Joseph M. Conforti, a former shoeshine boy from Newark who went on to earn a PhD from Rutgers University, was fascinated with people and the way they live.
Colleagues said Conforti was passionate about both his research and his students; he would gladly extend his office hours to explain contemporary theory or the plight of minorities in urban America. Never one to rush through an explanation, he was often the last to leave the department.
Conforti retired from teaching in 2008, but came back last year to lead one final class when another professor was unable to teach the course.
"Students just adored him," said Naintara Vaid, an associate professor who worked alongside Conforti. "So did the faculty. He was a great teacher."
He was honored by the State University of New York system with a Distinguished Teaching Professorship based in part on written testimonials from students, many of whom credited Conforti for their professional success.
Conforti's son, Michael, 38, of Syosset, said his father grew up poor, often without heat. He saw education as a way out of poverty.
"He used to tell me the toilet water would freeze in the wintertime," the younger Conforti said. "That always stayed with him; he wanted to get as far away from that as possible. He could walk to Rutgers and he didn't want to squander that opportunity."
His son said Conforti was quick to offer advice on everything from money to education. The younger Conforti didn't pursue a college degree but started chipping away at it last year in part to honor his father's memory.
"I do it for my own betterment and to show my children the importance of it," he said. "I'm also doing it to fulfill the promise I made."
Besides his son, Conforti is survived by his second wife, Gisela, stepchildren Peter Marcel of Astoria and Deborah Wack of Coral Gables, Fla., and six grandchildren.
Viewing will be Thursday and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Vernon C. Wagner Funeral Home in Plainview.