Sonoma remembers Jerry Marino, 1939 - 2019

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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.

From chickens to the city’s 2016 proposed ban on leaf-blowers – he defended the noisy machines as providing jobs for people – with a lot of ruffled feathers along the way, Marino often managed to find himself facing off against city regulations and occasionally even paying fines for his impolitic trespasses.

“Jerry was always interested in city politics,” read his obituary in the March 1 Index-Tribune, “much to the sometimes chagrin of city officials.”

Then there was the Sonoma Valley Bank saga – Marino was an early and enthusiastic investor, and eventually a board member. But in 2002 he and local businessman Gary Nelson questioned some out-of-scale loans being approved by bank officials – and they were pushed off the board.

“Jerry and I worked together on the Sonoma Valley Bank Board and were summarily dismissed when the questions we were posing became an irritant to the management,” remembers Nelson, a good friend to the end. “He was instrumental in raising the funds to establish the bank from the community, and was deeply distressed when many investors lost life savings when the bank went under.”

“Dad would do anything for anyone,” daughter Lisa Dierking said. “You got a friend for life in him.”

Those friends were many, and came from all walks of life. There was Powers, an early employee of Apple who led their education division; Nelson, founder of successful staffing companies and an investor in Sonoma Media Investments; and close friend John Fanucchi, a past head of the Chamber of Commerce – some of them, and others, became part of a weekly gabfest at Basque Boulangerie, assembling Sundays after the 7:30 a.m. mass.

“Jerry was a unique person who was very creative and a very successful entrepreneur,” said Fanucchi. “He had a great sense of humor and always had a response on anything that was presented to him.”

“He was funny and always ready with a joke or a quip,” said Nelson. “Always ready to help out as a bartender at many local events! Jerry was loyal and trustworthy – a rare value today.”

After he was diagnosed with leukemia in September of 2017, Jerry slowed down a bit but didn’t stop fighting: fewer games of Pedro, less bocce and golf, and no longer a presence at the county fair, where he used his quick wit and outgoing personality to call the bids on livestock.

When he had to check in to UC Davis Medical Center, Sonoma Mayor Amy Harrington called upon the City Council to recognize Marino as part of the “fabric of Sonoma” at its Feb. 4 meeting. At the time, Marino was too ill to attend, but he watched the tribute as it streamed on the city’s website – as dozens of community members paid homage to their friend Jerry.

“He was absolutely thrilled, he was just so grateful that they did that,” said his wife.

Said daughter Lisa, “It was a huge honor for him.”

The other daughters agreed. And they were all by his side when he died last Monday, after a battle with leukemia – still interested in everyone around him, still making jokes.

“I don’t think he was ready to leave, he was not ready to go,” said his wife. “His heart was always with Sonoma.”

A funeral mass will be said on Tuesday, March 5, at St. Francis Solano Church, 469 Third St. W., Sonoma, at 11 a.m. Following the service, a Celebration of Life will be held at the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa, 1325 Broadway, Sonoma.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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