WESTERLY — Joseph N. Cugini, a lifelong Westerly resident and visionary business leader who made lasting contributions to the town he loved and touched the lives of others in profound and often anonymous ways, died Saturday at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London. He was 89.
As news of Cugini's death spread through Westerly, family members, friends, colleagues and former employees paused to reminisce about the humble, lovable man who rubbed shoulders with dignitaries across the globe but never forgot his roots.
One after another, the people who orbited Cugini's sphere spoke of his humility, his generosity, his kindness, his business acumen, his love of Westerly and his devotion to his family, friends and hometown. They spoke of his eagerness to help others, his contributions — often anonymous ones — to those who had fallen on hard times, and his willingness to go to bat for those who needed a helping hand.
"He was the George Bailey of Westerly," said his son, David Joseph Cugini of Boxford, Mass.
"It's Father's Day, and we certainly wish he was with us to celebrate," said Cugini's daughter, Betty-Jo Cugini-Greene. "But as sad as we are, we feel lucky to have had him as long as we have. We want to celebrate his life, just like he did. He celebrated his life every day."
"Another legend lost," said state Sen. Dennis L. Algiere, R-38th District. "Joe gave his heart and soul to this town."
"The Town of Westerly is a better place because of Joe Cugini," added Algiere. "Joe was involved in so much in Westerly, and served on so many committees and commissions ... every time anyone asked him to help, he was there. Joe was always there."
Cugini also encouraged people "to be nice to others and to listen," Algiere added. "That's his legacy. Life is precious, live it well."
"His volunteer contributions touched virtually every area of Westerly life," said Lisa Konicki, the president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. "From education to business to government to community events. I am profoundly grateful to have known him."
Cugini, whose childhood nickname of "Dody" stuck with him throughout his life, was the host of a popular weekly radio show on Westerly's WBLQ-FM at the time of his death, having retired from the Westerly Community Credit Union, where he spent 41 years, working his way from general manager to president, CEO and chairman of the board.
He also spent time as president of the Rhode Island Credit Union League, chairman of the Credit Union National Association, and president of the World Council of Credit Unions. It was in those capacities that he traveled — on three separate occasions — around the world, met with world leaders and dignitaries and was even consulted by the White House, according to Betty Cugini, his wife of nearly 64 years.
"But there was no place like home, there was no place like Westerly," said Cugini on Sunday morning as she sat with her two children, their spouses and her three grandchildren, to share memories about her husband, whose radio-show tagline was "Life is precious, live it well."
"He was like cream. He always rose to the top. He celebrated his life every day. And he was caring and he always gave back," Betty Cugini said. "He was a global thinker. He thought of the world like that, like a global village.
"If he took something on, he did it with sincerity. And he always made time for everybody."
Joe Cugini took on dozens of volunteer positions during his lifetime. He served as treasurer of the Westerly Tercentenary in 1969, was a member of the Future Needs Committee of the Westerly Fire District, a board member of the Westerly Chamber of Commerce, and was an active member of the Westerly 350th Anniversary Committee.
As the volunteer chairman of the Vision 20/20 school building committee, he oversaw the effort to create a new high school campus and build a new Westerly Middle School, where the school’s Library/Media Center bears his name.
"He was someone I greatly respected and admired," said Scott R. Kizner, who served as superintendent of Westerly Schools during the Vision 20/20 campaign. "I considered him a true friend and mentor."
"He was a champion for the Town of Westerly and the school system," added Kizner, who is the superintendent of the Stafford County Public Schools in Stafford, Va. "I will miss him greatly."
One of his proudest accomplishments began in 1984 with the founding the Westerly Credit Union Holiday Basketball Tournament, said his daughter.
"It started right there in that room," said Cugini-Greene, pointing toward the living room. "During school vacation."
She and her brother, David, and a group of their friends were sitting around complaining that there was nothing to do in Westerly during the Christmas vacation, she recalled.
Soon after, Joe, who played on coach James Federico's undefeated 1948 state basketball championship team when he was in high school, approached the board of the credit union about the idea of sponsoring an annual basketball tournament involving all the local high schools. Today, it is one of the highlights of the season for high school athletes and sports fans.
"His involvement with the credit union movement allowed him to make other people's dreams come true," said Cugini-Greene. "Credit unions are about people helping people and that's what he did best. He wanted to make sure people had what they needed — education, a roof over their heads, jobs and cars to get them to the jobs."
"My father didn't have a bucket list," she added. "He had everything he needed and everything he wanted. He just wanted to help others."
Alcino Almeida, the retired general manager of the The Day newspaper, said Cugini was a close friend, a great breakfast partner and a man who never forgot his family, his roots or his friends.
"Joe was a remarkable visionary," said Almeida, who served on the board of the Westerly Credit Union. "He was ahead of his time."
"Joe never forgot the little person," said Matthew Lewiss, Esq., a local attorney and longtime friend of Joe's. "He always wanted to help others and he did help others."
"He would do anything he could for people," he said. "He was that type of guy."
"He was unforgettable," Lewiss added. "He was one helluva guy."
"He never forgot anything or anybody," said Mary Ellen Buckley, the vice president of financial services at the Westerly Credit Union and a regular guest on Cugini's radio program. "He loved to stay connected and he did stay connected. He was an amazing person and he meant the world to me. He was the heart of this town and he'll stay in my heart forever."
"He was a giant of a man," said Cugini's daughter-in-law, Denise Ruddy, who is married to David. "An amazing giant of a man."
"I have two words," put in Cugini's son-in-law, Stephen Greene. "Genuine. Integrity."
Katherine Koretski, a production assistant and researcher for the NBC News Specials Unit who can sometimes be seen in the background of live television news programs on the network, smiled as she told how her grandfather would call her on her cell phone and ask her to wave or stand up so he could see her on TV.
"He also taught me magic tricks," she said.
When Cugini began his radio program, he was searching for a theme song, recalled his wife, Betty. In the end, he chose Bing Crosby's "Dear Hearts and Gentle People."
"That's because he really did love all the dear hearts and gentle people who live here in his hometown," she said.
The Cuginis' oldest grandchild, Christopher Koretski, said he always felt so proud to walk around town with his grandfather.
"Everyone knows him and trusts him," Koretski said, "Whenever I said I was Joe Cugini's grandson, there was an inherent trust, an automatic connection."
"He was like Mr. Westerly," added Koretski. " And he taught us the importance of volunteering and of putting others first."
Koretski also spoke of his grandfather's many sayings, including the one he thinks of most often: "It's nice to be important, but it's important to be nice."
Mr. Bright Side
"My relationship with Joe Cugini has been vital to my livelihood," said Christopher DiPaola, the owner of WBLQ. "Joe offered me studio space at the credit union."
He also taught DiPaola a life lesson he said that has helped shape his career.
"Joe offered me some advice," DiPaola recalled. "He said, 'Chris, life is all about going to charm school. You have to smile and be positive no matter what. You have to look on the bright side."
"Joe did that," said DiPaola. "He brought a light no matter where he went. He was the dearest heart and gentlest person I ever knew."