ROCKFORD — The man responsible for lighting up the night sky over the Rock River each Fourth of July has died.
Joe Marino, known throughout the region as Mr. Fourth of July, was 92.
"The family greatly appreciates the outpouring of support and love from many thousands through social media and other platforms during his final days," his son Mike Marino said in a statement released Wednesday morning. "He was humbly grateful to receive the prayers and good wishes expressed."
Joe Marino was in charge of the Rockford Fourth of July Committee since 1963 and with the help of dozens of volunteers turned Rockford's annual fireworks show into one of the biggest and best shows in Illinois. And he did it all with donations.
Marino turned the Fourth of July in the Forest City into a day of celebrating family, friends and America with a patriotic-themed breakfast, a parade and a pyrotechnic display that dazzled thousands packed into downtown parks and on bridges and rooftops.
He was known for his outgoing personality, jovial nature and tireless dedication to the city he called home.
Years ago when the fireworks show was in danger of not happening because of a lack of funds, Marino took a second mortgage on his house to pay for the show. He borrowed nearly $3,000 and paid it back over 20 years.
“My passion for the Fourth of July celebration and the birth of our great country comes from my allegiance to this country,” Marino said in 2009 interview with the Rockford Register Star. “This is the country that afforded my immigrant parents the chance to make a better life for themselves and make a better life for me and my brothers and sisters. I feel very strongly about that.”
And if the Fourth of July celebration wasn't enough, Marino organized other events for Rockford families to enjoy, such as the Festival of Lights in Sinnissippi Park, which he put on with the help of his friends at his longtime employer, Project First Rate, a partnership between union contractors and union craftsmen.
Marino, a Rockford native and the son of Italian immigrants, was a fan of local diners where he met regularly with longtime friends and business associates. He knew all of the waitresses' names. And they knew his.
Back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, he was the TV pitchman for the Hanley Furniture store in downtown Rockford. “Shop Hanley," he's say into the television camera."You’ll be glad you did!” The building that housed the store was destroyed by fire last year.
As a young man, Marino served in the U.S. Navy on the destroyer USS Henderson, which operated in the South Pacific and was based in Pearl Harbor during World War II. He was honorably discharged July 24, 1946. He received the Victory Medal, American Area Campaign Medal and Asiatic Pacific Area Campaign Medal.
The plaque at the base of Marino's statue in downtown Rockford describes him as a beloved civic leader who not only championed community celebrations and festivals but inspired generations of area children and adults to do the same.
One such child was John Groh, a Rockford native who now serves as president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Some of Groh's earliest and fondest memories growing up took place at the city's annual fireworks and holiday light displays.
"Tradition and rituals are important. They ground us," Groh said. "Joe understood that from a deep place of love for his city and his country. ... Great communities need great celebrations to bring us together."
In lieu of flowers, donations to the Rockford 4th of July Committee, PO Box 1027, Rockford, IL 61105, are requested. Public visitation and funeral arrangements are pending at Sunset Funeral Home.
Corina Curry: 815-987-1371; firstname.lastname@example.org; @corinacurry