He helped make Northeastern green

Jerry Ziola, a pioneering environmentalist who was senior director of sustainability at Northeastern, has died at age 61. Photo by Northeastern University

Sustainability was Jerry Ziola’s mission. His commitment to the environment was lifelong and resolute. Northeastern operates a green campus largely because Ziola devoted 35 years to making it so.

“He saved us millions of dollars, and it was all very quiet,” says Maria Cimilluca, vice president for facilities at Northeastern. “But in my mind, Jerry didn’t care so much about the dollars. It was about the environment.”

Ziola, senior director of sustainability at Northeastern, died on May 23. He was 61. A memorial service for Ziola was celebrated July 8 on Zoom. 

“He was just a brilliant man,” says Joe Ranahan, director of energy and facilities management at Northeastern, who was hired by Ziola and worked with him for 15 years. He says that Ziola could glance at a spreadsheet of energy calculations and recognize its errors almost instantly.

“He was a genius,” Cimilluca says. “We would sit in a meeting and people would start rattling off numbers. And he would whisper in my ear, ‘They’re not telling the truth.’”

Ziola studied every building on Northeastern’s Boston campus to understand its purpose. He would calculate its energy needs and draw up plans to meet those needs as efficiently as possible. This past January, says Cimilluca, Northeastern achieved carbon neutrality for the first time, thanks to Ziola’s efforts. 

Northeastern ranked 41st among the almost 700 universities that were surveyed last year by The Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges—despite the complications of its densely-populated urban campus.

“He made strides in our carbon reduction while the university was growing,” Cimilluca says. “We were increasing our square footage and building new buildings all while he was stealthily, behind the scenes, working on energy savings and initiatives in ways that minimized our impact on the environment.”

Ranahan was hired by Ziola in 2005, shortly before hurricanes Katrina and Rita leveled natural gas production along the Gulf of Mexico, which set off a surge in electricity prices in Massachusetts. For the next six months, Ziola and his new assistant spent 12-hour days plotting how to mitigate a $6 million hike in energy costs.

“Jerry came up with a hedging strategy where we bought electricity over a long span of time,” Ranahan says. “We were able to average our prices over five years and really reduce the impact on the university. That’s an example of Jerry thinking outside the box to fix a problem.”

Ranahan, who had recently graduated in computer engineering, jokes that he found himself longing for his student job as a stress-free Zamboni driver at Matthews Arena. The learning curve was steep in those early months with Ziola.

“There are some people who protect their knowledge, because they worry that’s what makes them valuable,” Ranahan says. “Jerry would freely give out his knowledge and teach you to do anything that he knew. He was a one-in-a-million intellect.”

Ziola’s childhood influenced his desires to be generous as well as competitive. With his four older brothers and younger sister, he grew up in a small, crowded house in Detroit during the city’s riotous summer of 1967. They played in a nearby clay pit fumed with gasoline. Their mother, a cleaner, made $1.45 an hour. The family depended on donations of food and clothing.

Ziola had little choice but to learn how to fight, and Tom Ziola says that his little brother Jerry suffered hearing loss from the blows he absorbed. After winning one especially memorable after-school brawl, Ziola’s victim warned that a friend would be coming the next day to claim revenge. That friend turned out to be Thomas (Hitman) Hearns, who would grow up to become a world champion boxer in five different weight classes. The Ring magazine would rate Hearns as the 18th greatest puncher in boxing history.

“Jerry fought Tommy Hearns in the street, and he was doing pretty poorly—from what he said, Tommy Hearns was beating him up pretty well—until Jerry found a two-by-four on the ground,” says Ranahan, relaying a story that Ziola had shared with him. “And he hit Tommy Hearns in the head with a two-by-four.”

Ziola would joke that he developed his sprinting speed by having to run home after school in fear of a Hearns rematch. His talent for running earned him an athletic scholarship to Cranbrook, a private college prep boarding school in suburban Detroit, where he was fed three times a day and set enduring records in the decathlon. He studied for a year at Worksop College in England, where he played rugby and won championships in the decathlon and shotput. At the University of Michigan, where he declined an offer to try out for the football team, Ziola would earn a degree in natural resources—the forerunner of sustainability—which taught him, among other things, to roam the campus with index cards as he learned to identify more than 200 types of trees. 

“In that time he picked up a passion for the environment,” Tom Ziola said during the memorial service, his voice cracking. “Maybe it was all the time Jerry spent in the gasoline clay pit across the street; maybe it was because our mother was a cleaning lady. He got inspired by the idea of trying to figure out ways to make the world a better place, and that was something that he carried with him throughout his adulthood.”

It was to Northeastern’s fortune that Ziola’s old Cadillac broke down in Boston on his way to a job interview in New York. He needed to find work in order to pay for the repairs. So he stayed, which led him to accept a job at Northeastern in 1985. 

Ziola’s commitment to sustainability pushed him to the brink of quitting many times, recalls Ron Lavoie, who was Ziola’s boss at Northeastern from 2005 to 2018. 

“He could be difficult to deal with,” Lavoie says. “If he had it in his mind that there was something wrong with the way you were approaching something, oh, boy, it wasn’t good. It didn’t turn out well. Because it was black and white with Jerry.”

There was a personal cost hidden within Ziola’s devotion, and it went beyond the eye problems and the ulcerations of his stomach lining and the wearing away of his hips that he ignored until he had no other choice. His pioneering gains were earned at the expense of his personal life. His work was all-consuming. 

But he was going to make up for that. Ziola had steadily acquired three farm properties in Michigan, along with the machinery (always purchased second-hand) to operate them. He had been planting thousands of tree seedlings each summer on his land.

Ziola called Lavoie in May to say that he had decided to retire from Northeastern in June. 

“He had been working for 20 years to build out a beautiful place that he intended for the whole Ziola family, all six of us,” Tom Ziola says. “It was going to be a safe, protected place where he could be outdoors, plant trees, spend time with the family, and just sit back and take a break.”

“If you asked anybody on campus, ‘Who’s the energy man?’ I don’t know if Jerry would be the first person they’d think of,” Lavoie says. “Because he was behind the scenes a lot, and he didn’t aspire to be recognized. Jerry wanted to do his job, and energy and sustainability was his life. It was his life.”

Cimilluca says several people will be needed to take over the grand schemes that Ziola had developed from the ground up. In Michigan, the Ziola family vows to care for the farmland as if it were Jerry’s own. 

Altogether, the survivors of Jerry Ziola insist that his achievements and his dreams must be sustained.

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