of corruption.”
Ungaro acknowledges organized crime had a presence in other cities – he cites Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago as examples — but believes crime bosses were able to keep a tighter hold on Youngstown because of the small size.
Famously, Ungaro went to Washington, D.C., in 1984, along with a Youngstown delegation, to testify in a congressional hearing on organized crime.
Even as the testimony attracted the national spotlight, there were certain precautions Ungaro had to take. When he arrived in Washington, a hotel employee gave him a room number that was different from the one listed as his reservation, Ungaro remembered. It was safer if Ungaro could not be easily located.
When he returned to Youngstown, Ungaro said the reaction from locals to his testimony was “mostly positive.” He did get threats, though. Mostly the threats were “passive-aggressive,” Ungaro said. They usually would come from someone he knew.
Ungaro remembers one instance when he was dining at a Youngstown restaurant with a local judge. Ungaro said a man came up to him and told him he forgot a bag. The bag contained a videotape. When he returned home, Ungaro watched the tape and saw a car, which appeared to be parked in the desert, being blown up.
As mayor, Ungaro never let his four children near the car when he started it every morning. Car bombings – nicknamed “Youngstown tune-ups” – often went unsolved.
In another instance, Ungaro said a dirty cop came up to him and told him he might end up arrested, framed with drugs in his car. Soon after, Ungaro told the story of that conversation on the local Dan Ryan show.
“If it’s all out in the open, then they can’t try anything,” Ungaro said. “That was often the best way to respond.”
As a politician, Ungaro says he avoided private meetings and always assumed he was being recorded.
“Sometimes I would look right at someone’s chest, where I thought they had a recorder, and say, ‘[expletive] you,’” Ungaro said.
The mob, he said, gets public officials when they’re “young, dumb” and easily impressed by money.
“It’s like being a stockbroker – they all want to invest in Microsoft early when it’s still a small company,” Ungaro said. “Some people thought I might end up tied into that stuff because I’m Italian, but I never took money from them.
“Once they give you money, they own you.”
Ungaro describes his entrance into politics as happenstance. He decided to run for city council when he was living on the North Side and fed up with a motorcycle gang on his block.
Previously, he worked as a football coach, teacher, guidance counselor and school administrator. Ungaro believes he won his first mayoral election, despite lacking the Democratic Party endorsement, because of votes from the black community.
He had worked in schools – Rayen and South High – with predominately black student bodies and said he was able to establish credibility in the racially divided city.
After retiring from government, Ungaro did briefly re-enter the education profession, but he said his “bad language” was an obstacle.
Ungaro credits his wife of 49 years, Theresa, for her unwavering strength during the stressful years of his political life.
“She put up with a lot of bull,” Ungaro said.
The Ungaros had their share of family tragedy. Their son, Sean, died of an overdose in 2012 at age 39.
Ungaro has often spoken publicly about his son’s addiction, which began with pain pills for a hernia.
Ungaro contends the public’s understanding of addiction has improved in recent years.
“Back then, he was just considered a common criminal,” Ungaro said. “Now, it’s a disease.”
Sean left behind a son, whom Ungaro is helping to raise.
“He’s such a joy,” Ungaro said of his grandson.
All this – the personal and the political – could end up in the book Ungaro is planning.
He’s still not sure how far he will go to name names, especially when it comes to the Mafia stories.
“Some of it is just so vile, I have never spoken of it,” Ungaro said. “It would make hair grow on your back.”