Brain disease claims iconic King's professor

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Tony Mussari, an iconic local college professor, author and filmmaker affectionately known as “Doc,” died Wednesday following a battle with a rare brain disease. He was 75.

A Wilkes-Barre native, Mussari followed his brother, whom he idolized, into the education field, becoming the longtime chairman of the Mass Communications Department at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre.

Mussari, who was elected president of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board and once ran for mayor, also embarked on a storied media career with his wife, Kitch, a television news veteran. Together, they produced documentary films, corporate videos and even their own television series from their backyard called “Windsor Park Stories,” which chronicled the lives of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They did the latter for free, using their own money, because they felt the world needed a positive, wholesome option on television.

Following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Mussaris crisscrossed the country as part of their “What is America?” documentary series.

A student of local history, Mussari wrote “Appointment with Disaster,” which some consider the preeminent chronicle about the devastating 1972 flood due to Tropical Storm Agnes, which, at the time, was the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

He wrote several other books, including one about his experience with open heart surgery, and produced dozens of documentaries about regional topics, including an award-winning film about the underground mine fire in Centralia.

In later years, he was chairman of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society, which sought unsuccessfully to save the Wyoming Valley’s last standing coal breaker in Ashley from demolition.

In the classroom, Mussari and his wife didn’t teach just media skills, but life lessons. Their methods were often considered unusual. In fact, sometimes the classroom was their home in the Back Mountain, where they hosted class and fed students dinner.

Students knew Mussari simply as “Doc,” a reference to his doctorate degree.

He was a gifted public speaker, who rarely referred to notes, and made students give presentations in front of class each session to make them comfortable speaking in public. He demanded solid research and stressed strong writing skills.

He’d share thoughtful quotes with students every class, like, “To get through life, it’s not about your brilliance. It’s about your resilience.” And he’d pose thought-provoking questions like, “If I were to take my 10-year-old self to lunch, what would he or she think of me? Do I still have her passions, his opinions, her weaknesses?”

Mussari also took students on location on some of his video shoots — from the United States Military Academy at West Point to Lake Placid, New York, the scene of the famed “Miracle on Ice” hockey game in the 1980 winter Olympics.

Former student and WYOU-TV anchor Phil Yacuboski, now a radio news anchor for WBAL in Baltimore, said Mussari had a big impact on him professionally and personally.

“He had a very unorthodox way of teaching and I think that angered a lot of his colleagues and people along the way.” Yacuboski said. “Even I questioned what he was doing at times, but I always had faith. He was right in the end.”

Yacuboski, 43, a Mocanaqua native who graduated from King’s College in 1997, said he accompanied Mussari to Wall Street in New York City several times. Mussari was a corporate videographer for the J.P. Morgan banking institution and would film his interviews with high-ranking executives about leadership and management skills. He shared the videos with students.

“You were getting a first-class education from people who were among the most powerful people in the banking world,” Yacuboski said.

The two stayed in touch over the past 20 years. Yacuboski said Mussari was the first person he called in April when his station won two Edward R. Murrow Awards for breaking news coverage.

“That’s the type of relationship we had,” he said.

Jason Genovese, chairman of the Mass Communications Department at Bloomsburg University, said Mussari helped him change his career path from the newsroom to the classroom.

After Genovese graduated from King’s in 1996, he became a television producer in small stations in upstate New York. He then started working for Comcast Sports in Philadelphia.

Mussari, who always thought Genovese would be a great teacher, then lured him to teach a weekly class at King’s on sports writing. He accepted the job and loved it.

Soon, Genovese started teaching more classes and had his old teacher as a mentor.

“I learned from him and he helped me become a better teacher,” Genovese said.

Genovese, 44, started working for Bloomsburg University, obtained his doctorate, and was eventually promoted to head of the department. Mussari remained a mentor and trusted friend.

“I do owe my career to him,” Genovese said. “Thankfully I got to tell him that.”

Mussari’s funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, 134 S. Washington St., Wilkes-Barre.

Contact the writer:

570-821-2055, @cvbobkal

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