200 attend fund-raiser for 'Wild Bill' statue

William "Wild Bill" Guarnere's son Gene and granddaughter Debi Rafferty pose with a life-sized photo of "Wild Bill" during a beef-and-beer fundraiser Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, at Canstatters Volksfest-Verein in Northeast Philadelphia to raise money for a statue. (For the Inquirer/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

The memorial fund-raiser Friday night for William "Wild Bill" Guarnere was anything but black tie, but it was clear he wouldn't have wanted it that way.

About 200 people came to raise money for a statue commemorating the South Philadelphia-born hero, who came back from his World War II exploits in Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division - the one featured in HBO's Band of Brothers - with one leg.

The fund-raiser was hosted by the Guarnere family and City Councilman David Oh at Canstatter Volksfest-Verein, a German banquet facility in Torresdale.

Guarnere's granddaughter Debi Rafferty was the first to mention the idea of a statue to her family, and called Oh to get it started after hearing from an artist interested in doing the work.

"I'm the big mouth," she joked as she greeted guests, adding that she appreciated the irony of hosting a fund-raiser for an American World War II hero in a German hall.

Rafferty wants the statue at Penn's Landing, where it will be easily accessible to both city dwellers and tourists. Other possible sites are in University City, Center City, and South Philadelphia.

If all goes well, she said, the sculpture will be unveiled June 6.

Those in attendance wore outfits ranging from sport jackets and dresses to Army-style fatigues and sweatshirts. The event was informal, appropriate for a man who kept his door open to anyone and everyone.

"My father did everything for Philly," said son Gene Guarnere, 68.

Sculptor Chad Fisher is designing the eight-foot bronze statue free, asking only for $65,000 to cover the material.

"I reached out to the family to see if they had any thoughts on doing a statue," Fisher said. "They were already considering it."

A miniature model of the statue sat greeting guests at the fund-raiser. It depicted Guarnere as an older man, standing with crutches for support.

"It was important to depict Wild Bill at an older age, without a prosthetic," Fisher said. Family members made it clear that they were "very proud that Wild Bill was part of World War II and that he lost a leg over there."

Oh estimates that the city will require an additional $20,000 for upkeep. The family raised about $40,000 before the fund-raiser and expected to raise up to $15,000 by night's end, between the $50-per-plate tickets and a memorabilia auction.

Almost everyone had a Wild Bill story to tell. Jill Horner, a former Miss New Jersey who served as emcee, remembered when he asked her to dance. Would an old man with one leg be able to keep up with her? she wondered. Instead, she could barely keep up with him, she said.

Oh, who knew Guarnere from their South Philadelphia neighborhood, became close with the family when Guarnere called him after the Parking Authority took down his handicapped-parking signs. Oh helped resolve the issue.

Through the event, which featured retired Col. Tim Williams as keynote speaker and acts ranging from the kilt-clad Second Street Irish Society pipe and drum corps to members of the Eagles cheerleading squad, the crowd never quite kept quiet. It was a fitting tribute to a man who, according to Rafferty, "made more noises than a slot machine."

If there was one thing Guarnere wasn't loud about, said his son Gene, it was his time in the war. Whenever his son asked, he'd get a standard answer: "It's over, kid."

To make a donation toward the "Wild Bill" Guarnere statue, visit www.wildbillmemorial.org.

ssmith@phillynews.com @sarahesmith23