The $125-a-plate testimonial dinner on Long Island last week began with an invocation by Father Louis Gigante, a Bronx priest who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year: "Dear God, bless this food, bless this night, and God bless Joe Colombo and all the good deeds he has done."
As the evening wore on, Joe's deeds were extolled by the master of ceremonies, dais guests, and men and women seated at the nearly 100 tables scattered across the auditorium. A retired barber from Coney Island: "All Italians look up to him. He's a wonderful fatherhe always tells his son Anthony to make sure his coat is buttoned whenever he goes outside." Natale Marcone, president of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which sponsored the black-tie affair: "Women in the neighborhood kiss his hand when he passes. He gives them his umbrella in the rain. Just the way he shakes your hand you know he's a great man."
Joe, of course, is Joseph Colombo Sr., guest of honor, league founder and, law enforcement officials insist, the head of one of New York's Mafia families. His testimonial had been moved up two days because on the original date Colombo had been scheduled to begin serving a prison sentence for perjury.
Thirteen hundred people were on hand to pay homage, as the engraved invitation explained, to Colombo's "undying devotion to the Italian-American people and all humanitarian causes."
Questions about his underworld life were dismissed by Westchester County Elementary Schoolteacher Dick Capazzola, one of the diners. Said Capazzola: "If Joe's guilty of all they say, they ought to make him Secretary of State at least, because he's too smart for them to prove anything."
Curbing Slurs. When it was finally Colombo's turn at the microphone, he observed: "The Attorney General hates our guts. I think the President is behind it. I want to make the league the greatest organization in the country, the greatest organization in the world, so that people will be proud of us no matter what we do, where we are, even if we are in prison."
It is with such appeals to ethnic pride, aided by legitimate grievances over discrimination against Italian-Americans, that Joseph Colombo has attracted supporters, opening chapters in New York, Las Vegas and Miami. Most joined the league for its efforts to curb ethnic slurs and stereotypes, and would be appalled at any use of it by the underworld. But the league, inadvertently or not, has benefited the Mafiaserving as a public relations smokescreen for mob activities. Colombo's leadership of the league has made him the most outspoken reputed Mafia leader in the history of organized crime as well as a straight-faced anti-defamation champion to many New Yorkers of Italian extraction.