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Remembering Larry Marsalli, Mr. Santa Clara

The life of Larry Marsalli, who died last summer at the age of 92, was an illustration of Jesus’ admonition that, “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Marsalli was the founder of Santa Clara’s annual community Thanksgiving dinner, now in its 12th year, where he literally served dinner to hundreds of people.

“I don’t remember him talking much, but I remember his actions,” said his grandson Jerod Marsalli in his eulogy for his grandfather. “He lived a life of service to family, friends and the entire community.”

That service frequently involved food, whether the Thanksgiving dinner or cooking chicken at the Italian Catholic Federation barbeque — which involved Larry Marsalli’s special technique for flipping food on the grill with a golf club.

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“He was a quiet leader,” said Council Member Patricia Mahan. “He led by serving and example. No job was beneath him. People could count on Larry and he never claimed credit. He just did it.”

Those who worked with him on the Thanksgiving dinner know the truth of that, as they watched him managing every detail of the meal from the planning that starts in the September to washing the last dish on Thanksgiving Day.

The community Thanksgiving dinner isn’t about charity, Marsalli told the Weekly back when it started in 2007. It’s about celebrating and sharing the holiday as a community, a gift to families as much as to those with distant or no family.

“Serving people from all walks of life, that’s what makes it so special,” he said.

Marsalli and his team of around 50 dedicated community volunteers prepare for months not just to serve a dinner, but to make it as homelike as possible — including Marsalli family recipes for roast turkey and green beans with corn, onions, bacon and “lots of butter.”

Former Santa Clara Mayor and Council Member Larry Fargher remembers, during the 10 years he and Marsalli were on the Council together, going over to Marsalli’s house after meetings to share a meal.

“He was a good guy, on the council there were some antagonisms, but we got along,” said Fargher. “We were there together for almost 10 years. He was a good friend and a good Councilman.”

Marsalli was also close to another Santa Clara mayor, Gary Gillmor, with whom he ran a joint campaign in 1969 — Gillmor for Mayor and Marsalli for City Council.

“It was great when we ran together,” Gillmor said. “I served with him eight years. He was a moderator. There’s always factions but he was always moderate and the voice of common sense.”

In those years the City was changing rapidly and laying the groundwork for the economic powerhouse Santa Clara would become. Bold decisions were called for. “He was always there for me,” sad Gillmor.

Retired Fire Marshall Ray Gamma remembers Marsalli as an always reliable volunteer fire fighter. “Larry was already in the volunteer fire company and was Assistant Chief when I joined,” Gamma said. “We had a heck of a group of volunteers. When we rolled out for a fire Larry was always there. He always showed up.

“Everything that was going on in town, Larry was there,” continued Gamma. “He was the leader of everything.”

Marsalli is practically synonymous with one Santa Clara institution in particular: the Parade of Champions, which was discontinued in 1995 when Marsalli stepped down after chairing the event for 50 years. Originally a Columbus Day celebration, the parade got its name in 1968 when it honored Santa Clara’s Olympic swimmers.

“He was involved in every detail of the parade,” said retired Santa Clara Streets Superintendent Rick Mauck. “He was very gregarious, very positive, very welcoming. He knew everybody and was always happy to support anything in the community.”

The parade brought Santa Clara the kind of attention it wouldn’t see again until Super Bowl 50 came here.

“Larry was invaluable with bringing people into Santa Clara,” said Gillmor. “He brought celebrities and put Santa Clara on the map. He was responsible for bringing stars, people like the longest-held Viet Nam [prisoner of war]. Some parades drew 100,000 people.”

Mahan remembers Earnest Borgnine starring in the parade during the height of the popularity of McHale’s Navy. Other stars that made a stop in Santa Clara thanks to Marsalli’s promotional talent included 1970s child TV star Rodney Allen Rippy and actor and movie director Cornell Wilde.

Marsalli was also an indefatigable backer of Levi’s Stadium. “I got to know Larry working on Measure J [to build the stadium], sitting across the table,” said longtime resident Peggy Parkin. “He was there often. He was very dedicated. For a person of his age you had to admire the dedication he showed.”

“In my mind he was always truly Mr. Santa Clara,” said Gillmor. “He was always there for the community. He had no agenda. He loved Santa Clara. I miss him.”

There are two video interviews with Larry Marsalli on DVD at the Central City Library. You can also watch (and download) the videos online here and here. Online videos are courtesy of Brian Marsalli.

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