From the archives: Group lays groundwork for Rizzo monument

This story was originally published on March 2, 1992. It was reposted after debate ensued over whether Frank L. Rizzo's Center City statue should be changed or removed.

They honored him in their words and in their hearts.

And now they seek to honor him in bronze - a statue to commemorate the late Frank L. Rizzo, who dominated the city as policeman, politician and mayor.

More than seven months after his death, such a monument is the special project of a group of Philadelphians whose members include Rizzo's personal secretary and a retired policeman who remains grateful to Rizzo for a favor done nearly two decades ago.

Acting with the consent of the Rizzo family, they are trying to raise money for a memorial that would stand in South Philadelphia, where Rizzo was born and where he always maintained a strong following. The monument would be paid for by contributions from the people who loved him. The group has raised about $500 of the $100,000 it might need.

"We don't expect to do it within a few months," Jody Della Barba said in a recent interview. "If it takes two or three years, we want the best. "

She and Joseph Ricci laid out plans for the memorial in the living room of Ricci's South Philadelphia rowhouse. Della Barba, 37, lost her favorite job as personal secretary to Rizzo when he died. Ricci is an ex-officer who spent 20 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, serving during the four years Rizzowas police commissioner. He retired in 1979.

Camera icon Vicki valerio / Staff Photographer
Alex Generalis and Tom Miles with a prototype of the statue they and others hope to put up in South Philadelphia.

He kept thinking about Rizzo after the Republican mayoral nominee collapsed and died of a heart attack July 16 in the midst of his fifth mayoral campaign. Ricci grieved and in his grief imagined a monument to the man he had so admired.

When he approached the Rizzo family about it, he was referred to the professional sculpture studio Miles & Generalis, which also had expressed an interest in such a statue.

They're all working together now.

Marconi Plaza site eyed

Based on their ideas and descriptions, it is possible to picture the likeness that may one day grace a black granite base in Marconi Plaza, although many of the details - including the one about the base - are subject to change. Rizzo would stand larger than life (which means larger than 6 feet, 2 1/2 inches), square-faced, robust and carefully groomed in bronze, presiding over what is now a grassy knoll in the plaza, near the southwest corner of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.

The city's first Italian-American mayor would be in good company. Across the street is Guglielmo Marconi, "the father of modern communications," as the base of his statue reads. And just south of the site is Columbus.

The South Philadelphia location is significant because it says something about the kind of man Rizzo was, Della Barba says. He was born on Rosewood Street and went to Mass at St. Monica's Church, where Della Barba continues to go. "He never, ever forgot where he came from," she said.

The Rizzo family is supportive of the campaign, and Frank Rizzo Jr. is involved as a consultant. "How could you not be happy when people like this" voluntarily attempt to memorialize your father, he said. "I appreciate it. So do my mother and my sister. "

Park group supports plan

The park support group, Friends of Marconi Plaza, also has embraced the idea. Explained Connie Carlson, president of the group, "We think that Rizzo was larger than life, and he should be memorialized. "

The Fairmount Park Commission approved the concept in December, but will soon review a more definitive proposal. The city Art Commission must review it, too. Ricci and Della Barba say they also need a city permit to install the monument.

Rizzo, loved and admired, was also hated and opposed. Yet Ricci and Della Barba say they haven't encountered animosity toward their statue plan. A more pressing concern has been apathy. "I expected more of a response," Ricci said.

Ricci came to know Frank Rizzo as a police officer. He came to love Rizzo as Ricci steered visiting celebrities to the police and firefighters' ward at Philadelphia General Hospital. Minnie Pearl and Rocky Graziano came to see sick and wounded police officers in the 1970s because Ricci asked them to. But he says he was able to persuade the stars to help because of Rizzo, mayor at the time.

"Big Frank Rizzo, my friend, gave me a letter of introduction to go backstage and talk to these people," Ricci said. "He went out of his way to see that these guys helped me. "

Ricci called him Mr. Rizzo, or Your Honor, but if he saw him on the street he sometimes called him Frank.

Jody Della Barba always called him Mayor.

Once, when her old English sheepdog Figaro didn't come home, Rizzo used his radio talk show to try to find her pet. He offered a reward, this man who took his own Irish terrier, Casey, to get chemotherapy every week and sobbed when the dog died.

"Some people never get to meet their hero, and I got to work for mine," Della Barba said.

At a recent meeting, the sculptor Alex Generalis, who grew up in South Philadelphia, showed the group and Frank Rizzo Jr. a very rough plaster model of Rizzo. Generalis and his partner, Thomas M. Miles, are doing the design work and making a 24-inch clay model of Rizzo for free. No pun intended, but they made it clear their work had not been set in stone.

Their model showed Rizzo with his jacket open, and his son suggested it be

closed. His father was too fastidious a dresser to look sloppy. Rizzo's son also suggested that the bronze Rizzo have one hand outstretched.

"I remember my dad walking down the street extending his hand to shake someone else's," he explained later as emotion gripped his throat.

Frank Rizzo Jr. said there is talk of a fund-raising event to raise money for the monument and also to repay campaign debts and loans. "We're thinking of a Spectrum event, a major gala that would raise money," he said.

But the talk hasn't gelled into anything specific yet.

In the meantime, Della Barba is collecting money for the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Statue Fund through newspaper ads and word-of-mouth, but she says the fund-raising will kick into high gear after the group receives all the approvals it needs to erect the monument.

"This isn't going to be a thing where we just go to the money people. It's basically for the citizens of Philadelphia," she said. "And also, it's so people don't forget him. Sometimes out of sight, out of mind. The people in South Philadelphia should remember."