on October 5, 2013 - 6:44 PM
Sept. 16, 1956 – Oct. 5, 2013
By day, John M. Tronolone was a popular teacher who made U.S. history, especially his beloved JFK and FDR eras, come alive for eighth-graders at Transit Middle School in the Williamsville School District.
At night, the nattily dressed Mr. Tronolone greeted diners at Buffalo’s upscale Oliver’s Restaurant, a maitre d’ and co-owner devoted to ensuring that customers got their money’s worth when they went out for a fine meal.
In both worlds, the dining room and the classroom, he used his people skills, encyclopedic memory, love of a good yarn and infectious laugh to connect with the clientele.
Mr. Tronolone, a man with a seemingly nonstop motor during his 60-hour work weeks, died Saturday in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, after a short illness. He was 57.
“The restaurant was something that he loved, but what he really was, was a teacher,” said one son, Benjamin. Added Mr. Tronolone’s brother, Paul, “He always said life was a series of teachable moments.”
Mr. Tronolone’s restaurant mantra, which he shared with his co-owners and staff, was simple, according to longtime friend and business partner Henry Gorino. A couple going to Oliver’s, or any of their restaurants, might spend a whole day’s pay on dinner.
“No one was going to leave the building thinking it wasn’t worth it,” Gorino said.
The goal was to make the diner feel important. So whenever people came in, Mr. Tronolone greeted them personally, recalling something about their lives and asking them – by name – about their children, parents or siblings.
That personal touch also extended to dressing well.
At Oliver’s front door, he wore a sports jacket, khakis and a pressed shirt, and wasn’t shy about flashing bright colors, plaids, stripes and images of Labrador retrievers, hot peppers and martini glasses on his ties and pants. Every night, before going to work, he’d ask his wife, Jennifer, “Jenny, what do you think of this outfit?”
It was all part of the John Tronolone restaurant shtick.
“I want them to feel special,” he said of his customers..
A Buffalo native, Mr. Tronolone graduated from School 21 on Hertel Avenue and Cardinal Dougherty High School in 1974. After working in retail and local government, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Buffalo State College.
Starting as a busboy and waiter, he rose through the local restaurant ranks. He and partners Gorino, Chuck Mauro and Louis Leone, in various combinations, co-owned Oliver’s in North Buffalo, Siena Restaurant in Snyder, 800 Maple in Amherst and Rocco’s Wood-Fired Pizza on Transit Road.
“A restaurant is a place where you can come to celebrate life,” he once said. “We are most proud of creating places where we can sit and watch people enjoying life, knowing that we’ve had some small part in that.”
At Oliver’s, a restaurant that catered to Hollywood actors and other celebrities, Mr. Tronolone and Gorino made a great pair, with Gorino concentrating on the back of the house and Mr. Tronolone manning the front door.
“I taught him a lot about food and wine,” Gorino joked. “He taught me how to be a nice guy.”
In 2000, while in his mid-40s, Mr. Tronolone went back to school to earn a teaching degree. The next year, he started at Transit Middle, where he taught until June, able to use topics like civil rights to relate American history to his students’ modern-day perspectives.
His children often got the same reaction whenever they met one of his students: “Your dad is Mr. T. from Transit? He was the best teacher I ever had.”
Surviving are his wife of 24 years, the former Jennifer Butt; two sons, Michael and Benjamin; three daughters, Isabella and Alexa, and Annie Doyle; his mother, Loretta; and a brother, Paul.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in St. Mark Catholic Church, 401 Woodward Ave., Buffalo.
– Gene Warner