Joe Lapinski – 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Joe Lapinski, recently retired Public Works Director for the city of Herrin, received the 2010 HerrinFesta Italiana Lifetime Achievement Award. Joe is a quiet man, unassuming and humble. His actions and his reputation, however, speak boldly of his character. He was born during a simpler time in Herrin, on February 25, 1946, to Joe and Amelia (Bonali) Lapinski. In Herrin at that time, husbands and fathers were returning from fighting the war in Europe, retail stores and family-owned markets buzzed with activity, the Doughboy Statue still stood proudly in the middle of Park Avenue, and three Herrin families brought sons into the world. These three “sons of Herrin” all have one thing in common: all three received HerrinFesta Lifetime Achievement Awards: John Carnaghi, who is Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration at Florida State University in Tallahassee, (2000); Steve Fisher, currently coaching basketball at San Diego State University, who in 1989, led the University of Michigan Wolverines to an NCAA Championship, (2005); and Joe Louis Lapinski, (2010). Joe’s life is evidence that one does not need to move far away, or climb the ladders of academia and collegiate sports, to achieve greatness. John, Steve, and Joe were boyhood friends who still keep in touch; however, Joe married here, raised his family here, and spent his career right here in his hometown. He jokes that John and Steve have already made several million dollars, but he is still working on his first million. Joe can also boast that he is related, on his mother’s side of the family, to the Branca Brothers, who were chosen as Grand Marshalls of the HerrinFesta Parade in 1996. Jim Gentile, Executive Director of HerrinFesta Italiana, says of Joe, “his life has been an example of what a ‘working man’ can achieve.”

Joe attended St. Mary’s (OLMC), and played basketball throughout elementary school and junior high. When he was in eighth grade, St. Mary’s won the Belleville Diocese Championship of the twenty-four southern-most counties of Illinois. Joe attended grade school when St. Mary’s was staffed by Sisters. He remembers they were “tough”, and very strict, but the memories are sweet nonetheless. When he was not in school, or playing ball, he spent a lot of time with his Grandfather Bonali. Smiling, Joe tells of loving to eat from the grapevines and cherry trees of his grandfather and other neighboring Italian families. They were very stingy with this fruit, as they used it for making wine, so he “got in trouble” more than once for this minor infraction. Walking down to the Rome Club with his grandfather to purchase a bucket of beer was another common activity in that vanished time of Joe’s boyhood. Flying over his house in an airplane was a rare experience for a small town boy back then, but Joe was lucky enough to go up with the late Father Bernard Mongan, amateur pilot and parish priest at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, and he will always treasure that opportunity, though, “it scared my Mom half to death!”

High School found Joe playing basketball once again, and his teammates were none other than John Carnaghi and Steve Fisher. Joe always had that athlete’s attitude of victory, even when the odds were long. In 1963, the Tigers made it to the Sweet Sixteen by beating Belleville West. They later lost in the Super Sectionals against Metropolis 53-52, but they received a complimentary trip through Champaign’s Assembly Hall that year, when 16,500 people crowded in to watch the State High School Basketball Championship in the newly built stadium. That night is one Joe will never forget, and one he still reminisces about whenever he sees his fellow award-winning chums.

After high school graduation, Lapinski enrolled at SIU’s Vocational Technical Institute, majoring in Cooperative Retailing. His first job was with the State of Illinois, where he worked for three years. On July 7, 1967, he married Cynthia Artis, and went to work for the Will family at the Herrin Coca Cola Bottling Plant. He and Cynthia have one daughter, Melodi Coleman. Cynthia baby-sits in their home, and she and Joe have become “honorary” grandparents to Max and Molly Goins, and Joseph and Mollie Maeser. Their daughter Melodi, who teaches at the North Side Primary Center, and her husband Tony, have a son, Jarret, who is Pa-Pa and Granny’s pride and joy.

On June 10, 1974, following in his father’s footsteps, Joe was hired on to work for the City of Herrin. Lapinski, Sr. worked fifteen years for the city water department, when the treatment plant was in Energy; Joe’s first city job was as a laborer on the garbage truck. Monty Cooper remembers working with Joe, riding through the streets of Herrin on that truck. “Joe is probably one of the finest people I’ve ever known. When I went on to work at the waste treatment facility Joe became my superintendent, and I couldn’t have asked for a better man to work for.” From his very first day, Joe Lapinski demonstrated an exemplary work effort that was born in those early days of post-war Herrin, when hard work and dedication was second nature, right along with good manners and respect for your elders. Always a true community servant, Joe went through the ranks in Herrin’s Public Works Department. In 1992, Mayor Ed Quaglia appointed Joe as Director of Public Works. Joe was responsible for overseeing everything connected with the infrastructure of the town, from the water that runs from residents’ taps, to the sewer connecting their homes to the treatment facility, to the cemetery where they bury their loved ones. He oversaw street repairs and maintenance, snow removal, and storm cleanup. He supervised 30 full and part-time city employees, and often relied on the efforts of others outside of city employment. Joe especially remembers the late John Vander, of John Vander Trucking, as another loyal friend of Herrin, and an invaluable asset to any project Joe undertook on behalf of Herrin’s maintenance.                      

It was a fitting send-off when the “inland hurricane” of May 8, 2009, blew through town exactly one month before Joe’s retirement. His tireless efforts at helping citizens cope with the devastation, and his unwavering dedication to the job at hand, were assurance to the public that Joe was not looking at it from the viewpoint of a man who would be gone in a few weeks, but as Herrin’s steadfast Director. He led his men in seeing to the situation of the moment – clearing a path for emergency medical and utility crews.

He worked under five mayors in his thirty-five years with Herrin. Joe Lapinski was dedicated not only to his own family, and his provision for them, but to every Herrin family. He was available at any time – day or night. Tony Cattaneo, who worked with Joe for twenty-five years, remembers the day he saw Joe fall off the back of the city dump truck. It was Clean-Up Week, and while they were at the landfill placing a tarp on top of the truck, Joe stepped back, taking a nasty fall, which landed him flat on the ground. “He could have been hurt bad, but he just stood up, dusted himself off, and jumped right back up there. He never complained a bit, and just got back to work.” No one’s request went unanswered during Joe’s tenure. He always returned telephone calls, and never failed to get back to folks when they had a problem. He was a true civil servant.

Civic organizations consume much of Joe’s spare time. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus. Because of his initiative, much-needed renovations were completed at the K.C. Hall, and he became the first Grand Knight to receive the Star Council Award for the Illinois Knights of Columbus. That achievement led to a run of six consecutive years, which became a state record. He belongs to the Pigeon Inn, and to quote Joe, “The Pigeon Inn has one location, and fifty members, world-wide.” The Herrin Elks is also proud to call Joe a member.

Those who have been lucky enough to work with Lapinski during his thirty-five years at the City of Herrin, have nothing but praise for the man who gave one hundred per cent to every job he tackled.

Mayor Vic Ritter: “Joe, for over thirty years, was an invaluable asset to the City of Herrin. He was a dear friend of the city, and when you’ve got Joe for a friend you’ve got somebody you can count on.”

Marlene Simpson, City Clerk: “In the many years he worked for the City of Herrin, and all for the years I’ve known Joe (my whole life), we have been friends, and I’m so happy he won the Lifetime Achievement Award. He certainly deserves it.”

Jill Gentile Lentz: “I have worked for the City of Herrin for twenty-one years. From 1992 to 2009, Joe was my direct supervisor. It was always a pleasure to be around Joe – not only as my boss, but also as a very dear friend.”

Joe’s reply to all the kind words is typical of him. “The privilege has been all mine. I enjoyed working with everyone, past and present. Whether I was out on the streets, or in the office, I have loved knowing and working with them all. It’s been an honor.”

Since Joe’s retirement in July of 2009, however, all the accolades come from his five-year old grandson, Jarret. He is Pa-Pa’s constant companion these days, and when not serving as “taxi driver” or favorite playmate for Jarret, Joe likes to play a little golf, spend time with his wife Cynthia, and keep up with the Fighting Illini basketball team of University of Illinois, and his beloved Cardinals baseball team. Always a loyal follower of Herrin Tiger Athletics, Joe remains an avid fan. Look for him at the basketball games. He will be there cheering the Tigers on, and remembering his own times down there on the court, when the cheering was for him.