Sonoma remembers Jerry Marino, 1939 - 2019
When longtime Sonoma resident Gerald Marino died Monday, Feb. 25, at the age of 79, it inspired an outpouring of memories and heart-felt tributes from friends, family and other folks who knew him as one of Sonoma’s all-time community characters.
Outside of Sonoma, he was known as “Chicken Jerry” for a quirky, high-profile campaign to keep a chicken population in the Plaza and at his car wash. The story was high-profile enough to make the Wall Street Journal, which, in 2002, featured the headline, “In Sonoma, Calif., A Chicken Fight for Town’s Soul,” with a line drawing of “Gerald Marino’s Polish rooster” on page one.
But here in Sonoma – where he arrived in 1952 and never really left, building large business and social networks, an endless parade of friends, a three-generation family, and a reputation as a generous prankster and as a solid friend – it’s clear that it was he who had become the soul of the town.
Gerald Marino was born in San Francisco on Aug. 29, 1939 to Milton Marino and Rose Moresco Marino. From the time the Marinos arrived in Sonoma in 1952, they were parishioners of St. Francis Solano Church and Jerry attended the school there. In fact, that’s where young Jerry met future wife Dianne Alessi; they both attended and graduated from Sonoma Valley High School, and it was perhaps inevitable in that home-town way that they would marry.
Then Jerry headed for college at San Francisco State University and the University of the Pacific. “He went to dental school for two years,” Dianne Marino told the Index-Tribune this week, choosing her words carefully, “but that was not his calling.”
The couple’s three daughters erupted in laughter at their mother’s phrasing.
"I just couldn’t see him as a dentist," said middle daughter Lisa Dierking, 49, of Sonoma.
They proudly told stories of his larger-than-life personality, his outsized sense of humor and his sense of justice.
“He was extremely supportive of anything that we wanted to do,” said Dierking. “You know, he didn't have any sons, but he felt that us girls, even at that time, that we were able to do whatever we wanted to do. Nothing should stand in our way.”
“He was always very jolly, he could have fun anywhere,” said daughter Christina Harney, 51, of Diablo.
“He absolutely made fun wherever he went,” agreed youngest daughter Melissa Weiss, 44, of Woodside.
There was a lot of laughter in the Marino household when his daughters were growing up; some would say there was laughter wherever Marino went. “He was a funny guy,” said Jack Powers, a friend for 45 years. “He was a prankster, he got a big kick out of… things that were different, let’s just say that.”
Powers, now a board member of the Hanna Boys Center, met Marino when their kids were together at St. Francis Solano. They all became close as families, spending time together and, when their children all moved on, continuing a close friendship.
With his wide interests and curiosities, Marino became involved in a lot of things: Marino Shoe Store, a wholesale beer and wine distributor, real estate investments – McDonald’s on Sonoma Highway was once family property – and owner of that car wash on West Napa Street, since even before there were chickens there.
Though he claimed that the browsing birds “just showed up” at what became known as Chicken Carwash, in short order Marino was fending off neighbors who objected to the cock-a-doodle doo. Embracing the controversy, he renamed his business for the chickens and soon found himself a leading voice in the effort to defend the poultry population at the Sonoma Plaza, the controversy that landed Sonoma first in regional news, then state news, then CNN and the front page of that Wall Street Journal.
When the Sonoma City Council took up the issue in January, 1999, Marino presented council members with an antique Poultry Producers of Central California sign offering a $250 reward for information leading to the arrest of “chicken thieves,” and mockingly asked the city to draft a similarly tough law.
Larry Barnett, a former Sonoma City Councilmember, remembers Marino’s leadership in the chicken controversy. “While over several weeks the City Council debated whether or not to retain any chickens in the Plaza, one or more chickens would disappear, only to be quickly replaced by a newcomer chicken,” recalls Barnett.
“We never knew for sure where the newcomers were coming from, but when asked, Jerry Marino would get a mischievous smile on his face and shrug his shoulders.”
Two years later Marino himself was under fire from his neighbors who wanted him to remove the chickens from his car wash. He claimed someone beheaded two of his chickens, and asked for relief from his neighbors’ persecution.