As these short December days melt into memory, we here in Fort Lee should take time to bid farewell to our Police Chief, Tom Ripoli, who will retire with the ringing in of the New Year.
The Chief has received many accolades over the past few weeks and will likely see many more in the coming days. All are well deserved. However these accolades center on his time as Chief of the Fort Lee Police Department and for his 41-year career in the department. The Chief is not only from Fort Lee, he is Fort Lee, and I will tell you why from my own personal perspective.
Decades ago in the fall of 1972 across Main Street from Borough Hall, I first met Tom Ripoli. I was an 11-year-old kid from the Coytesville section of town. My friend Shawn and I ventured on our Schwinn bikes one day to the Madonna School field adjacent to the library on Main Street. We were there to tryout for a local Fort Lee football team, and as luck would have it, we both made the team, the Fort Lee Chargers, coached by Tom Ripoli.
Now Fort Lee in 1972 was a very different Fort Lee than the 21st century borough. Our neighborhoods were clearly defined and almost like small villages unto themselves, where the kids of those specific neighborhoods rarely ventured outside the invisible demarcation lines that made up their section of town.
Thus, West Fort Lee kids were mostly on the western section of Main Street and the streets in and around Jones Road. Lower Main Street kids were pretty much east of Schlosser all the way down to Bigler and below as Main Street turned into River Road. The Palisade section kids had the run of a very toney neighborhood atop the cliffs of the Palisades, where mansions abound as well as stories of such noted residents as diverse as comedian Buddy Hackett and organized crime kingpin Albert Anastasia – Hackett actually bought the old Anastasia house and lived in it for years.
Now Coytesville kids had the run of their section of the cliffs of the Palisades, but the setting leaned toward American rustic. The streets were narrow, and the homes small and cottage-like with the occasional old grand Victorian with wraparound porch.
I give this rather meandering description because it reads to the story. Sports allowed us our first chance to exit these small neighborhoods on a regular basis and meet kids from the other sections of town. This usually happened in 5th or 6th grade when we played Little League baseball, or in my case, when we tried out for a Fort Lee Junior Football team.
As I recall vividly, young Coach Ripoli was very inspirational and understanding and was quite unlike the stereotypical kids' coach who screams and yells at his players. Coach Ripoli encouraged all of us to do our best, and if we did, win or lose, we would all be winners. Many of us have taken his lessons to heart and used them in our own lives.
During our practices on the old Madonna field we not only became players, we became a team thanks to Coach Ripoli and his assistant coaches who included the late Coach Cirone. I vividly recall Coach Ripoli handing out star stickers for our helmets awarded to those who gave their all in practice and in games, and all of us worked hard not just to get the star, but to get his approval for a job well done.
I recently viewed the HBO documentary on legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi. The most interesting part of this documentary were the interviews of his former players, from the kids he coached at St. Cecelia’s High School in nearby Englewood, to Green Bay Packers such as Bart Starr. They all shared the same story: how Coach Lombardi not only taught them to be great players, but he taught them life lessons that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. I feel the same way about our own Coach Ripoli.
That fall of 1972 saw Coach Ripoli's Fort Lee Chargers go undefeated. I have included our team photo taken that fall. You will see a very young Coach Ripoli. I am number 41, a number I chose because of famous Chicago Bears player Brian Piccolo, whose life was documented in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song. Yes, like all 10-year old boys in 1971 America, I was glued to the TV watching this moving story.
So the years passed, and decade flowed into decade, and I eventually became involved in civic organizations in Fort Lee and of course crossed paths with my old coach.
Coach Ripoli never changed, for no matter how many years passed, we were always players on his team, and he wanted us to do our best. Coach Ripoli has inspired hundreds of Fort Lee kids over the years and without his kind words and leadership many of us may not have taken the right road in life.
So Coach Ripoli became Chief Ripoli and the Chief is retiring. One thing is certain, Coach Ripoli will never retire and I know he will continue to live his life in service to others wherever the road takes him in the future.