Sevy Verna knew South Philadelphia.

On a Sunday noon in 1997, there wasn't much of a crowd at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue for the Columbus Day parade, but he wasn't worried.

"It's gravy time. They're still stirring the macaroni" for lunch, he explained to a reporter. "They wouldn't care if Christopher Columbus himself came marching down the street. It's time to eat."

And sure enough, by 1 p.m. a healthy crowd had gathered, and Mr. Verna, the parade marshal for decades, signaled the step-off.

On Saturday, Severino D. Verna Jr., 79, husband of City Council President Anna C. Verna, died of complications from a stroke at their summer home in Margate.

In the 1950s, Mr. Verna founded the Verna Funeral Home at 1244 S. Broad St., the South Philadelphia rowhouse where he and his wife lived for years. (The couple, who had been married for 54 years, recently moved to another home in South Philadelphia.)

When Anna Verna was elected the city's first female Council president in 1999, Mr. Verna was there with a dozen red roses.

"He was there every step of the way for her. He was very proud of her accomplishments," said Kathleen Murray, a senior adviser to the Council president.

"Sevy was a perfectionist in many ways," said Murray, who had known Mr. Verna since 1983. "He ran a good funeral. It was precision."

Those skills fit his parades.

"When you line up a funeral procession," Mr. Verna said in the 1997 interview, "everything has to be in order. So does a parade."

Since the Columbus Day parades began in the 1950s and continuing through last October, Mr. Verna had been their annual organizer.

In the early years, they were in Fairmount Park, because the statue of Christopher Columbus stood there.

The highlight of the first parade there was a convoy of new convertibles lent by Italian American car dealers.

After the statue was moved to Marconi Plaza at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in the early 1960s, the parade marched south through the Italian American community.

During the 1997 parade, Mr. Verna was proud that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was at the front, signing autographs for the crowd.

"The cardinal likes to work the crowd," Mr. Verna said. "If he was in politics, he'd be governor by now."

Mr. Verna was a strong defender of the parade.

In a 2002 letter to the editor in The Inquirer, he wrote, "It takes a year to invite and assemble the more than 60 marching units and 5,000 marchers that make up the parade."

Defending that year's diversity, he wrote that among the units were "the Youth of East Logan, an elite African American drill team; a Filipino American Lions organization and the Goodtimer's Brass Band, a predominantly African American Mummers group."

Raised to revere Columbus, Mr. Verna, a first-generation Italian American, once asked: "Would you have the [nerve] to cross the ocean when they're telling you the world is flat? He had guts."

He and his wife celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery with a trip to Italy, where they met the pope.

"[Mr. Verna] was a very, very good, honest, personable man, outgoing and friendly, a good religious man," said Vincent A. Turco, state president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Order Sons of Italy.

A graduate of what is now SS. Neumann-Goretti High School and Dolan College of Mortuary Science, Mr. Verna received an honorary degree from the Gabriele D'Annunzio College of Letters and Sciences in Rome.

He served for 10 years on the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors, was a member of the Philadelphia Democratic Executive Committee for 35 years, and was a member of the Philadelphia Fair Housing Commission from 1983 to 2006.

A founder of the Columbus Civic Association, a founding member of the Italian Radio and Press Association, and a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus, he was a past president of the Verna Lodge, Order Sons of Italy.

Besides his wife, Mr. Verna is survived by a brother, Anthony.

A viewing is set from 9 to 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Rita Roman Catholic Church, 1166 S. Broad St., followed by an 11 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial, celebrated by Bishop Louis DeSimone. Burial is to be in Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or wnaedele@phillynews.com.