Palo Alto's political luminaries, activists and residents packed into St. Albert the Great Church Thursday afternoon to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Gary Fazzino, a former mayor whose encyclopedic knowledge and unconditional love for the city have become the stuff of local legend.
Fazzino died on Oct. 30 at the age of 60 after a two-and-a-half year battle with cancer. His influence and popularity were in full evidence at the Thursday memorial, where a large crowd gathered to share their memories and recollect anecdotes from his life. The somber atmosphere was punctuated by moments of humor as friends remembered Fazzino's quirky and singular habits: waking up at 4:30 a.m. and driving around Los Angeles to find a telecast of an English soccer game; his ability to remember every American top song (and even the runner-up hit); and his capacity for delving into any subject, however esoteric, and quickly becoming an expert in the field.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, Fazzino's friend for 45 years, was among the speakers who eulogized Fazzino on the rainy afternoon. And while he acknowledged the tragic circumstance that prompted the gathering, he also said his friend would find plenty of reasons to smile as he observes the memorial. Fazzino, he said, would probably be figuring out what the headline would say the next morning, Simitian said. He'd probably be thinking of something like: "Fazzino farewell packs Palo Alto pantheon," Simitian said.
Simitian, whose was in Fazzino's class in Palo Alto High School and whose career in local political dovetailed with Fazzino's, called his friend "a bit apart" and "certainly one of a kind." He remembered Fazzino as "the only teenage boy who was reading Romantic poets" and listening to Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor while others were preoccupied with acid rock.
"He was the only friend I had who had a generation gap with his own generation," Simitian said.
He also talked about Fazzino's "compelling desire to chronicle not only events of the wider world but also his own life." Fazzino kept a journal since his teenage years in which he jotted down the day's events. At the end of the year, he would choose his best day of the year, worst day of the year, best week, worst week and person of the year (Robert Kennedy won one year; Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley shared the honor another year; Simitian also took the award at one point).
Fazzino's love for Palo Alto was famous, at times bordering on chauvinism. When Redwood City's Chamber of Commerce ran a campaign with a slogan, "Shop in Redwood City. Palo Alto without the attitude," Fazzino was quick to respond with his own take on the slogan, changing the last line to, "Palo Alto without the customers." And when a phone company was trying to put together a "Greater Palo Alto" phone book that included neighboring communities (much to those communities' chagrin), Fazzino's only quibble with the project was that "Greater Palo Alto" is "so obviously redundant," Simitian said.
Fazzino's interests were famously wide-ranging, encompassing Palo Alto's political history (on which he was the city's foremost expert), the Boston Red Sox, English soccer and theology. He could fluently talk about medieval popes or political trends in some obscure nation or state. Simitian recalls once receiving the prison diaries of Ho Chi Minh from Fazzino as a Christmas present. U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a close friend of Fazzino, also remarked on his amazing curiosity and knowledge. She read a letter to Fazzino that she composed after he passed away.
"Thank you for showing us how to see the wonder in the world," Eshoo read.
Others also spoke about Fazzino's unparalleled capacity to absorb knowledge and bring people together. Jay Gellert, CEO of Health Net and Fazzino's long-time friend, recalled the time Fazzino visited him in Los Angeles and woke him up at 4:30 a.m. because he couldn't get the Manchester United vs. Arsenal game on pay-per-view. He and Gellert ended up driving around until they found a bar where the game was televised. By the end of the game, he was the life of the party, "bringing people together with his love for soccer," Gellert said.
Gellert called Fazzino a "throwback" to an earlier time. In an era of "digital friendships," he only knew "kindred spirits." Fazzino's passion for politics rivaled his love for soccer. He joined the City Council in 1977, at the age of 24, and remained involved in the political game long after his council tenure expired. Gellert said that it wasn't the poll numbers or the pundits who got Fazzino excited but the human element of the process watching the winning candidate give his victory speech and watching the losing candidate concede.
"He truly believed this process was about bringing people together in trust and good faith," Gellert said.
Fazzino's widow, Annette, paid tribute to his generous nature and his tendency to surprise her and their two 5-year-old children with books, trips and experiences. Though his accomplishments were many, his proudest achievement was being a father, she said. In his last few days of life, the children vied for the opportunity to carry their father's tray, she said. The program for the memorial service features a cover photo of Fazzino walking his children to school, one hand clasping Julia's hand and the other clasping Matthew's.
But, as many testified, his generous nature extended far beyond family.
"I've never heard him speak an unkind word about anyone," Annette Fazzino said. "He built people up. He never tore them down."
She asked those in attendance to help her children keep the memories of their fathers alive by sharing stories with them of his life and legacy,
"Our hearts are broken, yet we are faithful, we are strong and we are resilient," she said.