Hitting the bars and sleeping through classes may be familiar experiences to many alumni, but few have been able to finesse those experiences into a career walking through the halls of power. Representative Joseph Morelle ’86 serves constituents in Rochester and most of Monroe County as the first Geneseo alumnus to be elected to Congress.
Morelle was elected to the House of Representatives in November after years as a member of the New York State Assembly, where he served as Majority Leader. A Western New Yorker for decades, Morelle grew up in Brighton before he enrolled at Geneseo for the fall 1975 semester.
“I was the first member of my family to go to college, so I really had no idea what I was getting into … I had done reasonably well in high school, but never really worked very hard at it,” Morelle said. “Truth be told … my first year was kind of a disaster. Socially I did very well, but they didn’t give grades for social activities.”
If Morelle didn’t put much into his academic career, his decade at Geneseo provided him plenty of experience with people and politics. Morelle enlisted as an intern for a Congressional campaign in his second year at Geneseo, making him take only nine credits at Geneseo. Right before he returned to Geneseo for the 1979 academic year, he found further reason to pause his education after he broke his leg in five places playing fast-pitch softball.
After his injuries, Morelle, then a political science major, put his developing degree to use by taking a position with a local New York State Senator. Impressed with the work he had done so far, the Democratic Party asked Morelle to run for a position with the Monroe County Legislature in 1981.
After losing in 1981 by a handful of votes, he won two years later and began his first elected position as a Monroe County Legislator. His academic career took a backseat to his rapidly expanding political one.
“So actually, when I finished at Geneseo, I was married, my daughter Lauren was born and I was in the county legislature,” Morelle said. “So, that’s why I extended my collegiate career, which was spotty at best.”
Morelle found his way to those internships and opportunities through a mentor in the political science department, professor emeritus Edward Janosik.
“Doctor J, as he was known, got me the internships and really took an interest in me. I don’t know that I would’ve gotten through it without him,” Morelle said. “Honestly, [Janosik] really helped get me straightened out and I found out I really enjoyed politics and government … It’s funny how you find teachers that just somehow motivate you and get … connected with you; he certainly did.”
When he wasn’t in class or on the campaign trail, Morelle spent plenty of time relaxing with friends playing foosball or Pac-Man. At a time when alcohol consumption was legal for much of the student population, Geneseo’s party culture also offered its own opportunities for leisure.
Students would frequent the bars on Main Street or create more organized competitions, like the “Phi Lamb Derby,” where teams would race through all of the local bars. The college itself actually organized a “Subs and Suds” night at Letchworth Dining Hall; it was “a very different time,” as Morelle put it.
Throughout his time as a state representative, Morelle hasn’t forgotten his alma mater. Working with past college presidents, Morelle has helped Geneseo find funding for projects like the Integrated Science Center and the Saratoga Terrace.
“I always have a great deal of fondness for Geneseo and I’m pretty grateful because I would not have had the internships, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities [and] I wouldn’t have met Dr. Janosik had I not gone there … that really shaped what’s becoming my career,” Morelle said. “So, the fact that I sent two of my children out of the three to [Geneseo]... says the kind of confidence I have in the school and its leadership.”
To Geneseo students today, Morelle provided some of his own advice. “I encourage all college students to do internships. It helps connect you with the outside world and really gives you a sense of the area that you’re studying … [and] whether or not you really want to do that because it is different [than] being in a classroom,” Morelle said. “The second thing is really to, and I did not do this sadly, use [college] as an opportunity to question what they learned and to be critical thinkers. In this world, the people who always excel are those who really are thoughtful about the world around them and just don’t accept what people have told them.”