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Remembering Frank Rizzo

Philadelphians either loved or hated Frank L. Rizzo’s outspoken ways, but his brother recalled a different side to the former mayor and police commissioner.

Joe Rizzo, the former fire commissioner who still works as an investigator for the law firm Cozen O’Connor, remembers his older brother routinely approving transfer requests for cops and firemen and feeding and talking to his parrot.

“He had a roar like a lion, but he had a heart like a soft marshmallow,” he said.

The younger Rizzo spoke on Saturday afternoon at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the ex-mayor’s death.

Rizzocrats gathered in front of a statue of him. It stands on the steps outside the Municipal Services Building near Broad Street and JFK Boulevard.

Frank L. Rizzo served as police commissioner before being elected mayor in 1971.

He served two four-year terms, then tried to regain the job in 1983, ’87 and ‘91.

He won the Republican primary in ’91 and was to face Democrat Ed Rendell in the general election, but he died of a heart attack in his campaign headquarters on July 16 of that year.

After a funeral Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, some 200,000 people lined the streets as his body was driven to its final resting place at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham.

Rizzo loyalists still miss their man.

“I was one of the luckiest men in the world to have a brother like Frank Rizzo,” Joe Rizzo said.

The day started with the local GOP Riders motorcycle club traveling from Rizzo’s gravesite at Holy Sepulchre to the MSB. It ended with a Mass celebrated in his memory at South Philadelphia’s St. Monica Church, which Rizzo helped rebuild after a fire four decades ago.

Dom Giordano, who hosts a weekday morning show on WPHT (1210 AM), was master of ceremonies outside the MSB.

Rizzo was a strong supporter of the Mummers Parade, and the reigning champion Quaker City String Band played for the crowd. Katy Siu sang the national anthem, God Bless America and How Great Thou Art.

Among those who spoke of their affection for Rizzo were City Councilman Frank Rizzo, the late mayor’s son; former District Attorney Lynne Abraham; former Police Commissioner Joe O’Neill; retired Channel 3 reporter Robin Mackintosh; Oscar Vance, chief of the Montgomery County detectives office; and ward leader Bill Pettigrew.

Abraham read some colorful quotes — but not the most colorful — contained in a book published by Rizzo’s nemesis, the ultra-liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Rizzo sided with people being intimidated by the criminal element.

“If I were you, I’d grab one of those big baseball bats and lay right into the sides of their heads,” the old Philadelphia Bulletin quoted him in 1975. “If anything happens to you, you come to my office, and I’ll come in that courtroom. I’ll be your lawyer.”

The late mayor’s son and brother placed a wreath next to the statue. His 94-year-old widow, Carmella, was unable to attend.

Also in attendance were Republican mayoral candidate Karen Brown; GOP Council at-large candidates Joe McColgan and Al Taubenberger; former state Sen. Bob Rovner; Common Pleas Court Judge Annette Rizzo (no relation); and Tony Fulwood, Rizzo’s former bodyguard.

A fire truck was parked on the street with a sign that read, “Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. One of Philadelphia’s Finest. Friend of Police and Firefighters.”

There was also a strong contingent from Montgomery County. In addition to Vance, the group included the police and fire chiefs of Norristown and that city’s ambassador, Frank “Cisco” Ciaccio. Montgomery County Sheriff Eileen Behr led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Vance recalled that Rizzo once told him that Philadelphia’s criminals — he called them “crumb-bums” — had stolen everything from the city and were now crossing City Avenue into Montgomery County.

“He was a great policeman, a great commissioner and also a great mayor,” Vance said.

Taubenberger, the Council candidate and president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, knew Rizzo as someone who loved people and worked hard on the campaign trail. He credited the former mayor with providing the Chamber’s headquarters on Roosevelt Boulevard.

In 1987, Taubenberger and former congressman Charlie Dougherty were among those helping Rizzo’s campaign in the Northeast. Getting people to register Republican and vote for Rizzo was easy because of the unpopularity of Mayor Wilson Goode and the Northeast’s longtime support of Rizzo’s campaigns.

“People really loved him,” Taubenberger said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com

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