Besides his magic act, as a boy Torsella occupied himself with projects such as starting a turtle farm in the backyard, damming the creek to make a pond, catching snakes, and doing volunteer work for the yearly Kiwanis Club auctions (“I was made an honorary member,” he boasts). It was, he says, “ a wonderful, bucolic, Norman Rockwell childhood.” A devout Roman Catholic who once considered entering the priesthood, Torsella attended parochial school and then Wyoming Seminary, a “great” prep school 50 minutes from his home in Berwick.

When it came time for college, he wanted to go somewhere “other than Berwick” that “didn’t feel like Las Vegas.” His parents—the late Joseph P. Torsella, a lawyer, and Patricia Balanda Torsella Nu’61 GNu’81, a retired nursing instructor at Bloomsburg State University—had met while they were both in college, his mother at Penn and his father at Temple and then Temple Law, and had fond memories of the city. Torsella remembers yearly pilgrimages to the old John Wanamaker’s department store for the Christmas show and occasional drives into South Philadelphia for dinner. “I loved the idea of school in a city, and when I visited Penn I fell in love with it,” he says.

Torsella majored in history and economics, and channeled his performing urge into Mask & Wig for two years, then shifted gears into public policy. “Somebody said politics is show business for ugly people,” he says with a smile. “So I’m wondering if that’s the thread of my career.”

Torsella threw himself into local politics. In what would have been the fall of his junior year, he left school to work on Wilson Goode’s campaign for mayor in 1983 and Walter Phillips’ for attorney general in 1984. After Goode won, he was named a staff member of the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy under Marciene Mattelman, its founder.

That was also when he met Ed Rendell, then the city’s district attorney. He liked what he saw and later worked for Rendell’s ill-fated 1986 campaign for governor. “The one no one talks about,” Torsella jokes. He was so dedicated to the Rendell cause that he skipped his graduation because it was two days before the primary election. He assumed no one noticed his absence, until a friend told him that, during the ceremony, he’d been called on “to stand up as Penn’s third Rhodes Scholar.” Torsella winces at the memory. “In retrospect, I wish I’d been a little less Type A.”

After three years at Oxford, Torsella returned to Penn, planning to complete a Ph.D. in American history. His thesis was about the British army in the American Revolution, telling the history of the war from the perspective of the British soldier. Then, “One day it hits me—I’m writing this Ph.D. thesis, and the one thing I’m sure I never want to do in my life is teach history,” he recalls. “I love history and, arguably, that is what I’ve done, but I knew I didn’t want to be an academic historian.”

Luckily, at about the same time, Rendell—who had suffered losing campaigns for governor and mayor, and was then working at a law firm and “deeply unhappy,” says Torsella—was mounting the campaign that would lead to two successful terms in City Hall and national headlines as “America’s Mayor.” When Rendell, with whom he had stayed in touch, offered him the position of issues director, “I jumped at it,” Torsella says, deferring and then turning down his acceptance to Harvard Law School, where he had applied after realizing he didn’t want to be a history professor.

“That was such a campaign of substance and ideas,” he says. “How do you re-invent government? How do you deliver services less expensively? Everyone wrote the city off, and we produced paper after paper full of ideas about how to bring it back. It was the way a campaign should be, and it was an energizing moment to be involved with politics and government.”

After Rendell’s inauguration in 1992, Torsella, then 28, joined the administration as deputy mayor for policy and planning. “It was a great time to be part of government,” Torsella says. “We had this great little think-tank institution in municipal government. It felt like a time of great possibility, when you got people to believe in the city again.”

After two years in government, Torsella embarked on his “entrepreneurial phase.” He and a partner did some property development, and he invented, among other things, the Spaghetti Smock, a red-and-white checked bib, packaged in a spaghetti box. QVC sold 1,291 of them in less than three minutes. “I even got—God bless him—Ed Rendell to pose with one.” Torsella laughs. “I think he still regrets that.” He also co-developed the Little Book of Blessings, published by Philadelphia-based Running Press. “The idea is that you keep [it] on your kitchen table and, with your kids, every night you read a different blessing from a different tradition,” he explains. “My kids love the ice cream blessing from Britain.” Torsella is married to Carolyn Short, an attorney. They have two children, and she has two children from a prior marriage, the oldest of whom is a freshman at Penn.

Torsella might still be dreaming up new products (“I have a lot of ideas rolling around in my head,” he says unapologetically), if Rendell hadn’t picked up the telephone in the winter of 1996 and asked him to oversee the proposed National Constitution Center, the board of which Rendell himself had recently agreed to chair. That Rendell had taken this step—chairing a non-profit is “a liability no politician needs,” says Torsella—demonstrated “a huge amount of courage” and made it very difficult to say no. “I remember asking how long he thought it would take,” he says. “‘A day or two a week for three months’ is what he told me.”

It took seven years.

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

The House That Joe Built
By Kathryn Levy Feldman
Photography by Candace diCarlo
page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4