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Bennie Gatto synonymous with service to community
Bennie Gatto during one of his final Lathrop Manteca Fire District board meetings. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
LATHROP — Very few can match the numbers that Bennie Gatto has posted in the last 80 years. And he’s not even close to stop counting yet even though he just recently retired from two long-running posts within the last two weeks as a member and twice chairman of the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District board of directors, and as a commissioner and former chairman of the Lathrop Planning Commission.

Gatto, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Friday, Dec. 3, served on the planning commission for 13 years - from 1997 until his recent retirement. Prior to that, he was on the Lathrop City Council. He was one of the original five elected to the first ever city council of San Joaquin County’s youngest incorporated city. This was in November 1989, barely four months after Lathrop was officially incorporated. Gatto went on to become mayor of Lathrop twice. He was the second mayor to serve Lathrop, next to Steve McKee who secured the historic honor of being Lathrop’s first mayor by garnering the highest number of votes in the first election ever held in Lathrop as an incorporated city.

Then there were Gatto’s nine years with the U.S. Navy - 1947 to 1956 - when he was twice assigned to a destroyer. During that time, their older child, Karen, was born in Hawaii where they lived for two years. They also lived in the state of Washington before the family came back to Lathrop for good after Gatto was honorably discharged from the service.

While all the above numbers are impressive, they are hardly whopping ones, according to Gatto’s bride of 57 years.

“That planning commission (stint) was actually nothing in comparison,” said Joyce who was literally the girl next door who grew up with the nine Gatto children. Joyce herself came from a family of nine children, one of whom was the mother of Brock Elliott, Manteca’s first casualty in the Vietnam War, whose name is now being honored by one of the elementary schools in the Family City.

Worked for 31 years at fertilizer plant
Joyce, whose own family was among the early pioneers and business owners in Lathrop along with the Gattos, is always proud to point out that during her husband’s 31 years of working at the town’s fertilizer plant, he was never absent, not even for a sick day. She said he is also among the few who can say they worked for the company under its three different names - starting with Best Fertilizer, Occidental Chemical, and now J.R. Simplot.

“You’d think he’d be tired. I’m tired just talking about it,” she said of her husband’s numerous involvements. Sometimes she does not even know where to begin.

In chronological order, though, Gatto’s community service started almost as soon as he got back from the service, when he signed up as a reservist in 1959 with the local fire department which was then Manteca-Lathrop Rural Fire District. At that time, the district did not have any paid fire personnel. Everyone was a volunteer. Then in 1981, he started serving on the board of directors by appointment. Twelve years ago, he was appointed to complete the unfinished term of an elected board member who had to resign after he moved to a residence that was outside the fire district’s jurisdiction. That was 12 years ago. Since then, Gatto has been re-elected a few times to the board, with the last six years as chairman of the board. That brings to 51 years the total length of his service to the fire district.

Going almost as far back as his tenure with the district is Gatto’s involvement with the East Union High School’s so-called “chain gang” of the Lancers’ football games.

“Bennie did that since East Union opened. What got him started was when the kids started to go to East Union,” Joyce explained.

Helped started Lathrop Little League for kids
“When (younger child) Jimmy was in first grade, he started baseball and football. That was in 1962. We were in the bunch that started the Little League in Lathrop back then, and we’ve been involved ever since. So when they built East Union, we got involved in that too. We were the bunch - the football boosters club - that started the crab feed that’s still going on every year.”

Her husband was president of the boosters’ club “way back then,” Joyce said with a laugh.

This year’s football season though marked the end of Gatto’s involvement with the Lancers “chain gang,” not by desire by providential design.
“His knees have given out,” Joyce said.

But that did not mark the end of his close acquaintance with the gang. He still goes to the weekly breakfast social when the old gang gets together, but not much “since Augie Agostini died,” she said. Others in the tight group were former Lancer teachers and coaches.

“Bennie really likes those guys. Augie always invited him to go when they had their golf tournament. And Bennie always liked Dino Cunial.”

For years now, Gatto also has been able to show off his culinary skills. Since the Lathrop Senior Center opened nearly a decade ago, he has been the volunteer cook at the center’s monthly breakfast held every first Friday of the month starting at 9 a.m.

Far longer than his volunteer culinary efforts are his volunteer stints with the seniors’ two food distribution programs - the brown bag and the commodities - which go back more than 30 years.

Going back almost as long is Gatto’s involvement with the Disabled Veterans program in Stockton. He has been on the Disabled Veterans, Stockton chapter, for many years and has just been made chairman of the board. He is getting ready for the organization’s annual dinner in Stockton which also serves as a fund-raiser for the group. In addition to the dinner, the Disabled Veterans hosts an annual picnic at Micke Grove Park in Lodi for all veterans.

Gatto is an ‘engineer’ for Dell’Osso train

His knees may have given out, but that has not slowed Gatto a bit when it comes to one of his favorite volunteer stints of late - driving one of the “tourist trains” at the Dell’Osso Farms’ Holiday on the Farm at least three nights a week. It was nearly 9:30 p.m. when he got home one night last week, but he did not sound tired one bit even at past 10 o’clock when he finished eating his dinner to do the telephone interview.
Joyce knows very well her husband’s recent retirement from his two appointed seats with the city planning commission and the fire district board is not going to keep him in the rocking chair in front of the TV set. On the contrary, it’s going to be the other way around.

“Since he retired, he hasn’t slowed down a bit,” she said.

So, as far as the length of his community service is concerned, the indefatigable Gatto is still counting. And why does he do it? The new octogenarian, who moves more like a septuagenarian or even someone 20 years his junior, quoted one of his former doctors, Dr. Williams, in reply: “You sit down, you die.”

As for his retirement from everything, Gatto simply said, “I’ll retire when I go six feet under.”

Just two bits of trivia about Gatto and his family: his oldest brother, John, who was at least nearly 20 years his senior, was a longtime president of the Bank of America in Manteca; his family owned Lathrop’s best-appointed hotel this side of San Joaquin County during the early 1900s when Lathrop was a flourishing train town where East Coast travelers - many of whom were famous  the days’ Who’s Who - stopped on their way to San Francisco.