By Kathy Canavan
When the late New York Giants football scout Joe Sulatis saw Mike Purzycki play for the University of Delaware, he pushed to sign Purzycki as a free agent.
“We had an excellent report on this boy,” Sulatis told a sports columnist in April 1967. “He has to have something on the ball.”
After a 20-week adventure, a knee injury got Purzycki bounced from the team just days before his 22nd birthday — but the story didn’t end there.
By the time Purzycki returned home to his 15-story apartment building in a working-class section of Newark, N.J., he was convinced he should have been paid for his contract because he was injured on the job when he went out for one of Fran Tarkenton’s passes. He walked to a pay phone and dialed the Giants.
Somehow, they put him directly through to Giants Owner Wellington Mara, one of the most influential figures in NFL history. Mara invited Purzycki to come to his Manhattan office, where they chatted for 20 minutes. Afterwards, Mara told Purzycki to let him think it over.
A short time later, the paychecks started arriving — $15,500 in all, at a time when you could buy a beach house for $8,400 and tuition, room and board at a four-year college averaged $1,064 a year.
Almost 50 years later, people around him say Purzycki still speaks up when he sees something amiss.
“You have to do the right thing, or he’ll tell you about it. He’s that kind of a man,” said business owner Cathy Klocko, who volunteers with him.
“If the china gets broken, it gets broken. He’s going to make the right decisions,” said architect Buck Simpers, who lunches with Purzycki weekly. “He’s going to make decisions that are best for the city. It might not be a popular decision, but he will make the decision. I’ll go to Vegas on that.”
“Mike has a focus on how things should be done, and he’s going to stick with that. I think he’s going to forfeit popularity for success,” said Bill Osborne, interim president of the Delaware Public Policy Institute, who also volunteers with Purzycki.
Friends said Purzycki likes to be in the driver’s seat, and not just figuratively. “It’s control. It’s just who he is,” Simpers said. “Michael doesn’t want to ride in the car. He wants to drive the car.”
Michael might be 71, but, in his brain, he’s 40. He’s got more life energy than you and me combined,” Simpers said.
While some 71-year-olds look forward to nothing more than 18 holes, Purzycki can’t sleep at night because he has so many ideas. High on his list is helping Wilmington’s poorest neighborhoods, where crime rates are almost five times the state average.
“We put people in a hole so deep they can’t dig out if they wanted to,” Purzycki said. “When you go into some neighborhoods and see the wretched conditions, you realize that peoples’ behavior follows the conditions they’re in. There’s a standard that’s being set. When you live in squalor, I think behavior follows that.
“We have communities in Wilmington where there are more people who have been in prison than people working,” Purzycki said. “I think we have to be more generous in spirit. I don’t think we need to spend time
on who’s to blame. I think we just look forward and think about what we can do to strengthen our community and strengthen our neighbors.”
The new mayor grew up in one of the 10 red-brick rectangles that make up Ivy Hill, New Jersey’s largest privately owned apartment complex. His father was a car salesman who played football for Villanova briefly before serving in World War Two.
“Mike comes from a very humble background in New Jersey, and I don’t think he’s ever forgotten his beginnings,” said J. Brian Murphy, who also volunteered with Purzycki. “People feel Mike has this serious demeanor about him and he may not be approachable. If anything, it’s just the opposite. He’s very approachable. He listens to everything you say.”
Purzycki said he gets his financial savvy from the father, a street-savvy businessman who tended to keep others at arms-distance. It’s that savvy that make it possible for Purzycki to turn the city dump into a bustling riverfront, help raise nearly $1 million in scholarship money when he led the annual Gridiron Show and lead the volunteer board that created the Hope Commission’s new re-entry center for men returning home after prison.
When Purzycki told Charles Madden, director of the Hope Commission, he was going to run for mayor, Madden told him he was out of his mind.
“I think he can do it, but he’s got his work cut out for him,” said Madden. “The fact that he’s taken a swamp
and turned it into one of the state’s leading attractions is an example of his leadership.”
Madden dismisses critics who says Purzycki was only able to create the Riverfront because he got millions in state money.”
“If you look at the state budget, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars and look what we get,” Madden said. “Look at education. Money doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get results.”
“Mike cares. That’s not to suggest other people do not care, but his caring goes beyond words to actions,” Madden said. “I’ve seen Mike really support these young men — helping them find work, helping them find places to stay. If someone needs someone to give him a ride, he’s there. Or someone to make a call on their behalf,” Madden said. “He’s said, ‘I can help you play your Delmarva [Power & Light] bill.’ You name it, and Mike has done it.”
Buck Simpers said he can’t count the number of times Purzycki stopped the car to hit an ATM to help someone he saw on the street: “Oh, my God. It’s stop the car so Mike can go to the money machine to help guys keep the lights on … ”
Former Mayor Jim Baker thinks Purzycki’s energy and determination might be the tipping point the city needs now that Buccini/Pollin Group has invested millions downtown.
“The city is on the verge of a major growth burst and, hopefully, Mike can grab hold of it,” Baker said. “He’s determined to be successful. Look at what he did at the waterfront. We weren’t the Inner Harbor, you know. All that land on the Christina was contaminated, so he had to get DNREC to decontaminate the whole waterfront.”
Baker said Purzycki had to preach patience when the Riverfront wasn’t coming together as fast as people expected. “He took a lot of beatings. There were a lot of doubters,” Baker said. “Look how long it took to put a hotel in. He could have put a motel in without any problem, but he said he wanted a Class A hotel. It took
a long while before all those pieces came together.”
Now Purzycki plans to improve the city — piece by piece.
The first tier of his two-tier plan: Pick a few neighborhoods where residents are on board. “Some people either can’t be helped or don’t want to be helpful. Frankly, I think we only have so much energy to invest, and I really believe you should help the people who want to help themselves, because, in the end, when it comes to individuals and when it comes to neighborhoods, you get a much better return on your investment.”
The second tier: Ask city philanthropists and nonprofits to focus on those same grids at that same time. “We can see what the result will be if we try to do this together one time,” Purzycki said. “The truth is, now, nothing is working that splendidly, in my opinion. That’s usually because everybody doesn’t have their oars in the water at the same time.”
Will the new mayor move the city forward?
“I think the bar’s pretty low,” Madden said with a laugh.
“I think his chances are very good because he has the experience and the passion, Osborne said. “This is something he feels very, very strongly about.”
“I feel the administration will have the expertise and wherewithal to collaborate with the communities that have plans in place to move forward,” said Hanifa Shabazz, the new city council president, who already has three neighborhoods in mind — South Wilmington, West Center City and the Eastside, where she grew up. “I also see a proficiency in the delivery of city services because not only does Mike, but I, too, have a business mind. From a business prospective, there’s more accountability and efficiency in place to get things done in an efficient manner. Before you know it, we’ll have our entire city, all the neighborhoods, with some love and affection given to them. ”
“I think Mike’s going to do well, said Eugene Young, the mayoral candidate who came within 234 votes of Purzycki in an eight-person race. “He’s got a great team. Now that the race is over, it’s our role as candidates who were involved to be on board in helping the city more forward.”
“I think the city can be put on the right track incrementally over time,” Murphy said. “It’s not going to be accomplished in four years, for sure.”
Purzycki is optimistic his administration can make head-way cooperating with other officials — from Wilmington’s largely new city council to the state legislature.
On the council: “I need to be sensitive to the needs of my colleagues on council, and I consider them colleagues. We’re all serving the same people, and we have to work together.”
On the county: “We have to cooperate with New Castle County to find efficiencies in the way we deliver services — sewer, water, some aspects of public safety. I’m not ready to say, “Let’s support metropolitan policing,’ but I do say let’s work together to develop efficiencies. I want to exhaust every possible avenue of cooperation that may lead to greater efficiencies and economies of scale in delivery of services to our respective residents. I believe [New Castle County Executive[ Matt [Meyer] shares this same interest.”
On the state: “We need to build a consensus with Dover that acknowledges Wilmington’s long-term financial sustainability limits. There are any number of solutions available to us, but they will each require mutual cooperation between city and state. I want to stop the practice of making episodic visits to Dover begging for money for stopgap solutions. Wilmington always positions itself as a supplicant, which, to me, is a terrible place to be. I don’t think that’s very good for the city’s self respect or the city’s reputation. We need a longer-term view, and that is what I am committed to.”
“Government has to set the table for progress. You’ve got to create an environment where things can get better for people,” Purzycki said. “Who are we kidding? We’ve ignored our minority neighborhoods for so long.”
10 things you probably don’t know about the mayor-elect
1.Not crazy about heights
2. Was a New York Giant for about five months
3. Can sing most Sinatra songs
4. Rarely gets eight hours sleep (“I feel great, but I’m always short about two hours sleep. I hate to say it, some of it is age-related, and, on top of that, my mind won’t let go. I’m always thinking of something new.”)
5. Likes “Real Time with Bill Maher”
6. Read most books about the Wall Street crash
7. Married the girl next door — at age 37
8. Friends say he always has a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C
9. Owns three properties in the city — his West 16th Street home, a row house near Canby Park and a condo in Park Plaza.
10. Favorite recent reads are “Churchill: A Life,” “Thinking Fast and Slow,” “The Best and the Brightest,” “Being Wrong,” and “A Brief History of Almost Everything”.