Joe Pellegrino was thinking small.
Well, not so much small as attainable. The retired United States Army Lt. Col. spent a career in arguably one of the most goal-oriented arenas in the world, and his up-front and candid demeanor – almost as if he’s expecting something from you in the conversation – gives the impression that neither he nor those below him fell short very often.
The idea, thought the then-Manteca Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, was to raise enough money to start a program that would place 500 flags throughout Manteca on each of the major patriotic holidays.
President’s Day. Veterans Day. Fourth of July. Memorial Day.
But Pellegrino ran into a problem that many people in the world of non-profits would love to have – everybody that he asked for money and help said yes.
What started, in his mind, as a lofty goal for 500 flags quickly blossomed into 1,000 flags. And then 1,500 flags. And then 2,400 flags. Every business and every resident and every community service organization got behind a simple idea that a mid-sized American town that prides itself in maintaining its small-town charm should be able to offer some of those small-town draws.
It took work and it took planning and it took a lot of those firm, officer-like conversations where the imposing Pellegrino would maintain the handshake and peer into the eyes of whoever he was soliciting until he got what he was asking for. But Flags of Manteca became a reality and helped give the small-town Northern California boy (he hails from Weed) a victory that earned him the Grand Marshal spot in the Manteca Holiday Parade in 2010.
“Coming from a military background, you fly the colors – it’s what you see when you go back to Washington, D.C., or you travel overseas to a base or you do anything that represents the country,” Pellegrino said. “So I thought that it would be a neat idea to try and get some money together to get about 500 flags together to put out on the holidays.
“But there wasn’t a soul that said no to me. I bet I went out there and talked to 1,000 people and each and every one of them said that they’d help out in one way or another. Manteca is a very patriotic community – it’s all about family and country. And I think you can see that in how supportive the public was in this.”
It would be unfair to say that any one veteran has a sense of patriotism that’s greater than any others.
But Pellegrino’s assignment – posted to the National Airborne Emergency Command Post – put him at arm’s reach of the President of the United States of American for roughly a decade.
That guy, in the military dress uniform walking behind the President when he steps out onto the tarmac carrying a briefcase that’s handcuffed to his wrist? That was Pellegrino. And the briefcase? It contained the protocol for initiating a nuclear strike when away from a military command post like the White House Situation Room or The Pentagon.
He was on-duty when Iranian revolutionaries overtook the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. He was on duty when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan only 69 days into his Presidency.
It was a period of unrest and uneasiness. So, day-in and day-out, here was this Army officer from a small, sleepy mountain town in the shadow of Mount Shasta that carried the one piece of luggage that could literally end mankind. It’s the kind of assignment that puts the freedoms that Americans enjoy into constant perspective.
Hence, the flags.
Football and the future
His last posting before retiring was at The Presidio near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was there that he would be able to rabidly pursue one his life’s greatest passions.
The San Francisco 49ers.
Pellegrino was able to get in on the ground floor of the Bill Walsh dynasty that started when the team used a third-round pick to select a Norte Dame quarterback with moderate upside in the 1979 Draft. He saw the games at Kezar Stadium, braved the cold of Candlestick and watched with amazement as a team that he had followed since his days a tyke in Weed became one of the greatest franchises in all of sports.
Pellegrino and his wife Pat ended up moving to Manteca (they still live here), and his involvement in the community would allow him to forge a friendship with one of his childhood idols – R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens – and develop a pipeline between his beloved organization and the Manteca Boys and Girls Club.
And like any military man, Pellegrino keeps moving. He’s still active on the Boys and Girls Club Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He spent a decade as the St. Anthony’s School Athletic Director, and remains a vital part of the Italian-Catholic Federation and the Knights of Columbus.
But his flags are still near and dear to his heart. Even if he wants to see more of them.
“My big wish is to see 2,500 more flags,” he said with a laugh. “I want to be able to see them all the way down Yosemite and Main and Union and Louise – just one big rectangle.
“That’s was the original plan, you know? And I think had I stayed on with the Chamber for a little bit longer, it’s something we probably would have gotten done. But it’s still doable.”