Ralph Raymond Pisani, 90, formerly of New Hope, a onetime shoeshine boy who rose to become a real estate developer, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, died Wednesday, Aug. 5, of complications from a fall at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Mr. Pisani was a longtime resident of Bucks County before moving to Florida in 1996.
Born Raffaele Pisani, he grew up in the Bronx, New York City. At age 9, he shined shoes in Times Square, a job that embarrassed his parents, Maria and Luigi, emigrants from Italy.
Mr. Pisani went from shining shoes and working in his uncle’s leather shop into the Army at age 18, where he became known as Ralph. He was honorably discharged in 1952, then took college classes.
Knowing the poverty in which his parents had lived, he worked hard to better himself. “If you see an opportunity, grab it,” he liked to say.
He sold life insurance for Penn Mutual, had a job with United Airlines, and became vice president of construction for Sylvan Pools in Doylestown.
He married Elizabeth Schlontz in 1950. They had three children. After a divorce, he married Barbara Helen Teal in 1966. She was a property manager. A year later, he and his wife formed a partnership to build single-family homes, housing developments, and apartments in Philadelphia, Bucks, Lehigh, and Northampton Counties, as Ralph R. Pisani & Associates in New Hope.
With an open, welcoming manner, he was a natural as a developer. “He made everyone feel special,” the family said in a statement. “He was a keen observer of human nature. It was no different with strangers; he was a penetrating interviewer who could get new acquaintances talking about themselves within minutes of meeting him.”
“I feel blessed to be in Ralph’s inner circle,” Clyde Waite, a senior Bucks County Court judge, wrote in a tribute. “He had the rare quality of making everyone who wandered near feel that they immediately became Ralph’s best friend – from paupers to potentates.”
Mr. Pisani parlayed his professional skills into a book, written with son Robert L. Pisani. Investing in Land: How to Be a Successful Developer was named one of the 10 best real estate books of 1989 by the syndicated columnist Robert Bruss.
Because of his real estate acumen, Mr. Pisani was named to the Bucks County Planning Commission, serving as chairman from 1977 to 1982. He was also chairman of the Bucks County Industrial Development Authority, the commission’s sister agency, from 1983 to 1986.
As a developer, Mr. Pisani often appeared at municipal meetings to present his plans. Since he was so often in the public eye, he drew flak. At one point, detractors claimed it was a conflict for a developer to serve on the planning commission. They urged him to resign.
“Resign? Are you kidding?” he responded in the Oct. 13, 1977, Doylestown Intelligencer. “Bucks County needs me more than ever. Of course I’ll be controversial. I’ve been that way all my life. After all, controversy is a small price to pay for relevance.”
He taught evening classes at Bucks County Community College until being appointed a trustee. From 1987 to 1992, Mr. Pisani taught real estate development with his son at the Wharton School.
“It was a proud moment of achievement, since he did not have a formal college degree,” his family said.
He retired at 62 and traveled with his wife to all seven continents. He bought a single-engine, four-seat Piper Cherokee and learned to fly, taking family members to events along the Atlantic seaboard.
He was a mentor to his children, who sought his advice on love, education, and a career path. “Family was first,” said his wife.
Besides his wife, former wife, and son, he is survived by sons Ralph Jr. and Christopher; daughter Katherine P. Pooner; eight grandchildren; a great-grandson; and nieces and nephews.
Services were Saturday, Aug. 15.