LATHROP — Bennie Gatto redefines the words “high school football fan” as well as “dedicated volunteer.”
He is marking his 47th season this year serving on high school football chain gangs. That is in addition to a lifetime of setting the bar in terms of community involvement
This Friday is a special night for the Gatto. Not only are his beloved Lathrop High Spartans hosting Ripon High in a non-league game but between the junior varsity and varsity contests Gatto is going to be honored. The Lathrop High Spartans are going to be dedicating the football field “Bennie Gatto Field” in his honor.
“This is going to be exciting,” the 81-year-old Gatto said. “It’s a great honor.”
Gatto - if the truth be told - would have been just as happy with a pat on the back saying thank-you for helping with the football program at both East Union High - where Lathrop students attended for years - and at Lathrop High when the campus opened five years ago.
Gatto volunteers today for the same reason he started doing so 47 years ago - for the youth.
He believes it is important not just for parents but for the community to show their support for young people. And one of those ways is by filling the stands on Friday night.
“It wasn’t like it was back 30 years ago when you’d have to come to the game by the start of the JV contest at 5:30 p.m. to get a seat,” Gatto said. “It’s sad when you don’t see all parents at the game. I understand that both parents often have to work but I worked and was able to get to them. It’s (sad) to look up and see three quarters of the bleachers empty.”
Gatto said he gets great satisfaction showing support for the players and - when appropriate - encouraging them to step up their effort when they are lagging.
“He puts his all into it,” Gatto’s wife Joyce said.
For three or so years Gatto did double duty working the chains at East Union and serving on the chain crew at Lathrop High. During the same time he helped the Spartans launch the Boosters club and often would volunteer to help prepare the game BBQ. At East Union, he played a big role in getting the Boosters started as well while both Bennie and Joyce are credited with starting the EU crab feed that still ranks as the Boosters’ most successful fundraiser each year.
As to whether he prefers Lathrop High Black and Gold or East Union Red and Blue, Gatto is quick to reply, “let’s just say I like both sets of colors. They’re both good schools.”
Gatto is working the Lathrop High chain gang this year with Tony Martin, Gene Neely, John Servain, and Tosh Ishihara. While Gatto is versatile at every function on the chain gang, his duty of choice these days is handling the clip that is attached to the chain to the closest 5-yard line marker.
That allows him more time to enjoy watching the game. It also keeps him more out of “harm’s way” should the chain gang have to scramble when players come running out of bounds.
“I’ve been hit two or three times over the years,” Gatto said, noting that “it doesn’t feel good.”
Gatto played two years of football at Manteca High in 1946 and 1947 as an end. He enlisted in the Navy and served from 1947 to 1956 during which time he earned his GED.
He worked for 32 years at Best Fertilizer that later was bought by J.R. Simplot. He never was absent for a single day.
Gatto served on the first Lathrop City Council elected in 1989 when residents voted to become an incorporated city. During his eight-year tenure on the council he became Lathrop’s second mayor. He also has served more than 14 years on the Lathrop Planning Commission.
He served 22 years as a volunteer firefighter and served on the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District board from 1981 to 2010 including six years as chairman.
He has served on the Manteca District Ambulance board as well as the now-defunct Lathrop Water District Board. Gatto was inducted into the Manteca Hall of Fame in 2001 for his tireless community service.
Gatto’s community involvement helping others and with non-profits is seemingly endless.
He said he volunteers to help in the community because it “is the right thing to do.”