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Ron Donatucci, Philadelphia’s longtime register of wills, dies at 72 on Election Day

Ron Donatucci, Philadelphia's former register of Wills and a longtime South Philadelphia ward leader, died Tuesday at age 72.

Ron Donatucci, Philadelphia's former register of wills, talks politics in his City Hall office last year.
Ron Donatucci, Philadelphia's former register of wills, talks politics in his City Hall office last year.Read more

There is nothing readily apparent to connect treatment by world-class physicians at Wills Eye Hospital with a South Philly fixture in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, until you got to know Ron Donatucci.

The longtime ward leader and former register of wills for the city was always listening for the troubles of others. Dr. Julia A. Haller, the hospital’s ophthalmologist-in-chief, said Mr. Donatucci used his post on the board of the charitable trust that helps fund Wills Eye to open doors for anyone who needed it, no matter who they were.

Gregariously oversize in style while small in physical stature, Mr. Donatucci was always seeking connections that solved problems.

“He was such an iconic Philly booster and he knew everyone,” Haller said. “He was so fiercely loyal and true-blue. He wanted everything to work out for everyone. He always thought he’d know someone who could help you.”

Mr. Donatucci died Tuesday evening, Nov. 3, in his sleep. He was 72.

Mayor Jim Kenney, another politician who got his start in South Philadelphia, recalled Mr. Donatucci’s City Hall office as a place where constituents arrived bereft after the death of a family member but left comforted by the way they were treated.

And Kenney remembered Mr. Donatucci calling him to come see the wave of joy that pulsed through the office in 2015 when same-sex marriage became legal, as couples young and old flooded in to get marriage licenses.

“He was an old-school guy,” Kenney said. “He was the dean of politics.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, said he and Mr. Donatucci shared an affinity with former Vice President Joe Biden for classic-model Corvettes. Brady said Biden had promised to come see one of Mr. Donatucci’s cars after the election.

“He loved politics,” Brady said. “It’s a shock and really a shame he died on Election Day night.”

Mr. Donatucci, a lawyer since 1974, worked for the City Solicitor’s Office, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and the city’s Department of Licensing and Inspections. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Temple University in 1970 and a J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1974.

He served in the state House, but was best known as register of wills, an office he first won in the 1979 election, now with a $4 million annual budget and about 70 employees.

“Ron-Don,” as he was often called around City Hall, also was Democratic leader of the 26th Ward, a broad stretch of the city south of Passyunk Avenue and west of Broad Street.

“He was very sincere, very kind, certainly very understanding," said former City Council President Anna C. Verna. "He helped people when they couldn’t help themselves or didn’t know how to help themselves. He was a very fine gentleman.”

Mr. Donatucci was a proud practitioner of political patronage who would openly acknowledge that party committee members and ward leaders found jobs in his office but insisted he operated an efficient organization where everyone performed their duties well.

“He helped out a lot of people down here, said Theresa Dintino, the Republican leader of the 26th Ward. "He took great pride in the efficiency in his office. And he took satisfaction in his workers, who served the city he loved.”

“My whole office is patronage — I’m not going to sit here and insult your intelligence,” Mr. Donatucci said in a 1994 Inquirer series, The Prince of Patronage, about his hiring practices. “But they do a good job.” He believed political people were more responsive to the public.

He considered not seeking another term last year, still dealing with emotional fallout from the 2016 suicide of his son, Michael, but said at the time his staff asked him to press on.

“His whole goal was protecting the guys who were good to him over the years,” Ron Donatucci Jr. said. “They came to him and convinced him to run again. Ever since he lost my brother, his life was never the same. It was a huge void.”

After a halfhearted campaign, Mr. Donatucci was toppled in a three-candidate Democratic primary, in a political season that saw some longtime elected officials defeated by challengers.

Mr. Donatucci also served as a trustee for Temple University and as president of the board of directors of City Trusts, a 151-year-old organization that administers 120 trusts for funds left to the city by wealthy benefactors. Beneficiaries include Girard College, a boarding school in Fairmount for economically disadvantaged children, and Wills Eye Hospital.

Bill Bergman, Temple’s vice president for public affairs, knew Mr. Donatucci for 35 years and called him “a cheerleader for every organization he was involved in."

“I always found him to be someone who cared about people," Bergman said. "If he called you about something, you got back to him because he would keep calling. It was never about himself. It was always about other people.”

Bernard Smalley, an attorney, first met Mr. Donatucci in City Hall when Smalley was a deputy court administrator for the First Judicial District. Smalley, who served 20 years on the board of City Trusts, as it is commonly known, said Mr. Donatucci called the Girard College “my kids.”

“He always had a soft spot for that,” Smalley said. “Even when it was a struggle financially, whatever we needed for the school, it was never a question of not doing it. It was a question of: How do we get this done. That was his focus.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Donatucci is survived by his wife, Stephanie; daughter Ava Marie; and two grandchildren. Services are scheduled for St. Monica’s Church Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 11 a.m. in South Philadelphia.