Carmella Rizzo, tiny force behind former Philly Mayor Frank Rizzo, dies at 101

Carmella Rizzo is seen at the graduation ceremony of the Philadelphia Police College Class 331 and the retiring of the badge of her husband, former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo. She is flanked by John F. Timoney, left, and John Street. Directly behind Mrs. Rizzo is her son, Francis S. Rizzo.

Carmella Mary Rizzo, 101, of Chestnut Hill, the tiny but powerful force behind the late Philadelphia Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, died Sunday, July 15, of respiratory failure at her home.

Mrs. Rizzo was born in 1916 during World War I. The daughter of first-generation Italian Americans, she was one of seven children, and she understood the meaning of earning her station in life, according to a family tribute.

Camera icon Philadelphia Daily News
Frank Rizzo offers a wine toast to his wife Carmella at a September 1979 dinner.

Her family was a composite of achieving individuality while also staying close to home. Those qualities likely created the backdrop for her marriage to an up-and-coming police officer on April 18, 1942, the family said.

“His drive and determination preceded him,” the family said.

The union produced two children, Francis S. in 1943 and Joanna E. in 1950. While Rizzo cut a high-profile figure in Philadelphia as a police officer, police commissioner, and finally mayor, Mrs. Rizzo stayed out of the limelight.

She was consistent and dignified as first lady of Philadelphia and loved by many, according to the family.

Camera icon MICHAEL VIOLA / Philadelphia Inquirer
Carmella Rizzo stands behind her kneeling husband, Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, on Oct. 8, 1979, as a delegation of local leaders greets Pope John Paul II at Philadelphia International Airport. Among them is John Cardinal Krol (right).

The Rizzos were devoted to each other. They were also an effective team. She was there at the end of the workday to let him in through the kitchen door – he never had to use his key. The two would compare notes on the day’s events.

“She would eat half her dinner with us [children] and put the rest of her dinner away until he got home, and then they’d eat together,” said her son, a former city councilman.

“He was a very outspoken guy, and sometimes he shouldn’t have been. She’d let him have his dinner, and then she’d give him hell about something he had said that day. He’d say, ‘Carmella, you’re right.’ As tiny as she was, as big as he was, he respected her opinion.”

Camera icon Joe McGuinn / Philadelphia Daily News
Frank Rizzo and his wife Carmella at their polling place on election day 1971.

Frank Rizzo ran for mayor as a Democrat in 1971 and served two terms, ending in 1980. He was attempting a comeback as mayor on the Republican ticket in 1991 when he died of a heart attack at his Center City campaign headquarters. He was 70.

Mrs. Rizzo never campaigned for her husband, but she paid close attention to his political fortunes. “The [campaign] guys would come over on Saturday to their home. It was hectic. They were always planning for the next election,” her son said.

“She never even wore a Rizzo button,” her son said. “’That’s for other people, not us,'” she liked to say.

“She should be admired as an example of a woman who always stood by her principles, encouraging and loving others, especially her husband and children,” the family said.

Camera icon ERIC MENCHER / PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Carmella Rizzo talks with Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, on May 5, 2004 before the inauguration of Mayor John F. Street at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. After Frank Rizzo died, she kept busy and involved with her family.

Mrs. Rizzo died one day short of the 27th anniversary of her husband’s death on July 16, 1991. “She was a very strong lady. She proceeded to move on with her life. It was amazing,” her son said.

She kept busy walking in the Plymouth Meeting Mall, visiting with her family, and keeping her home in Chestnut Hill tidy. “The home hasn’t changed much since my dad died,” her son said.

Her son, who is known to friends as “Franny,” served as a Republican member of Council for 16 years ending in 2012.

Besides her son and daughter, Mrs. Rizzo is survived by a grandson and many nieces and nephews.

A viewing from 10 to 11 a.m. Friday, July 20, will be followed by an 11 a.m. Funeral Mass at Our Mother of Consolation Catholic Church, 9 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19118. Interment will be in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Memorial donations may be made to the church at the address above.

Camera icon Sharon Wohmuth / Philadelphia Inquirer
Carmella Rizzo and her daughter Joanna enjoy a stroll around Mrs. Rizzo’s home in Chestnut Hill in October 1987.