The Fourth of July would look a lot different in Rockford if it weren’t for Joe Marino.

“Before Joe, there was no Fourth of July celebration at all. It was just an ordinary day,” said Jerry Devine in a Dec. 31, 1999 article in the Rockford Register Star. Devine was a volunteer on the Fourth of July committee for decades. “Few people would take on this task and do it so well for so long.”

Marino kept with the task for more than 50 years and made Rockford’s Fourth one of the best celebrations anywhere. Marino, the force behind the Fourth of July fireworks in downtown Rockford and the Festival of Lights during the Christmas holidays in Sinnissippi Park, died Wednesday. He was 92.

Marino was a decorated veteran who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was known as a phenomenal person who gave much while asking little in return. His generosity was overwhelming and his love for the community was so great that he jumped in wherever he saw a need.

Rockford almost had a year without a Fourth of July celebration in 1971.

“The 1970 celebration had, indeed, been a thankless job” wrote Tom Reay, executive editor of the Register-Star (yes we had a hyphen then) on Feb. 19, 1972. “For 10 years Marino and a handful of volunteers had planned, financed and produced a community celebration that was both well received and universally ignored until the work was done.

“So Joe resigned. So did a number of other volunteers.”

In 1971, Rockford officials realized — at the last minute — that no one was planning anything for the Fourth. Joe was asked back and he accepted, but all he had time to organize was a no-frills day.

“There was no parade, there were no fancy out-of-town floats or marching suits,” Reay wrote. “And, if you recall, a lot of people were upset.”

So Mayor Ben Schleicher, among others, asked Marino to come back to the committee and the rest is history.

Not quite.

“I will be very active in the 1986 celebrations. But that will be my last, and that’s not just another remark on my part.” Marino told Register Star columnist Chuck Sweeny in an article published Oct. 31, 1985, “This will be my final hurrah, and the 1986 Fourth will be the biggest and best ever. ...”

And it was. Until Marino organized the next Fourth and the next and the one after that. At an age where most people would sit back and enjoy the celebrations, Marino was still planning them.

He persevered in the early years when it seemed his work was unappreciated. He persevered in later years when his health was not the best. Marino kept at it — planning, organizing and making sure people enjoyed the show.

He put together many different Fourth festivities over the years — power boat races, raft races, water shows, bicycle brigades, etc. — but it was the fireworks and parade that endured and brought the community together like nothing else.

Marino was officially recognized as Mr. Fourth of July by Mayor John McNamara on July 2, 1981 and July 4, 1981 was proclaimed “Joe Marino Day.” He also was recognized as Mr. Fourth of July by President Ronald Reagan.

Early in 2010, the Rockford Park District brought together a group of private citizens to figure out how to say thank you to a man who spent five decades doing the right things for his beloved city.

From that discussion came the life-size, bronzed Joe Marino statue at Joe Marino Park at the corner of East State and Water streets with this inscription:

“Joe Marino – Mr. Fourth of July. A lifelong Rockford resident and beloved civic leader who championed community celebrations and festivals for half a century. His leadership inspired generations of local children and adults to enthusiastically embrace their American values of love, honor and service to their city, country and families.”

Marino loved his country and we thought it would be best for him to have the final word, a sentiment that we can relate to more than 40 years later.

 “Maybe we don’t all agree with all of what’s going on in this country. But at least we have the right to disagree, and maybe that’s what the 4th celebrates.”

— July 1, 1975