Rockford’s Fourth of July fireworks event isn’t the only celebration that bears Joe Marino’s fingerprints. For more than 50 years, he’s volunteered his time to support local traditions, from the Festival of Lights to Festa Italiana.
Every summer, thousands of people congregate in downtown Rockford to celebrate Fourth of July festivities. Among them is the man responsible for generating all the “oohs” and “ahhs.” While all other eyes are watching the brilliant colors streak across the night sky, Joe Marino pays little attention to the fireworks. He’s watching the people. “He loves to watch people enjoy fireworks,” says his son, Mike Marino. “Those are his fireworks.”
It’s been that way since 1963, when then-Rockford Mayor Ben Schleicher first approached Marino to ask if he would consider organizing the special event. It would be a big job, no doubt, but one that Marino seemed well-equipped to handle. He liked challenges and loved his country. And, it was a matter of pride.
“I had something to prove, to myself and to my community,” Marino says. “Here was an Italian boy from the wrong side of the tracks, supposedly. I felt strongly that I owed my country this celebration.”
And so, for the past 48 years, Marino has affectionately been known as “Mr. Fourth of July.” It’s an appropriate nickname for a patriotic man whose effervescent personality shines brighter than the pyrotechnics.
“This is the country that gave my immigrant parents an opportunity to come here and build better lives for themselves,” Marino says. “As long as I’m alive, I will celebrate that opportunity.”
Marino’s enthusiasm spills into other projects as well. From Festa Italiana and the Italian Hall of Fame to the Rockford Air Show committee, the Festival of Lights at Christmastime and the yearly patriotic prayer breakfast that he established, his fingerprints are all over Rockford’s contemporary culture.
“Joe has brought special events to the community that would not have existed, or would have been held on a much smaller scale,” says longtime friend Webbs Norman, retired executive director of the Rockford Park District. “His ability to get volunteers to commit time, energy and talent is just wonderful.”
Marino has played an integral role for 20 years in the park district’s annual Festival of Lights at Sinnissippi Park. With holiday displays, prancing reindeer and an appearance from old St. Nick, the festival, which opens each year in late November, is just one more way for Marino to spread holiday cheer to the masses. He can’t help it. Even at age 84, he’s still a kid at heart.
“He doesn’t even know he’s 84,” jokes Norman. “He doesn’t keep track, because he has such a love for life and love for this community. It’s what keeps his burner burning.”
Marino has no intention of slowing down anytime soon, and still works a full-time job on top of his volunteer projects. Working is the air he breathes. “I feel strongly that when you retire, you die,” he says. “Challenges make life worth living.”
Marino has never been afraid of challenges, even as a small child. His parents, Jasper and Francis Marino, were immigrants from Palermo, Italy. They reared six children, including Joe, on Rockford’s west side, during the Great Depression. The family didn’t have much, and Marino credits his impoverished upbringing for the generous attitude he holds today.
“Circumstances dictated what we would receive at Christmas, and how we would celebrate it,” he says. “That’s why I want to give back to others, to make sure they enjoy the holidays. When you don’t have much, you come to appreciate things that are free in the community.”
His fondest childhood memories include time spent with “famiglia,” the Italian word for family. The only sibling in his family still living, Marino recalls being a typical boy who relished time outdoors playing basketball and baseball on the neighborhood playgrounds. Known for being gregarious, he also liked to perform in school plays. “I was a ham, even then,” he says. To earn money, he peddled newspapers on street corners.
After high school, Marino spent two years in the U.S. Navy, on the destroyer USS Henderson, which operated in the South Pacific during World War II. He was honorably discharged in 1946 and received the Victory Medal, American Area Campaign Medal and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.
Upon his return to Rockford, he worked in real estate for two years, before moving on to Hanley Furniture, where he spent two decades as a sales manager. He also served as the store’s TV pitch man. One Saturday night, he was showcasing a refrigerator on live TV when he opened its door and a shelf fell to the floor. Not missing a beat, Marino quipped, “Everything is coming down at Hanley Furniture.”
“The thing that has kept Joe going, and endeared him to so many people, is his sense of humor,” Norman says. “He’s always taken what he was doing seriously, but not himself. That’s the backbone of his success.”
For the past 26 years, Marino has been the public relations director of Project First Rate, a community service division of the area’s trade unions coalition. He says the job has meant more to him than just a steady paycheck. “If I didn’t have this job, I would have been dead a long time ago,” he says. “It keeps you going, it keeps you active, and it gives you a purpose in life.”
As does family. Marino has been married twice and is a doting father to six children and 11 grandchildren.
“I couldn’t ask for a better stepdad,” says Wendie Thorpe, who works as Marino’s executive assistant. “When we needed something, he never blinked an eye. His No. 1 priority has always been his family.”
Marino also is known for his willingness to lend a hand to those in need. “My dad is a very generous and compassionate person, almost to a fault,” says Mike, who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “When he sees someone struggling, or down on their luck, he embraces them. He slips them a few bucks for shoveling snow or just gives them some kind words. He talks to them like they are the president of a bank. I’ve seen him do that for years.”
Fourth of July
When Marino took over the fireworks show, he had a budget of $1,200. “Those were the days you lit the shells by hand and you ran away, hoping the shells went straight up,” he laughs. Now, nearly 47 years later, the 30-minute display is one of the biggest and best around. With a budget of $63,000, the show features more than 4,000 shells, 2,000 of which go off during the three-minute finale.
But Marino and the Fourth of July Committee have survived some tough times. In 1979, the show was nearly canceled due to a lack of funds, until Marino took out a second mortgage on his house to pay for the fireworks – a move he says he would do again. “I feel that strongly about it.”
Mike was 6 years old when his father took over the fireworks show. He has seen the good times – and bad times – that his father has endured. “I don’t know if it’s possible to put into words the joy it gives him to bring this celebration to the community,” he says. “But I remember the times my dad would sweat out the weather forecast, or sweat it out financially to pay the bills. He’s really proud of the fact that it has not taken any tax support to put the show on.”
“It took a lot of time and effort on Joe’s part to increase the support of the municipal groups before it became an accepted part of our culture,” Norman says. “He’s had a lot of face-to-face discussions over the years to get the support needed for an event that gathers 100,000 people together downtown.”
Marino knows he can’t do it alone. He relies greatly on the help of volunteers and donors, and says that he’s “cajoled” nearly everyone in town. Many contend that it’s hard to say “no” to the affable Marino, who likes to conduct his business at one of many local restaurants. “You’d be surprised what you can get done over a cup of coffee and a Swedish pancake,” he says.
It’s become increasingly difficult, however, to come up with the needed funds over the past few years. “If we can break even each year, we’re happy,” Marino says. He and the committee have implemented many changes, in an attempt to attract more participation, including teaming up with media partners to broadcast the fireworks on television and radio for shut-ins and others who can’t attend in person.
The Festival of Lights has endured its share of financial hardships as well. Numbers have dwindled and so has community support, but Marino believes the show must go on. Visitors are asked to make a small donation to help offset event costs.
“This is a community event, and the community should help support it,” he says. “The Festival of Lights is an opportunity for a family to come out and enjoy an event without having to pay an arm and a leg. When you see the kids’ eyes light up and hear the ‘oohs,’ it makes it all worth it to me.”
Still, there are times when it all becomes too much, even for the spunky Marino.
“He always says, ‘This is my last year,’” says Ray Gaziano, a 30-year Fourth of July volunteer. But he adds that it would be difficult for Marino to walk away. “He’s still here, isn’t he? He’s got the city at heart.”
Marino has received numerous accolades for his volunteer efforts through the years. He’s been presented with a key to the city, been named Rockford’s Man of the Year, and been recognized by countless organizations, including the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Marine Corps, Rockford Area Crime Stoppers and Rockford Park District.
Earlier this year, the park district gathered a group of private citizens to honor Marino’s extraordinary community service. On July 4, a life-sized bronze statue of Marino was unveiled at the renamed Joe Marino Park, at the corner of East State and Water streets, in an emotional ceremony attended by family, friends and various community members. “No one deserves it more than Joe,” says Norman.
Marino had no knowledge of the statue during the many months of preparation. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. “I don’t feel any more or less important, but I do feel extremely grateful. An individual’s work is what he does for other people.”
The park is located around the corner from Marino’s downtown office. He stops by often to visit the statue he calls ‘Joey.’ “It’s his Oscar,” says Thorpe. “He’s so proud of it.”
The celebration was made more meaningful for Marino because he unveiled the statue with Mike, who came from California to pay tribute to his father with the elegant words that are displayed on a plaque located on the base of the sculpture:
“A lifelong Rockford resident and beloved civic leader who championed community celebrations and festivals for half a century. His leadership inspired generations of local children and adults to enthusiastically embrace their American values of love, honor and service to their city, country and families.”
Fitting words to describe the man known as Mr. Fourth of July. ❚