WELLSBURG - For the many who knew Bill Furioli, it was difficult to separate him from the Brooke County Special Olympics program, which he directed for 26 years.
Furioli died Wednesday, leaving behind not only his wife of 42 years and three daughters - Cathy, Sara and Jenna - who worked closely with him in the program, but also many Special Olympics athletes of all ages, their parents and other supporters who became their extended family.
"He treated everybody like family. We felt like we were all family," said Judy Ambrose of Weirton, mother of Heather, a Special Olympics athlete for 18 years, and volunteer publicity coordinator for the program.
She added Furioli and his family also have reached out to many other young people, including many who consider them honorary parents or grandparents.
Lisa Andriano of Follansbee, mother of Mary, a Special Olympian for 32 years, said of Furioli and his family, "They treated the Special Olympians like they were their own children. They'd bend over backwards for all of them. I feel like he was a father to them all."
Ambrose said, "He was really a good person. He always had a nice word for the kids."
She and others said Furioli treated his athletes with respect and they returned it.
"They really respected him and often would say they needed to check something with Bill," Ambrose said.
Laura Henthorn of Follansbee, whose daughter Margie has been a Special Olympian for 15 years, said Bill and his family have always been consistent where rules were concerned and saw that every athlete received equal opportunity to compete and receive recognition.
Andriano, who also was a volunteer treasurer for Brooke County Special Olympics, said Furioli took over the program at a time when it was declining. The program needed a director who could devote himself to it full-time, and Furioli was able to do that, she said.
Helen said after surviving a series of heart attacks at age 36, her husband had left his job at Eagle Manufacturing and was on disability when he was approached to coach a Special Olympics basketball team in a benefit game against the Brooke County Sheriff's Department.
After becoming director, Furioli introduced several sports to the program, Andriano recalled.
Furioli also prepared Brooke County Special Olympians to compete in the Special Olympic World Games in North Carolina in 1999 and Ireland in 2003. At each event he also was chosen to coach teams representing the U.S. and in 2007, he served as an assistant coach for the U.S. bowling team at the World Games in China.
While enthusiastic about his participation in all of the events, he lamented in 2003 that other experienced West Virginia Special Olympics coaches hadn't yet participated in a World Games event and that no Brooke County athletes were selected for the 2007 games.
After accompanying Brooke County Special Olympians to many regional and state events and the two World Games, he would be going to China without them, he noted.
Helen said her husband said very little about his health problems, which included poor circulation, neuropathy and diabetes.
Henthorn agreed, saying, "A lot of people didn't realize how bad he was. I didn't know how bad for a long time myself."
"He was always up, even when he could barely walk. He wanted to be there for the kids," said Ambrose.
During a 2007 interview, Furioli said while attending the World Games in China, he became dehydrated and weak from insufficient hydration. Organizers offered to arrange a flight home, but he insisted on staying to fulfill his coaching duties.
Furioli took kidney dialysis equipment with him to the West Virginia Special Olympics Fall Games.
Helen said more recently, his foot had to be amputated. She said when doctors recommended amputating his leg also, he chose not to fight any longer.
Helen said after returning home from a skilled care unit on Monday, he welcomed visits from many family members and friends, aware that death was near.
That knowledge allowed Furioli, who was 68, to participate in his final arrangements. He insisted that instead of a suit, he wear his Brooke County Special Olympics shirt. In addition, long-time Brooke County Special Olympics athlete Ronnie Miller and Bill Elcesser, a volunteer coach and parent of a Special Olympian, will be among his pall bearers.
The first half-hour of visitation at Reasner Funeral Home, from 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, has been reserved for Special Olympics athletes and coaches, though they also may join others from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at the funeral home, where services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Over the years Furioli's three daughters, Cathy, Sara and Jenna, have grown from young spectators to volunteer coaches and assistants.
Helen said in keeping with another of her husband's final wishes, she has pledged to remain involved with Special Olympics.
She said her husband also wanted the community to know how much he appreciated their support of Special Olympics.
"Bill was always thrilled by the support he received from the people of Brooke County," she said.
(Scott can be contacted at email@example.com)