G. John Coli
Class of 1941, BS; Class of 1942, MS; Class of 1949, Ph.D.
Having once left an executive position at a large corporation rather than compromise his principles, G. John Coli never flinched as he moved between competing companies, one of which named him its president within seven years of his arrival. Upon his retirement in 1986, he went on to serve as president and chief operating officer for St. Joseph’s Health Service Corporation for almost 20 years.
His work with the healthcare industry had a philanthropic aspect as well: Coli spent those two decades working tirelessly for the Asheville, North Carolina medical facility as a volunteer, while at the same time making substantial financial contributions to St. Joseph’s. Today, his generosity is evidenced by the Critical Care Center at St. Joseph’s that bears his name.
“John is a generous, generous man,” says his wife Vonda. She continues, laughing, “He is also a stubborn Italian, hardheaded, wants everything his way, and I love him.”
The Italian background is one that many Americans have in common. John’s father, Guido, arrived in the U.S. by boat when he was 16 years old. He entered through Ellis Island, a symbol of immigrant heritage. According to its website, this “immigrant depot processed the greatest tide of incoming humanity in the nation’s history” as they sought freedom of speech and religion and economic opportunity.
Guido found this economic opportunity, making himself a millionaire, according to his son. Guido traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where a large Italian community had already formed. There, Guido met John’s mother, Rena Pacini, who also had entered the country through Ellis Island. They married and opened a restaurant together. The first restaurant was followed by a second, and then a third.
“Dad started as a cleaner in the first restaurant, and ended up owning it. They were all just sandwich shops, but Dad did well,” Coli recalls.
As John grew up in the city that once served as the capital of the Confederate States of America, he witnessed first hand the meaning of the phrase “land of opportunity. The only son of his immigrant parents, he was able to pursue an engineering education in 1937, first by attending the VPI Extension campus in Richmond for two years. He then transferred to the Blacksburg location as a junior.
In 1939, he met Virginia Tech chemical engineering icons Frank Vilbrandt and Fred Bull. “Fred became a personal friend, and convinced me that chemical engineering was a good field of choice,” Coli says. Vilbrandt later became so impressed by Coli that he tried to persuade him to become a faculty member; hence, he eventually pursued his graduate degrees, earning his master’s in 1942 and his Ph.D. in 1949.
During his college career, as with most students in the 1940s, the seven-year gap between his master’s and doctoral degrees is explained by his service in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which used his intellectual skills to conduct wartime chemical research for the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C. When the war was over, Coli received a Citation from the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, also the son of an immigrant, and the main architect of the massive naval buildup during World War II.
After his wartime military service, Coli began his professional career, accepting employment with Mobil Oil in Paulsboro, New Jersey for a year. He moved to Allied Chemical Corporation in New York in 1950, and eventually he was able to move back to his hometown of Richmond through his work with Allied.
He became very involved in the Virginia chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS), rising through its ranks in the 1950s at the same time that the chemical industry in the Richmond-Hopewell, Virginia, area was expanding rapidly. Coli was with Allied when it opened its new fiber plant, forming part of the Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation in 1956. This same year, he was chairman elect of the Virginia Section of ACS. He served his term as chair in 1957.
In 1968, the Virginia Press Association presented Coli with its coveted Virginian of the Year Award. Others who have won this award include: tennis great Arthur Ashe, musicians Bruce Hornsby and Roy Clark, journalists James K. Kilpatrick and Katherine Graham, TV personality Willard Scott, and authors David Baldacci and Patricia Cornwell. Coli received the honor for his work in the business arena in Virginia.
In the early 1970s, Coli relocated to New York with Allied, but this is also the time he recalls “crossing the big guy” on a business matter. He left Allied where he had been a group vice president from 1950 until 1972 and a director from 1970-72.
He landed on his feet, joining American Enka Co., a leading producer of rayon, becoming its president by 1979. He was with the company when it moved its corporate headquarters out of New York to his current home in Asheville, North Carolina.
In 1982, he was named Akzo America Inc.’s president and chief executive officer, a position he held until he retired in 1986. Akzo America, with a current sales volume of $2 billion a year, is the North American unit of the Dutch chemical company Akzo. It makes chemical, synthetic fibers, coatings, and pharmaceuticals.
There was another significance to the year 1982 for Coli – he met his wife Vonda, who was also an employee of American Enka.
When he retired in 1986, he immediately became involved with the healthcare industry, working as the senior executive of St. Joseph’s Health Service Corporation, but in a voluntary capacity until his final retirement in 2005. In 1999, Memorial Mission Medical Center purchased St. Joseph’s from the Sisters of Mercy. By combining its services to form the Mission St. Joseph’s Health System, Coli helped lead the integration of the two organizations, which resulted in a profound change in the way that healthcare is delivered in North Carolina. Mission now operates under a Certificate of Public Advantage issued by the state and designed to insure that its charges are fair and it provides documented benefit to its community. Today, the healthcare center has some 6,600 employees with some $120 million dedicated to current or planned construction.
Coli’s philanthropic contributions were recognized by the naming of the 14-bed Coli Critical Care Center on the St. Joseph campus of the healthcare center.
Vonda describes the couple as “homebodies” where John has paid particular attention to his rose garden. They are supporters of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the Asheville Human Society, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville. They are among the founding members of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Committee of 100.
Coli is a member of Sigma Xi, Phi Lambda Upsilon, Tau Beta Pi, Phi Kappa Phi, and Alpha Kappa Psi. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
He has four children from his first marriage: Pamela, Patricia, Deborah, and Richard who died in 1989, and a stepdaughter, Rebecca, from his marriage to Vonda.
Class of: 1941, 1942, 1949
Year Inducted into Academy: 2008