Vernon R. Spitaleri, a longtime Laguna Beach resident, war hero and entrepreneur, died in January at the age of 94.
Born Aug. 2, 1922, in Pelham, N.Y., Vernon was the son of immigrant parents Rosario and Martha Spitaleri from Italy, who taught their three children life lessons, business skills and a love for music. Playing musical instruments and singing together were the family’s evening entertainment.
Vern’s baritone drew the notice of the president of Julliard, who invited him to study and develop his operatic talents. He sang under the pseudonym of Francois Chardonnay at Carnegie Hall, on radio and with a jazz band.
At age 16 he entered Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he played football and earned an engineering degree. With World War II looming, studies were taught at an accelerated pace as engineers were needed for the war effort. He shoveled coal and taught dance to help pay his tuition.
Spitaleri aimed to enlist as a military pilot. When a concussion from a test flight crash meant a year-long ban from the cockpit, he ended up commanding six assault ships. He went on to earn several medals, including a purple heart for a D-Day assault on Normandy in rough seas where he almost lost his life. He referred to that experience as “the hottest show of ’em all.” His ships deployed for amphibious landings in North Africa, France and Italy, where he and his crew briefly were held captive in a confiscated church. At night, they overpowered guards and escaped, said Spitaleri’s son, Kris.
Spitaleri left military service as a lieutenant commander. Shrapnel that remained lodged in his diaphragm and a desire for family stability influenced his decision to forgo a career in opera for business ventures and investment.
His professional career spanned decades and several industries. His most extensive work was in the newspaper industry. Along the way, he held leadership posts at several industry organizations and newspaper groups, including Knight Ridder Newspapers, and later its flagship paper, the Miami Herald. Up until the 1970s, he also worked as a top executive at several companies, all involved in newspaper production.
Spitaleri went on to get involved with many start-up companies in fields ranging from metallurgy to surf wear. Locally, he was known for ownership of the hometown paper, which “was his hobby,” according to his son.
In the mid ‘60s, Spitaleri merged the two local papers to create The Laguna News Post, located at Glenneyre and Forest Avenue. (It survives as an Orange County Register weekly.) Ever the entrepreneur, the editor-publisher waged a 17-year restraint of trade battle to distribute a newspaper in gated Leisure World, which went to the state Supreme Court and set a legal precedent welcomed by publishers nationwide, his son said.
His wife actually operated the paper though Spitaleri wrote his own editorials, his son said. Spitaleri took pride in publishing his opponent’s viewpoints, which he solicited for submissions. “He would put the full weight of the paper behind projects,” his son said.
Projects Spitaleri promoted define the city’s character today. As president of the Laguna Beach Boys Club, he pushed for a new facility in Laguna Canyon. As founding president of Friends of the Laguna Beach Library, he spearheaded construction of a new facility. When a police officer’s death sparked support for a hospital, he raised funds for the former South Coast Medical Center. He played a role in the acquisition of the city’s Main Beach park, establishing the James Dilly Preserve and breaking up the Laguna Art Museum merger. As president of The Laguna Moulton Playhouse, he organized its renovation and expansion. His concern over affordable housing for artists helped instigate the city’s artist live-work housing ordinance.
As president of Opera Pacific, he negotiated for Lucciano Pavarotti to perform at the then-new Segerstrom Performing Arts Center and played a role in its creation.
In 1998, the town honored Spitaleri in its parade and Jan. 22, 2010, was officially declared Vernon R. Spitaleri Day in Laguna Beach.
Vern and his wife Cherry Ferrari, who he met on a blind date and married in 1952, traveled and sailed extensively.
His son recalls some of Spitaleri’s oft-repeated aphorisms: “Society gives to us, so give back to society.” “Make decisions with the facts you have; wait too long and others will make decisions for you.” “Learn from the successes and mistakes of others or life may teach you more harshly.” “Do the best you can. No one is perfect, except your mother.”
Spitaleri is survived by his wife, Cherry; their four children, Marc (and wife Michelle), Eric, Kris and Lynn; nine grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild; and many relatives and friends.
Family and friends are invited Saturday, April 29, to celebrate Spitaleri’s memory. To RSVP or share a story, email mspitaleri @aol.com.