Bennie Gatto is the Carl Ripken of chain gang crews.
The spry 83-year-old is in his 47th year of volunteering along the sidelines of high school football games working the yardage chains and down markers. 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 when officials call for a measurement.
“It’s great seeing the kids play,” Gatto said.
Gatto hasn’t watched a high school game from the bleachers since the late 1960s.He started volunteering at East Union High when his son Jim played end for the Lancers. Since he started walking the sidelines in 1970, Gatto has missed only two games.
There’s little doubt Gatto is a die-hard Lathrop High Spartans fan. The former Lathrop mayor was among those who lobbied for years to secure a high school for Lathrop.
But he’ll concede he’s neutral when it comes to East Union High and Lathrop High. It’s understandable due to his 40-year involvement with EU. At East Union, he played a big role in getting the Boosters started as well while both Gatto and his wife Joyce are credited with starting the EU crab feed that still ranks as the Boosters’ most successful fundraiser each year. And when Lathrop High opened he helped the Spartans launch the Boosters club.
If you doubt the Lathrop community doesn’t appreciate the work Gatto has done on behalf of the collective residents of the city and its yoiuth, consider this: Lathrop High named the football turf the Bennie Gatto Field.
Gatto played football at Manteca High for a year as a “skinny, 119-pound dripping wet” end. He enlisted in the Navy and served from 1947 to 1957 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.
He recalls working with Jack Gatto during high school games where his nephew officiated and he worked the chain gang. Jack Gatto went on to officiate college football for 30 years in the NCAA Division II and I-A before working three years as an NFL referee.
He’s watched other high school sports besides football over the years. His only other sport-related volunteer game work was on behalf of Turlock High a few years ago. He served as a timer for water polo matches while his grandson Clint Faria competed for the Bulldogs.
How long does Gatto intend to keep working the chain gang at Lathrop High’s home games?
“Until they carry me off the field,” was his reply.