Never Stop Learning
by JoAnn Greco
Alumnus holds top post in Philadelphia mayor’s cabinet.
A visitor entering the spacious, plant-filled corner office of Michael DiBerardinis ’71 (B.S.) this past March couldn’t help but notice the turquoise book propped on his desk: The First 90 Days. Indeed, three months had yet to pass since he assumed the role of managing director for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor James F. Kenney, inaugurated in January.
“My days are full of meetings — very long and full of meetings,” DiBerardinis says with a laugh. “They’re interesting and hectic and frustrating. And, full of meetings.”
Already, though, he had scored a victory in helping to secure a $600 million commitment from the administration to rebuild the city’s parks, recreation centers and libraries — departments he ran for Kenney’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Nutter.
In landing the No. 2 spot in the city’s organizational chart, DiBerardinis is capping a long career in public service that included roles as secretary of conservation and natural resources for former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and as chief of staff to the late Congressman Thomas Foglietta ’49 (B.S.), who served as U.S. ambassador to Italy.
In his most recent post as Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for environmental and community resources as well as parks and recreation commissioner, DiBerardinis oversaw more than 10,000 acres of land, 150 recreation centers and playgrounds, 150 neighborhood and regional parks, 54 library branches and thousands of programs and events.
Initially, Kenney approached him about continuing his work with the Department of Parks and Recreation. When DiBerardinis demurred, Kenney raised the possibility of managing director.
“It became a question of whether I was willing to accept the expanded responsibilities and accompanying pressures and demands,” says DiBerardinis.
After talking with his wife, Joan Reilly, and other confidants, he decided it was the right thing to do.
“Working in an administration with an aggressive agenda rooted in populism and equity was attractive to me,” he says. “It was an opportunity to advance the ideas that my whole career has been about.”
That career started when, freshly armed with his SJU political science degree, DiBerardinis worked to defend the so-called Harrisburg Seven (six of whom were priests or nuns), anti-war activists accused of plotting against the government.
“Mike lives by a firm set of principles, and he’s great at listening to people, figuring out what they want, and helping them get there,” says Francis J. Clark ’73 (B.A.), a retired social studies teacher in Baltimore who was a classmate of DiBerardinis and roomed with him in Hogan Hall.
Saint Joseph’s emphasis on service to the less fortunate was heightened by the turmoil of the Vietnam War era, observes Joseph Daoust, S.J., dean of students in 1969-70.
“The times helped that commitment to social justice come alive for the students,” says Fr. Daoust, who presided at DiBerardinis’ marriage. “And Mike was clearly a leader among them. He acted out of concern for others, not from a sense of anger.”
DiBerardinis calls his time at Saint Joseph’s “transformative.”
“The ideas of nonviolence as a potent form of change, of being the best human being you can be, of understanding racism and feminism — it was all amazing,” he says. “I didn’t stop learning.”
These days, DiBerardinis’ education continues. “I’ve had to build my knowledge of the day-to-day workings of and challenges faced by operating departments that I haven’t previously had a lot of contact with — like behavioral health, licenses and inspections, fire, housing and police,” he says. “That’s the vertical part — the mission and quality of service of each department.”
Interlacing his fingers, he adds, “Then there’s the horizontal part — connecting and weaving them together so that powerful policy objectives, like universal pre-kindergarten or an effective workforce program, can be reached.”
The administration’s ambitious goals are deeply important to DiBerardinis, but he is adamant that this stint will be his last official gig. There are grandchildren to be enjoyed, and a third recently joined the family. All four of his children live in the city — three within walking distance of the Fishtown home he’s shared with Reilly for decades.
Also on the agenda: returning to Italy, a destination he frequently visits to see his cousins. “This is the more relevant book on my desk,” he laughs, tipping over the business self-help tome and proffering a tattered paperback on Italian conversation. “I’ve started subscribing to Rai, the Italian public television network, and I’m writing to my cousins all of the time. Still, my Italian is just mezza mezza.”
In other words, there’s more to be learned.
JoAnn Greco is a freelance writer.