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John Robortella, 72

Retired marketing expert shares his lifelong passion for writing, local history

By Melody Burri

A graduate of Gates Chili High School and SUNY Empire State College, John Robortella lives in the town of Canandaigua.

Q: You’ve enjoyed a number of diverse roles over your professional career. What were some of your favorites?

A: I started in high school as a reporter and photographer at the Gates-Chili News. Students were given a page in each edition of the town’s weekly newspaper for school news, so I got used to meeting a deadline every week. One of my first stories was supposed to be simple — how did the town of Chili get its name? What I found out was that the answer depended on whether you talked to a Chili Republican or a Chili Democrat. I learned quickly that even local history involves a lot of politics.

Starting in 1983, I worked for the University of Rochester where I had three assignments over the course of 32 years, all in public relations, editing and print and web production. My last 10 years at the university were as associate director of marketing and communications at the Simon School of Business.

I retired in 2012, but my friends claimed I flunked retirement because I’d been hired as the part-time clerk of the Farmington Planning Board before I even left the university. I’m still working for Farmington and recently retired as the stenographer for the town of Canandaigua Planning Board.

Q: Your lifelong passion for history appears boundless. What is it that most intrigues you?

A: When I left the university, I missed the mechanics of typography. It’s a lost art; I’m afraid, with too many desktop publishers and printing production that has evolved to digital presses.

Though newspapers are becoming a thing of the past, printing is still with us. So I started a small business — Finger Lakes Historical Press — to print other people’s local history books.

Then I found that posting a short local history piece on Facebook generated hundreds of ‘hits.’ I decided I could write about something that I was interested in and finish the entire project myself. I am really intrigued by writing about something that happened more than 100 years ago and using modern equipment with an entire book digitally stored on a thumb drive you can put in your pocket.

Q: You’ve authored and collaborated on an impressive number of books over the years. Tell us about them.

A: My first book was ‘Frogleg George: The Legend No One Really Knew,’ with an introduction by then-executive director of the Ontario County Historical Society, Ed Varno. It was published in 2009 and is still popular. The book can be read in one sitting and is a great middle-school-student book report topic because it’s a quick read and mixes local history with an entertaining subject that teenagers like.

Others that I have written or co-written and published include ‘The Farmington Railroad Tragedy of 1900’ with Reginal W. Neale, introduction by Preston E. Pierce and ‘So Others May Live: Gates Volunteer Ambulance Service Golden Anniversary 1964–2014;’ ‘From 2010 to 2016, I also wrote the ‘Past Tense’ local history column in ‘Canandaigua Magazine’ and ‘Rochester Magazine’ which were published by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Q: How do you imagine future historians will describe our Finger Lakes life and community in the years ahead?

A: In the future, I hope that the Finger Lakes region will still be as beautiful and the waters even purer than today. Development around the lakes continues, so it’s up to our elected leaders to keep our environment as their number one concern. As far as our history being told to future generations, I don’t know how they will know about today. We have the greatest communication tools literally at our fingertips, but no one seems to use these tools to record their lives as folks used paper and pencil years ago. Today, things can be deleted and hacked as never before.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My next book is ‘Hinchey: A Pioneer Family’s Legacy in the Town of Gates,’ which was released on June 25 by the Gates Historical Society.

I’m now working on a 25th anniversary retrospective of the Gates Keystone Club Police Pipes and Drums band for publication in March 2024.

And I’m also finishing my own family history. The last piece of the family puzzle is to learn the location of the cemetery in which one of my grandfathers and his brother are buried.

Q: Where can readers purchase or borrow copies of your books?

A: Books are available at the Gates Historical Society gift shop, 634 Hinchey Road; and at the Cheshire Union Gift Shop, 4244 state Route 21, Canandaigua. Most books are also available for loan from the Rochester Public Library, the Wood Library in Canandaigua and the Gates Public Library.