Politics and Providence: Peter Colarelli (’92)

When he was 17, Pete Colarelli was skeptical of his parents’ wishes that he attend Thomas Aquinas College. He wanted to pursue a career in politics and thought staying close to his native Illinois — or maybe even going to school in the Washington, D.C., area — would be the best way to achieve that goal. But mindful of his parents’ wisdom, he heeded their advice and chose the College.

“I don’t regret it,” he says now as the first ward alderman for the city of Lockport, Ill. “As a matter of fact, I would have kicked myself today if I did not attend that school.”

The ColarellisIn addition to his part-time service on the Lockport City Council, Mr. Colarelli is the government and public affairs manager for the CITGO Lemont Refinery, one of the oil company’s three refining facilities in the United States. He is also a devoted husband to his wife and loving father to his nine children.

On his way to becoming an elected official, Mr. Colarelli has worn many hats, including those of paralegal, police officer, teacher, public speaker, and mentor. “We are all subject to God’s will, and I have just been a passenger on that boat, working to do what I think is right,” he says. “God is going to put me wherever He wants to put me” — a lesson he first learned when, overriding his own plans, he enrolled as a freshman at the College in 1988.

 

Preparing for Public Life
Upon arriving on campus, Pete’s early reaction was, “Wow, am I out of my league here!” The classical curriculum was more rigorous than anything he had encountered before, and his classmates, several of whom had previous college experience, seemed far better prepared. After a few weeks, though, he began to find his way.

He came to love the Discussion Method, in which tutors guide students through discussions of the great books, and where analysis and argument, not lecturing and regurgitation, are the means of learning. “I could see how an argument was formed. I could see how two people could have a reasonable disagreement about something. I could see how you needed to make sure that you lined up your premises correctly and that you weren’t making any assumptions,” he says. “All of those parts of public discourse were invaluable to me and have become an important part of the successes I’ve seen in my professional career.”

Even more meaningful than the intellectual formation he received at the College, he says, was the spiritual formation. “Thomas Aquinas College’s best asset is its ability to make faith part of everything,” he explains. “It permeates the social life, the academic life. I was surrounded by people who took it very seriously.” By learning to keep his focus on what he describes as “the ultimate happiness — the attainment of eternal life,” he was imbued with a sense of peace “that helps me to make the right decisions when I need to.”Among those decisions was to come back to campus the year after his graduation and propose to a senior named Angela (O’Neill ’93), whom he had been dating since sophomore year. The couple wed in 1994, and Angela has since been “the stalwart behind me,” Pete says, managing home life, supporting him professionally, and at times encouraging him to overcome his innate “Midwestern complacency.”

 

On the Beat
At the time of his graduation, Pete sought a career with the FBI and concluded that the best way to achieve it was to first work either as an attorney or in law enforcement. He chose the former, becoming a paralegal for two major law firms in downtown Chicago, but the experience caused him — once again — to reconsider his plans. “I didn’t want to be confined to an office,” he recalls. “I had a desire to be with people, helping people.”

Instead of applying to law schools, in 1996 he applied to local police departments, taking the battery of exams that are required of prospective officers. That year he ranked first among the hundreds of applicants in the Chicago suburb of Lockport (population: 25,000). He subsequently accepted a position with the city’s police force, thereby setting the stage for a promising future — albeit not the one he originally had in mind.

“I was prepared to work about a decade on the street, just responding to calls and maybe looking for a promotion to sergeant,” Mr. Colarelli says. Much to his surprise, however, two years into his tenure, his superiors at the Lockport Police Department decided to move him into administration. He was to assume responsibility for all of the department’s educational programs, including Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) for thousands of children throughout the city’s schools, as well as various neighborhood watch and senior-protection programs.

Just two years later, the police department would promote Officer Colarelli again, naming him the liaison officer for Lockport Township High School, where he began working full time. His responsibilities ranged from patrolling the halls to teaching driver’s education, instructing teachers on how to spot signs of drug use or gang activity, and acting as a mentor for both students and their parents. “I was someone the kids had known since grade school,” he observes, “so they trusted me.”

After four years at the high school, Officer Colarelli sensed that his career would soon take another turn, but he was unsure as to the direction. At Angela’s suggestion — and aided by her sacrifice and support — he enrolled in a master’s degree program in organizational leadership with an emphasis on higher education and public policy. When he graduated two years later, officials at the school district, with whom he had worked for years, asked him to formally join their ranks. He thus became the director of Lockport Township High School Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds scholarships and classroom projects for the area’s students.

Part of this new job entailed raising money from local business and philanthropic organizations, including one of the region’s largest employers, the CITGO Lemont Refinery. And just as the Lockport School District hired Pete Colarelli after coming to know him, so did CITGO. Since 2008 he has worked for the refinery, monitoring legislation that could affect the company’s business and maintaining relationships with public officials, the media, and the broader community.

 

Public Service to Public Office
When he left the police force, Mr. Colarelli became eligible for public office, and his thoughts returned to a dormant longing that dated back to his high school days. “I knew the community like the back of my hand, and I had grown in my years at the police department and the high school to really love the residents of Lockport,” he says. So in 2007 he staged his first campaign, challenging a six-year incumbent on the Lockport City Council. With the help of several friends, he campaigned door-to-door and won the election with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

Since taking office Alderman Colarelli has focused on reforming the practices of the city government. One of his first actions, for example, was to end the police department’s practice of imposing a ticket-writing quota on its officers. Another major reform was to revamp Lockport’s hiring and personnel policies, so as to bring about greater accountability among public employees.

Due to the poor state of the economy and declining payments from the state, he has had to participate in the unenviable task of paring down the city budget from $16 million to $11 million — a process requiring decisions that are inherently unpopular. Yet he draws consolation from his education, particularly its emphasis on truth, which “has been a real important part of my public life because it has prepared me to be courageous.” As he sees it, his first obligation as an officeholder is to the common good, not to his political ambition. “I don’t live to be an alderman, or even to be reelected,” he says. “If God wants me here, I’ll be here.”

Despite facing two opponents, he won more than 60 percent of the vote in his April 5, 2011, re-election. He has no immediate designs on higher office, as he suspects the necessary sacrifices would be too onerous for his family, but he is open to whatever possibilities might lie ahead. “If down the line God thinks it’s the right thing to do, I am sure He will tell me in some way,” he says.

If there is one lesson Pete Colarelli has learned over the years, it is to be ready for anything. “I am going to operate the way I have always operated,” he says, “and let God take me where He needs me to go.”

Alderman Colarelli During a Meeting
Danielle Chouinard (’14)

“We learn how to find the truth for ourselves, so that for the rest of our lives we will be able to pursue the things that matter most.”

– Danielle Chouinard (’14)

Omaha, Nebraska

“I thank you so much for what you are doing at Thomas Aquinas College. I hope there will always be a Thomas Aquinas College. Your contributions to the Church and the world are marvelous to behold.”

– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)

Archbishop of New York

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