PHILADELPHIA is a city of characters. With the passing of Joey Vento, we lost one of our biggest - a guy who parlayed great cheesesteaks, neon, an incredible work ethic and personality into a great business and status as a local treasure.
The Joey that I knew was pure Philly, warts and all. I got to know him at the start of the battle over the 6-by-9-inch sign requesting that people speak English when ordering cheesesteaks. The result was an international debate, a kangaroo court in Philadelphia and eventual triumph for Vento. But the sign and the battle over it are not his true legacy.
Joey not only represented Philadelphia, but was a living, breathing, medallion-wearing personification of the American Dream. I heard him say a hundred times that he loved his brother and father, but they were criminals. Severe criminals. I always knew Joey was trying to even the score with his all-out support for the police and military. His fund-raising for the folks in blue, particularly Danny Faulkner, was legendary.
I saw Vento with his team in full gear, turning out cheesesteaks every 10 seconds for lines of cops and supporters that stretched for blocks. I saw Joey giving not a mere 10 percent of the profits from a big fund-raiser, but every penny he took in. Who else does something like that? How many big-shot CEOs talk about supporting their communities, but always seem to have very short arms when it comes to digging into their corporate pockets?
I not only had a front-row seat at all this, but I also shared a 31-foot RV with Joey and my radio producers as we barnstormed across the country on tours covering various issues. You learn a lot when you share a week in an RV with someone. I saw Joey's generosity, business savvy (his pens dropped off at locations around the country were legendary) and the great fun he had in life - on one trip, Joey was driven around the Charlotte Speedway at 180 mph.
The stories I've fielded from my radio listeners over the last few days are filled with the kindnesses he showered on people. Like the guy from the suburbs who told of his daughter being given permission to sell Girl Scout cookies at Geno's, with Vento personally helping to hawk them. Father Gary, formerly of Annunciation Catholic Church, told me that Joey often deputized him to help get assistance to people he'd heard about in the news and wanted to help.
No look back at Joey's life would be complete without at least one classic Vento story. My favorite involved traveling with Joey and his entourage to accept an award in Atlanta. We were in the Atlanta airport when a guy frantically ran up to me and said, "Please give my movie treatment to Mr. Scorsese." Vento, of course, was thought to be the director due to the autograph-seekers and entourage surrounding him.
Probably the most surreal tribute that has come my way for Joey was from Geraldo Rivera. I brought Geraldo to Philadelphia to debate Joey on illegal immigration, English as our official language and related issues. Vento and Rivera debated in front of a packed house. It was as heated and colorful as it gets - but they came away with mutual respect.
Geraldo wrote me: "Joey Vento - he had a big heart, strong character, sincere commitment to his city and his country. I enjoyed our spirited debates, and while we obviously disagreed passionately on certain issues, he was always a gentleman and a true patriot and I'll miss him. Condolences to his family and friends. The dialogue will be poorer with him gone."
Say a prayer for Joey and his family. Say a prayer of thanks that we live in Philadelphia and breed characters like Joey Vento.