The Life Story of William Mancuso as told to Abby Godwin
I love to garden. My daughters Isabella and Carmen harass me because there’s almost no square inch of grass left in our backyard.
To me, life is like a garden… I grew up in a small city called Batavia, NY. It is 45 minutes east of Buffalo. I lived with my parents, 3 brothers and a sister. I will never forget being tucked into bed one night by my mother when she asked me if I’d like piano lessons. For me, this was a life-altering moment. At just 5 years old, I knew that I was supposed to play the piano. I was a child who loved to play music, read, and draw. I began to grow things when I was a child and I loved doing it. I grew up during the Cold War Communist paranoia of the 1950s, but even with that I had diverse experiences growing up. My grandmother had a farm so I’d spend part of my summers with the cows and critters. The other part of the summers I’d be in Queens in New York City with my aunt and uncle going to Greenwich Village, Coney Island, Rockaway Beach and other typical New York City kind of things.
When I got to high school, a Catholic school with well-meaning nuns ironically named the Sisters of Mercy, I was a terrible student. I was not engaged, and all I wanted to do was what I’ve always done: go play music, draw, or read. I got out more on a plea bargain than an actual grade. Once high school was over, the last place I was going to go was back to school again after 12 years of lockdown. I felt I’d done my time.
Out of high school, I was in a very fortunate situation that people would probably have killed for. My grandparents came from Sicily and started a plumbing store, and the extended family started a car dealership, a hardware store, and from there ended up having a bunch of businesses. Me, being the oldest Sicilian male of my generation, I was expected to slide into that work lifestyle. I found out that it wasn’t any better than high school. Once again, I just wanted to play music, draw, and read. I wanted to do other things.
I’ve had a lot of different jobs. I’ve driven garbage truck, repotted plants, worked in industrial maintenance and real estate, worked for an amplifier company in Toronto and did spot welding in a factory. I have bumped around a lot, but one thing I have always done, since I was 13, is play in bands. I have played a lot of instruments but I mainly play keyboards. Playing piano and organ is what persuaded me to go to college. When I was 23, there was a community college outside of town that had a big band who needed a keyboard player. I remember asking myself, “Would I go back to the prison of education so I could play piano?” I ended up giving it a try. I studied music there, I played in the band, and I had a blast. However, I found out that I just wanted to play music, I didn’t want to dissect it like a frog. I stopped going to college but became even more involved in music by taking private lessons with a jazz pianist in Rochester, and studied at the Eastman school of music. I was playing in 8 different bands at a time; it was nuts. I played jazz, bluegrass, rock and roll, you name it! I got to travel and did some crazy things, and somehow survived them. I played for all sorts of people and was playing with opening acts for all sorts of fairly well-known people.
In the early 80s, there was a long gap where I did not play piano because I crushed my hand. A lot of weird, fortuitous things happened. A friend of mine had taught art at the high school I had gone to. When she got sick, and her friend that filled in for her got sick also, I was asked to fill in. I filled in for a semester, and I loved it. I didn’t stick in college until I was 35. Once I was in and stayed, I did great.
I went to SUNY at Brockport and then to the University of Buffalo. After college, I did the adjunct shuffle where I taught at 5 different schools, 50 minutes apart for a year or so. After all that, I was really fortunate and got a full-time job in Pennsylvania at Thiel College. While I taught drawing, painting, art history and visual literacy there, the two rascals I worked with were always trying to get me to be chair. I never wanted to be chair, so they put me in charge of the gallery instead.
One day, I got a package from Melissa Eddings. She was looking for a job as an adjunct instructor. The chair said we weren’t hiring any adjuncts; however, he handed me the package, told me it was really nice work, and that I should give her a show. I called her and we ended up talking for what had to have been 2 hours. We had an instant connection and it was really easy to talk to her. She had the show, and we remained friends for several years. She moved to Ada, and for that year we would write and call each other now and then, nothing special . . .
Then, Ohio Northern needed a judge for an art show, so they invited me and my departmental chair to be judges. My chair was friends with the guy who was chair at Ohio Northern at the time. It was kind of like a homecoming and catch up. Something clicked with Melissa and I that weekend, and we’ve been together ever since.
I had been teaching in Pennsylvania for 9 years when I came to Ada on a sabbatical. While I was here, one of the professors in the Art & Design department got ill, so I ended up filling in for him. Melissa and I were going to move back to Pennsylvania until Ohio Northern offered us both a job by creating a split position, and we’ve been professors at Ohio Northern University ever since. I could probably still drive a garbage truck, or go deliver amplifiers in Toronto, but instead, I’ve taught a class called Visual Literacy for 28 years, and to me, it’s like a gift. It’s a class where you can encourage people to think about things that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily even notice. We live in a world where, at the moment, western culture is so focused on material consumption and the dominant cultural images promote that despite the dangers to people and planet. Perhaps this is because we are trying to satisfy some hole in our soul and we don’t take the time to really sit and ponder about what is going on around us.
In my life I have been very lucky to do what I do. When my daughters Isabella and Carmen were born, I realized even more how amazingly interconnected we all are, and also how terribly fragile life is. I came to fatherhood late, which is probably a good thing. It wouldn’t have been very pretty earlier. I joke with Melissa all the time that all of those years of playing on the road loading in and out was in anticipation of packing baby gear. It’s all been training. I’d been standing on the platform of life waiting for the train, and once I met Melissa, and our daughters were born, it’s like I stepped on the train. I am proud of my girls, they are excellent people.
I also am grateful to have a wife who is amazing, super sweet, curious, and immeasurably patient with me. I enjoy spending time with my Melissa and the girls. My love for reading, drawing, and playing music are seeds within my soul that will always remain. All of these passions I’d always found myself desiring to do instead of some of something else, I now get to enjoy along with my new passions of a wonderful family and being a professor at Ohio Northern. In gardens, there can be thorns. The disrespect from one human being to another makes me a touch crazy. To me, it’s all about the people. It is important to be kind, and to have empathy for the whole.
Life is indeed a garden . . . everything is interconnected. I wouldn’t understand or perceive things the way I do if I hadn’t done all of the wacky things I’ve done. Every single one is like a brick in the wall. They’ve all contributed to it. It’s important to pay attention, keep an open mind and you might just reach your destination of happiness despite some interesting side trips. My wife, my daughters, and the sweet memories we all share together have made my garden of life bloom.
This story originally appeared in Facing Our Futures Beyond High School, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.