By Karen Zautyk
Joseph T. Fornarotto, a lifelong resident of Belleville and a tireless advocate for America’s veterans, passed away on Monday, Aug. 25.
To say that his death came as a shock is an understatement.
Usually such sentiments are expressed when the deceased is young. Joe Fornarotto was 88.
But he was so full of energy and life, news of his sudden demise was still difficult to accept.
Fornarotto was a frequent visitor to The Observer offices. He had been here on Friday, Aug. 22, just three days before his death, to meet with general manager Robert Pezzolla. It was a stunned Pezzolla who gave your correspondent the sad news last week.
On July 16, The Observer had featured Fornarotto in a front-page story about his links to those “Jersey Boys,” The Four Seasons, dating to the 1950s when he owned Joe’s Lunch at 90 Franklin St. in Belleville. The place was a popular gathering spot for teenagers, among them Francesco “Frankie” Castelluccio, better known now as Frankie Valli.
That, however, was only one brief chapter in a life rich in memories.
Fornarotto and his wife Jeanne (nee Rosamilia), who predeceased him in 2011, were married for 61 years and raised four children. He is survived by his son, Joseph Jr.; daughters, Kathy Mazur and her husband Walter, Joni Lewis and her husband Jim, Jeanne Finnan and her husband Kevin; a sister and five brothers, five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
After his stint in the luncheonette business, Fornarotto worked for the Township of Belleville and later Essex County, retiring just four years ago.
He also served a term as a Belleville commissioner and was a member of the township Senior Citizens and the Italian American Civic Association. In 2009, he was honored as Belleville Man of the Year at the Nutley-Belleville Columbus Day Parade.
But Fornarotto — a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II — was probably best known in his hometown, and surrounding communities, as commander of Disabled American Veterans Belleville/ Nutley Chapter 22, of which he was a founding member.
Any time there was any sort of event honoring or involving veterans, Fornarotto was there.
In 2011, Chapter 22’s headquarters at 612 Mill St., Belleville, which he was instrumental in getting constructed, was formally named the Commander Joe Fornarotto Disabled American Veterans Building.
Among the dignitaries attending the ceremony was Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., who cited the commander’s unwavering commitment to those who have served our country.
“To the hospitals he’s visited, to the veterans he’s reached his hand out to, to those who are homeless, to those who’ve lost faith and hope, to those who are addicted, to those who continue to experience the pains of war, Joe has not forgotten anybody,” the congressman said.
Those sentiments were echoed last week by Nutley Commissioner Steven Rogers, himself a dedicated proponent on veterans’ issues. The weekend before Fornarotto’s death, the commissioner and his wife were in the Nutley Diner when they saw Fornarotto up by the cash register. “I saluted him, and he saluted me,” Rogers said. “It was a nonverbal expression of the mutual respect we had as veterans.”
“Joe was a veteran to his last breath,” Rogers said. “He served and fought for this country, and well into his elder years, he continued to fight for this country by working very hard to ensure that American veterans would be treated well.”
Read at the 2011 DAV dedication ceremony was a message co-written by chapter members. It said, in part:
“For many, many years, Joe championed the cause of disabled veterans, assisted his comrades in Chapter 22, fund-raised for our hospitalized and institutionalized comrades and led the efforts to bring the fight for disabled veterans to public attention.
“For many of us, his achievements seemed virtually unattainable before he accomplished them.
“Joe, we love you and salute you. Thank you for all you have done.”
Fornarotto was buried Friday, with military honors, in Immaculate Conception Cemetery, Montclair.
Those who wish to honor his memory are asked to make a donation to the Veterans Administration Hospital, 385 Tremont Ave., East Orange, N.J. 07018.
Joe, we love you and salute you.
Thank you for all you have done.