Last Monday, on an otherwise quiet summer day, I was invited to tag along with a group of Delaware County residents who were going into Center City to join others from around the Delaware Valley in a peaceful rally to mark the 27th anniversary of the death of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, who died on July 16, 1991.
For several decades, Francis Lazarro “Frank” Rizzo, Sr. (1920–1991) was a dedicated and controversial Philadelphia civic leader, serving as policeman, police commissioner and two-term mayor. Rizzo, who changed from Democrat to Republican, was campaigning to return as mayor when he died.
The rally was meant to simply showcase Rizzo’s true love of Philadelphia and his many accomplishments that made the City of Philadelphia shine on the world stage.
I try my best not to get involved in politics, yet alone Philadelphia politics, but this event sounded way too interesting and colorful to pass up. My weekend had been kind of quiet, and I knew this would put some zest into the week. Also, to be honest, my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) kicked in big time, so off I went!
The rally took place in front of the Rizzo statue, out front of the Municipal Services Building, JFK Boulevard between 15th and Broad streets. The 2,000-pound, 10-foot-tall statue of Rizzo, who rose through the Philadelphia Police Department and served as mayor from 1972 to 1980, was erected on Jan. 1, 1999. Just like the man himself, the huge bronze statue is a larger-than-life powerful figure, a presence commanding passersby to take notice.
For those who don’t remember the hoopla about the Rizzo statue last fall, I’ll give you a refresher, without going into all of the details which you can get by Googling the subject at any time. In a nutshell, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney buckled to pressure and said that he would move the statue to another location because opinions were divided about the controversial former mayor. In turn, many residents decried its impending move, declaring Rizzo’s many accomplishments while he was mayor. Kenney’s camp said the statue removal was only on the table because it was part of the plans to revamp Paine Plaza, where the statue sits, in the same way that Love Park was recently refashioned. However the controversy eventually plays out, Rizzo fans are thrilled that the statue is still in place, especially for occasions like Monday’s event, when people could publicly showcase Frank’s love of Philadelphia and his mark on history.
“You can’t remove or erase history,” a bystander shouted. “Frank Rizzo did a lot of good when he was in charge of this city!”
The dozens who attended this month’s rally seemed as if they couldn’t agree more.
At last Monday’s rally, people talked about how Rizzo brought a wealth of new business to the Philadelphia Naval Yard, his love of the Philadelphia police and his many other pet projects, including The Philadelphia Art Museum, The Philadelphia Airport, The African American Museum, the Mummers Museum, Philadelphia Community College, The Gallery, Tastykake, Queen Village, Philadelphia Community College and making Philadelphia’s health care system one of the most respected in the country. He was also tough on crime and had a no-nonsense attitude toward criminals. I was trying hard to stay neutral on the subject and simply cover the event, but it was becoming more difficult.
The rally was guarded with a shield of Philadelphia police officers on bikes. Prior to the rally, some of the older officers who personally knew Frank Rizzo, talked fondly of the former mayor. Few anti-Rizzo hecklers showed up to counter-protest. In fact, I didn’t notice any. Only a few people, who were already hanging around the plaza, shouted negative remarks at the rally speakers. Something told me that they did that mostly out of boredom and didn’t really care or know about the subject matter.
The rally, orchestrated by Ciao Bella Living Italian Style Inc.’s Barbara Ann Zippi, was emceed by vibrant, popular TV and radio personality Dom Giordano of WPHT 1210 AM. Dom led the crowd, waving both American and Italian flags, in singing the national Anthem to open the rally and singing “God Bless America” to close it. He spoke about his own father, a Philadelphia police officer, and why he highly respected Rizzo.
“This statue belongs right here,” Giordano told the crowd, invoking a loud round of applause and shouts of approval from both the gathered crowd and passersby. “Moving it would be an unfortunate attempt to erase history.”
The event was hosted by Norristown Ambassador Hank Cisco, 95. Norristown is the only municipality in America that has an ambassador. Known for his quick wit and energetic style, the nonagenarian is a former boxer and TV host of “The Hank Cisco Show.” When his boxing days were over, the charismatic Cisco served Norristown for more than 25 years in law enforcement, ascending through the ranks from a beat cop to Montgomery County juvenile detective. He later starting the Norristown Police Athletic League boxing program. He is also a huge Frank Rizzo fan. Although his daughter, Carol Griffith, tried to keep her father out of the extreme heat from the noon sun that day, Cisco was obviously not going to allow the weather to dictate his attendance at a rally that was this important to him.
Other speakers at the rally included Jody Della Barba, Frank’s longtime gatekeeper who was with him on the day he passed away; Capt. Louis Cavaliere, U.S. Navy retired and chair of The Chapel of the Four Chaplains in the Philadelphia Navy Yard; and Joseph Gale of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.
“There will never be another mayor like Frank Rizzo,” Gale told the crowd. “He had common sense and was a populist mayor who put people before politics. That is rarely heard of today.”
“Because of Frank Rizzo, six ships and $5 billion worth of business came to the Navy Yard,” Cavaliere stated when it was his turn to speak. “He created jobs for 13,000 people.”
Hank Cisco served as a pall bearer at Rizzo’s funeral.
“Twenty-seven years ago, Philadelphia stood still,” the Norristown ambassador told the crowd. “People lined up on both sides of Broad Street, some knelt and most cried. I will never forget that day. Frank Rizzo was a friend, a police officer, a politician father, husband, police commissioner and a gentleman.”
In an ironic twist of fate, Carmella Rizzo, 101, died on July 15, on the day before the rally and one day short of the 27th anniversary of her husband’s death. No one at the rally last Monday seemed to know Frank’s widow had passed away on the previous day, or if they did, they didn’t announce it. I only found this out days later. Her funeral Mass was last Friday at Our Mother of Consolation Church, followed by burial at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. When I found all this out, I also got my answer about why former longtime Philadelphia council member Frank Rizzo Jr. was not at the rally honoring his father. I had overheard people wondering this, but now we had the reason.
As peacefully and as quietly as the rally started, everyone folded their chairs, gathered their things and left when it was over, respectfully and orderly — just like Frank Rizzo would have wanted it. Afterward, I headed down to Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, “Rizzo Land,” with my Delco friends for a quick lunch. I learned a lot about Frank Rizzo and the history of Philadelphia that day. Twenty-seven years later and his legacy is as large, powerful and influential, as his life was in Philadelphia.