June 1, 2009

Effort underway to honor the late Julie Larese

Though powerbroker Julie Larese died 11 years ago, his memory lives.

Organizers of the Bristol Tramps Sports Reunion, established 39 years ago by Larese and others, are pushing to mark its 40th anniversary with a new memorial at Rockwell Park to honor Larese.

Donna Papazian, who serves on the Tramps oversight committee, said the group hopes to erect “a sizeable stone with a bronze plaque” at the West End park that Larese loved.

Park commissioners said they’ll consider it, but they can’t take any action until next Monday, too late to have the memorial in place before the 40th anniversary Tramps Reunion dinner in April.

Pat Nelligan, a park commissioner, said the city’s rules require they delay at least a year before doing anything to honor someone living or dead.

There is already a Larese Way at the historic park, a somewhat deceptive sign that names the parking lot as a sort of street. It’s been there for a decade.

But Papazian said that Larese, an old-school philanthropist who pulled many strings in Bristol during his 80 years, deserves something better.

She said the plaque could have his name, birth and death dates and some information about Larese.

Larese owned a popular gas station in his day, but was best known for his informal  meetings with a wide range of friends, many of whom he’d know since growing up in the West End. He was pals with mayors and mechanics, famously ready to a favor for any of them and perhaps ask for one for someone else on occasion.

Papazian said the Tramps hoped to put up the marker in time for Larese’s July 16 birthday, but park rules made that impossible.

The Tramps began in 1970 when Larese and some friends started talking at Netti’s Grinder Shop on Middle Street and at Larese’s barn on East Main Street in Forestville. It’s become an annual tradition to recognize athletes and teams that played key roles in the city’s sports history.

Here's a story that reporter Jackie Majerus wrote in 1998 about Larese:

God must have needed a favor.

His once mighty frame broken by disease, 80-year-old Bristol powerbroker Julie Larese died Sunday.

But his legend lives.

Famed for his generosity, behind-the-scenes clout and ardent support for his hometown, Larese leaves behind a community in grief.

"He was larger than life," said the Rev. Brian Shaw, a friend for more than 30 years. "No pretensions about him."

"Julie was the man. He had all the connections. People wanted to be a friend of Julie's," said Stretch Norton, a former mayor and councilman.

Mayor Frank Nicastro said people looked up to Larese in awe.

"He was a giant," the mayor said.

Born in the West End, Larese hadn't lived in Bristol for decades, but was fond of saying, "It's my town."

He grew up here, attended local schools and ran a gas station on Memorial Boulevard for years. He got his hair cut at Patsy Nocera's barbershop in Forestville, and held court nearby in a dusty old garage he called "the barn."

"He was the godfather to everybody," said Tom Murrone, a lifelong friend. "When somebody needed something or somebody had a problem, Julie found a way to fix it."

Murrone said, "He gave you that feeling that you couldn't lose when you were with him."

Marion Gifford, Larese's only child, said her father "was a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. His innumerable friends helped him help others, often from his oversized recliner at 'the barn.'"

Gifford's mother, and Larese's first wife, Gladys, died in 1982.

In 1983, Larese married his longtime business partner, Jackie Clauss, and moved to Plantsville. They'd been together since 1943.

Jackie Larese stayed at his side as his health steadily declined in recent years. She had the tough job of keeping a throng of well wishers away so he could get desperately needed rest.

"Don't make him a saint," Jackie Larese said Sunday. "He was a person like the rest of us. He just had a lot of fun and told a lot of stories."

Jackie Larese said her husband had a knack for getting people to do what he wanted.

"He just had that persuasive way about him," she said. "Everybody did anything that he asked them to."

A helping hand

Tales of Larese's generosity could fill volumes.

"This guy would give you the shirt off his back," said Norton.

When big bands played at Lake Compounce, Larese helped the Nortons out by picking up musicians at the train station in Hartford.

"Julie had these big cars," Norton recalled. "He made it possible for Tommy Dorsey to play one night."

Even in the days of gas rationing, it wasn't a problem because Larese owned a gas station, Norton said, and was given leeway for some waste.

When Norton asked his friend if there was enough fuel to get performers, Larese said, "Don't worry, chalk it up to spillage."

Stephen Barberino Sr., a longtime friend, said Larese helped out after the Barberino family bought the park from the Nortons.

"Anything that we needed, we'd ask Julie," said Barberino. "If he had it, he would help us."

"As sick as he was, he always wanted to see that the Lake would survive," Barberino said.

"He was a real friend, especially in a crisis," said Shaw, describing Larese's work as "genuine good Christian charity."

The extent of Larese's personal charity will never be known, many say. Without fanfare, he quietly got things done.

"He was a man of his word," said Jesse Morton, a longtime friend

Though he could have made a killing as a local consultant, he never asked favors for himself.

A local sage

Priests and politicians -- and ordinary folks -- flocked to Larese for counsel.

"No matter what concerns I had, in any area, he always seemed to have just the right kind of answer," Morton said. "He was a very wise man."

Shaw, pastor at St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, said he'd known Larese since 1966, when he was a priest at St. Matthew Church in Forestville.

"His heart was as big as his body," Shaw said. "He was just a thoroughly good man."

Larese could be very funny, Shaw said, regaling listeners with story after story.

"He was also very good for practical advice," the priest said, on how to handle situations or people. "He was a person to think it through with."

Larese is "somebody in the lore of Bristol that will never be replaced," said Shaw.

His town

For years, Larese ran Larese's Tydol Service, a gas station on Memorial Boulevard.

"We were the busiest station in town," said Vito "Ming" Micucci, who worked for Larese as a teenager in the late '40s and early '50s. "Julie was a top-notch mechanic."

Larese stopped at St. Anthony's Church on his way to work every morning and usually brought donuts in for his workers. At lunch, he showed up with grinders, and he often took them to see games at Yankee Stadium.

But Micucci, who worked long hours at the station, said he never knew how much his pay would be.

"Your salary was based on what he figured you were worth that week," Micucci said. "If he shortchanged you, you'd get it back (another time.)"

And the worker who didn't wipe the tools clean felt Larese's wrath, Micucci said, and might get a punch in the nose.

"Nobody fooled around with this guy," Micucci said.

Micucci said city cops frequented the station.

"The police chiefs always stopped in, in the morning to talk to him," said Micucci. "He threw a lot of weight around town."

Gifford said she remembers helping clean squad cars every Saturday at her father's station. Her dad had the contract to clean the cruisers, she said, and it was her job to vacuum them.

"He had a genuine love of hometown," said Shaw. "He really loved the city of Bristol. It was always Bristol this, Bristol that. That was no game."

Nicastro said everybody knew Larese.

"He was Mr. West End," said Nicastro. "There wasn't anybody on the West End that didn't known Julie Larese."

Micucci said once a driver sideswiped his car on Main Street. He got the license plate number and showed it to his boss.

Larese recognized the number as a judge's tag and told him to get the car repaired and deliver a bill to the judge's secretary.

"I got my car fixed," said Micucci. "Julie had his hands into everything that happened around town."

Twice in the last 15 years, Larese organized and paid for parties at Muzzy Field -- great big bashes for the West End. Thousands showed up.

The man who made Bristol famous for sports loved the arts, too.

Until a couple years ago, Larese was active on the board of directors at the New England Carousel Museum.

Local artist Cortlandt Hull said Larese encouraged his expansion plans for his Witch's Dungeon Classic Horror Museum. Once, Larese helped out by securing a tent for a special event at the museum, Hull said.

"I appreciate his kindness greatly," said Hull. "It's nice to know there are people in town that are supportive of the arts."

Growing up

The son of an Italian immigrant midwife and a stone mason, Larese was born at 225 Park St., a two story stucco home a few blocks from Rockwell Park.

The yard was filled with fruit trees -- plum, apple, and pear, said his sister, Mary Larese. The family was the only one in the neighborhood from northern Italy.

In the small creek that ran in front of the family home, his mother, Orsola, did the washing for the wealthy Rockwell and Page families.

Giovanni, or John, the father, did much of the stone work in Rockwell Park.

Orsola Larese was out picking grapes the day her only son was born.

Mary Larese said she and her little brother Julie were always together when they grew up on Park Street.

"He was the best brother there ever was," she said. "Everybody should have a brother like Julie."

The two went swimming every afternoon in the summer at the Rockwell Park lagoon, Mary Larese said.

Even in his youth, people looked to Julie Larese for guidance and help, according to his sister.

"It just grew with him," she said. "He did everything for everybody. I never heard of one person he refused to help if he could possibly do it."

Mary Larese said people rushed to help when they found out who her brother was.

"They would all be glad to know us because we were his sisters," she said.

Mary Larese said her brother was "a good kid."

"If he couldn't do it himself, he knew who could do it for you," said Mary Larese.

A great big man

"Julie could eat like a horse," said Norton, recalling a restaurant meal in the mid-'40s when Larese ate two huge steaks in one sitting.

Larese liked to eat at the old Dom's restaurant in Forestville center, frequently picking up the tab for other diners, even strangers, said Micucci.

His daughter said he weighed more than 300 pounds in his prime.

"I was seven years old before I learned that grown people don't eat a whole pie," Gifford said. "He certainly loved to eat."

Connections

"He was very, very street smart - the ultimate," said Norton.

Larese, who favored a Lincoln Continental, always drove fast, said Norton. He knew all the cops and had done so many favors for them that there was little chance of being ticketed.

"If it was Julie, why it was all right," Norton said.

Larese wasn't adverse to dealing with underworld figures, Norton said, if it was necessary.

"He was never part of their operation," said Norton. "He just knew them. He was on friendly terms with them. He had to, to promote his wrestling matches."

Larese talked tough, and liked to make references to his "Sicilian friends."

On several occasions in recent years, he'd point his finger like a gun and say with a sly smile, "I can't do it anymore, but I can get it down."

He cultivated a mystique that left some wondering just what it was that he could get done.

"Julie could talk like that and get away with it because you never knew if he was serious. There was more respect for his potential than anything he ever did," said Norton.

"The only time he got tough was when somebody owed him something, like a bill," said Norton.

In those cases, Norton said, Larese would ask the offender if they wanted to walk around with two broken legs. But Norton said he didn't think he ever followed through.

"He didn't have to," said Norton. "They just believed him. People didn't fool around."

Political influence

Larese never held public office, and wasn't ever on a city board, but it didn't matter. He still wielded more power than most any politician or police chief.

"He didn't have to be (on any board)," Norton explained. "He'd tell 'em what he wanted. He had influence with a lot of the mayors, especially the Italian mayors."

Finance board Chairman John Letizia recalled a meeting during John Leone's tenure as mayor. Leone's secretary peeked into the session and told Leone that Larese was on the phone.

"He jumped right up," Letizia said. "He took that call."

Larese always contributed to Norton's campaigns, Norton said, but backed former Frank Longo, the city's first Italian mayor, in his successful bid to unseat Norton from the mayor's post.

"He told me, 'Blood's thicker than water,'" Norton said. "I got over it. I could never feel bad at Julie. that was part of his magic."

Larese was smart, and usually right about what he wanted for the city, said Norton.

"Let's put it politely," said Norton with a grin. "He was a lobbyist."

Nicastro said, "He never came to me and asked for a personal favor. Not once."

Morton said Larese "always had the right kind of approach. He knew who to talk to and he knew how to talk to people."

The carnival

In the carnival business they called Lincoln Amusements, Julie and Jackie Larese tried very hard to run a safe show, his daughter said. She said he helped show state police how to inspect carnival rides.

"He was very involved in the creation of safety standards for the industry," said Gifford.

Norton said Larese knew all the inspectors ©© something that really helped when Norton worked feverishly to get Lake Compounce open for a weekend in 1992 to keep the record as the nation's longest continuously operated park.

There was one snag: the rides hadn't been checked over.

Because Larese intervened, the inspectors arrived in the nick of time, Norton said, eyeing the rides in the morning so the place could open that afternoon.

Churches or anyone who held a benefit carnival could get help from Larese, according to Shaw.

"In the carnival business, he was looked upon as the great sage, the wise man," said Shaw.

Morton said Larese always kept his carnival equipment painted and in good condition.

"He had the nicest stuff out there," Morton said.

Micucci said Larese was generous with rides and food.

"Everybody he knew always got tickets to the carnival," Micucci said.

The Barn

A rundown garage at 199 East Main St., Forestville is where Larese spent much of his time.

"It was like a headquarters of all kinds," said Norton.

Inside the cluttered and dusty place he called "the barn," overstuffed rockers were lined up for the steady stream of callers.

Morton, who often pulled the night shift as owner of Academy Auto Sales in Forestville, said he used to spend three or four nights a week at "the barn" just to visit Larese, often closing up shop with him in the wee hours of the morning.

"I could never get enough of his company," Morton said.

Tributes

Larese Way, the street named for Larese that leads into Rockwell Park, is wrong, his daughter said. It should be a possessive: Larese's Way.

"It was Daddy's way or no way," she said.

In recent years, the Bristol Sports Reunion -- started almost 30 years ago to honor local sports heroes -- has been honoring Larese, the reunion committee's "chairman of the board."

Just last month, about 400 people jammed the Sophia Room to attend the dinner. Larese, who in years past greeted people at the door, was at the head table, his oxygen tank behind him.

For more than an hour, Larese sat at his place of honor in front while a steady stream of well wishers -- former jocks, business leaders, city councilmen and others -- paid him homage.

Gifford, who attended the annual dinner for the first time this year, said she's glad her father lived to see those tributes.

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Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Goody, another photo op for Artie

Concerned Conservative said...

Great article Steve. Julie was a great guy and a great friend to people.

Anonymous said...

That is a hell of a good story.

Anonymous said...

His name does not belong in our parks. How about someplace else?