By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Sunday evening, Joe Giuffrida settled into his favorite chair in his den to watch some football.
The great-grandfather fell asleep and while surrounded by his family, Giuffrida then painlessly faded away.
“It was the most peaceful death. It was beautiful,” said Patricia Mariano, one of Giuffrida’s two daughters.
Giuffrida, a proud Lawrencian, Italian American, Lawrence City Hall legend and by all accounts, revered gentleman, died Sunday night at age 89. The devout Catholic leaves behind a legacy of honesty, fairness and a tremendous work ethic that won the respect of nine mayors, hundreds of city councilors, staffers and taxpayers.
He said he worked for nine mayors. But former Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan remarked, “Nine mayors worked for Joe.”
Chief city assessor for 36 years, Giuffrida retired in 2008 at age 83 and long criticized Mariano for “making him retire,” she said.
“He held it against me for the longest time. He’d say, ‘Because of you, I retired,’ ” Mariano tearfully recalled yesterday. “He was always looking for a part-time job. He just liked to be with people.”
A year ago, Giuffrida lost his wife of 67 years. Since then, Mariano said her father struggled with both dementia and diabetes. He required around the clock care, but the family kept their promise to him and let him live in his own home until the very last day.
Giuffrida closely watched the Nov. 5 city election, where Mariano, retired principal of Lawrence’s Leahy School, won a seat on the school committee.
On Nov. 8, he celebrated his 89th birthday, blowing out the candles on his cake, Mariano said.
About a week ago, Giuffrida really started declining, refusing to eat and not wanting to take his medication, she said.
“He really failed quickly ... It was like he just had it,” Mariano said.
The son of Italian immigrants, Giuffrida grew up on Orchard Street. He worked as a H.P. Hood truck driver and court officer before becoming the city’s chief tax man.
In an Eagle-Tribune interview prior to his retirement, Giuffrida said his job was less about numbers and more about helping people in the city. Then, Giuffrida said his success stemmed from advice he was given by the late Mayor John Joseph Buckley at the start of his municipal career.
“He said, ‘Joe, don’t ever worry about looking behind you,’” recalled Giuffrida. “He said, ‘Be honest, be truthful, be fair and you’ll never get in trouble.’”
“Honesty is the best value any person can have. When you are honest, you never have to worry about someone tapping you on the shoulder. Those are words to live by,” Giuffrida said.
Giuffrida later shared the same advice with Alexy Vega, who started working in the assessor’s office in 1994. Vega credits Giuffrida with instilling great professional ethics and personal values in his life.
“Joe was not only my boss for many years, he was a mentor but mainly a father figure. He helped me become the professional I am today and I will forever be grateful for his friendship,” Vega said yesterday.
When he retired, then City Council President Patrick Blanchette described Giuffrida as both a legend in City Hall and the community. Blanchette, now the city’s economic development director, yesterday said Giuffrida “will forever be remembered as a gentleman and a class act ... He was very well respected around the state. I always got a kick out of how some state leaders knew Joe but didn’t know who the current mayor was,” Blanchette said.
Blanchette yesterday informed city workers of Giuffrida’s death in an e-mail entitled “Chairman of the Board.”
“He will forever be missed and our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time,” Blanchette wrote.
Former Mayor Kevin Sullivan, brother of Michael Sullivan, said Giuffrida “without a doubt was the most knowledgeable and most respected assessor in the Commonwealth.”
“Each mayor that Joe served with never had to worry when Joe was at the helm. Lawrence has lost a great public servant,” Sullivan said.
Giuffrida was also active in the St. Alfio Society, which organizes the city’s annual Feast of the Three Saints, the Massachusetts Sons of Italy and was a devoted parishioner at Holy Rosary Church. He also served on the board of directors of Casa Monte Cassino, an international charity based in the North End of Boston that assists children who need vision surgery.
A die-hard Patriots fan, Giuffrida enjoyed watching football with the family, Mariano said.
In the 2008 interview, Giuffrida credited his physical health and professional success to his wife Sandy. “The secret has been living with my wife and knowing when to compromise,” he said.
Giuffrida is survived by Mariano and her husband Nelson, his daughter Jo-Anne Corcoran and her husband Scott, grandchildren Joseph Mariano and his wife Kelly (Stevens) and Christina Mariano, and a great grandson, Anthony, 2.
Mariano watches Anthony during the daytime and often brought the toddler over to see his great-grandfather, she said.
“He loved the baby so much,” she said.
Arrangements are being handled by the Cataudella Funeral Home of Methuen. Mariano said the procession will drive by Lawrence City Hall, “his second home,” the day of the funeral.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.