Erie lost a leader in Peter J. Russo Sr. Athlete, referee, father, servant, philanthropist – GoErie.com

For most of his adult life, Peter J. Russo Sr. served as an NCAA referee — and he never traveled alone. 
“We did everything together,” said his widow, Floria “Flo” Russo. 
“He’d seat me away from people because they’d yell at him, call him names,” Flo Russo said with a laugh, “and I would … react.”
Russo died Oct. 11. He was 84.
In Memoriam:Peter Russo obituary
At 6-foot 4-inches, he played basketball throughout high school and college, earning a scholarship to the University of Dayton, where he played for two years before transferring to what was then Gannon College following the death of his father Frank Russo, at 42. 
“That was the worst time of his life,” Flo Russo said. “Until Peter died,” referring to his oldest son. Peter Russo Jr. died in 2018 at 56. 
“He’d wake up in the middle of the night and say ‘I just dreamt of Peter,'” Flo Russo said, wistfully, before offering a torrent of her husband’s other accomplishments. 
Cuneo remembers:Russo was ‘nationally respected basketball referee’
He served as a PIAA boys basketball official for 35 years, officiating at all levels, serving on many NCAA committees and was inducted into the Erie Metropolitan Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. But he was much more than a gym rat. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Gannon and then taught elementary school in Erie. After that, he worked for the city as the director of recreation, for the county as both the director of parks and the director of administration, and for then-Mercyhurst College as the director of athletics for 18 years until his retirement in 2007.
After retiring, he worked at the Barber National Institute where he raised more than $100,000 in donations, cosponsored the adaptive course for the Barber National Institute’s Beast on the Bay and was named 2017 Shillelagh Man of the Year.
John Barber, president and CEO of the Barber National Institute, said Russo wanted to do something meaningful with his time. First, he raised money to rebuild the school’s 35-year-old gym.
“He was just a wonderful, very giving man,” Barber said. “And he wasn’t a man who had a lot of money, but really gave from his heart.
“Pete was a great athlete when he was a young man, but for a person who was as great an athlete, he was a very humble man,” Barber said. “He didn’t come across that he thought he was anything special, but he really was something special.” 
Flo Russo said she would always go with him when he served as a referee, trying to remember the places they traveled, coming up with the University of Connecticut, Georgetown, Rhode Island, Dayton, Liberty, Robert Morris, Old Dominion and Duquesne. That was in addition to gymnasiums closer to home: the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Grove City. 
“Those are just the ones I remember,” she said, tissue in hand, adding that he loved to tell stories over a Manhattan and a cigar. One of his favorites, she said, took place years ago at the University of Dayton, when he was working as a referee. 
“There was a little old lady in the first row,” Flo Russo said. “She was screaming at him, and he looked over at her and said ‘Give me a break, lady, I’m new at this game.'”
Flo Russo laughed as she said it, because, at that point, Russo had lived and breathed basketball for several decades, including the summer she met him when she was 16. 
“We worked on the Columbus Playground together,” she said. “He went to Academy (High School) and I went to (Strong) Vincent (High School).”
Daughter Mary Ellen Russo loved that story. “Mom says Dad had her at hello,” she said. 
“He was so cute,” Flo Russo said. “He was a nice person and I love sports. I’d be on the playground with him and he’d ask me ‘Could you watch the kids while I go play basketball for a little while?’ Of course, I said ‘yes.’ And he would go play basketball across the street.
“He was a great basketball player,” she said. 
Flo and Peter Russo had five children: Natalie A. Corella, Mary Ellen Russo, Stephanie A. Russo-Seneca, Peter J. Russo Jr. and Jon M. Russo. Four of them played basketball at some level and three of the five attended the University of Dayton.
“I think we all kind of tried to emulate him,” Mary Ellen Russo said. 
She said once when she was at the University of Dayton, she called him for advice. 
“My father drove five and a half hours, solved the problem and drove all the way back home,” she said, adding that she hadn’t even known he was coming. She’d just had a really bad day. 
“I just looked up and he was there,” Mary Ellen Russo said. “I was like ‘What are you doing here?’ He said. ‘I will always be there for you.'”
“He helped so many people,” she said. “He mentored coaches and kids. They’d go to him with their problems.”
“He was my very best friend,” Mary Ellen Russo said. “I talked to him 50 times a day.” 
Her mother sighed and rubbed the tissue in her hand. 
“There will never be another Pete.”
Contact Jennie Geisler at jgeisler@timesnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ETNgeisler.

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