Fraser remembers local businessman

By: Nico Rubello | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published April 22, 2013


Saying Goodbye to
a Man Dedicated
to His Family and
His Community

By State Representative
Marilyn Lane
My heart aches with deep grief today.  Very few people have the type of magic and compassion that embodied Joe DiStefano.

Personally, it is tough to put into words how much Joe has meant to my family and I. His unwavering love and support has guided me through many decisions, personal and professional. His encouragement of me to pursue public office was a predominant factor in my decision to run for Mayor and later for State Representative.

My daughter and I shared every Christmas with Joe. As I look back on all of our time together, those are some of my most cherished memories. Every year, we looked forward to visiting with him, enjoying his famous homemade wine, fotunella cheese, and homemade bread.

Our conversations were always about the importance of family, community, and the types of values that carried over from our shared Italian heritage.

Joe brought joy to everyone he touched throughout his long and full life. Moving to Fraser in 1989, he is an icon in our community for economic and social development. He was a constant at Fraser City Council Meetings, always talking about the great spirit of our city and our people. I would stop in often to just say “hi,” for the sole reason that his kind heart would always put a smile on my face.

Joe and I would always speak about our faith and the deep role in played in our day-to-day lives. So, while I say goodbye to a true friend and mentor, I know his family and our city gained a guardian angel to watch over us.

Goodbye, Papa Joe. Thank you for everything that you meant to me, my family, and our community. I will miss you more than words can describe.

FRASER — The Fraser community will remember Joe DiStefano as a staunch advocate for the city and one of its foremost developers during the 1970s and beyond.

DiStefano, 90, passed away the night of April 16, at home. He is survived by his wife, Joanne; three children, John DiStefano, Mary Libecki and Charles DiStefano; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Libecki remembered her father as a dedicated family-man and a true businessman.

“He loved his family, but he loved his work and his business,” she said.

Ercole “Joe” DiStefano embodied the iconic American image of a self-made man rising from humble beginnings. He was born in 1922 in the rural town of Grotte, Sicily,  and followed his fascination with airplanes into the Italian Air Force. He served as a flight mechanic for years before leaving Sicily for Detroit at the age of 27.

“When the boat was ready to leave the port in Palermo (Sicily), they blew the whistle and it broke my heart,” he recalled for an interview in February 2012. “It was a really touching moment to leave your country into the unknown.”

He arrived in Detroit, began learning English and ran a Detroit poultry shop owned by his sister, Lillian, and her husband. For decades, he ran the shop, and later owned it too, earning him the long-lived nickname Chicken Joe.

In 1964, he found his true calling in the building trade. It was then that, despite having no prior construction experience, he took on a massive project remodeling 29 Marathon gas stations. After that, he continued buying land, building on it and selling it to tenants.

Beginning in 1971, he invested in an unusable, swampy tract of land in the northeast quadrant of Fraser. He became instrumental in the building of the Fraser Industrial Complex that now stands there. Today, the complex accounts for about 25 percent of the city’s total tax base.

He owned building companies, namely Venice Building and, most recently, Lido Building Corporation. Numerous buildings in Fraser bear his influence as a developer and a real estate broker, including a shopping complex; residential neighborhoods like DiStefano Court, on which he lived; and many more industrial buildings.

As the contractor on the Fraser Train Depot Visitors Center, for instance, DiStefano pulled business contacts and donated a lot of materials to complete the job on a limited budget, said Joseph Chimenti, vice chairman of the Fraser Historical Commission.

“He never stopped,” Libecki added. “Up until his passing, he was still talking business and talking about additions to a building.”

It was through his building endeavors that he became involved in Fraser city affairs. He never relented, barely missing a city commission meeting for decades.

In recent years, he continued to shuffle to the microphone — always wearing a suit and tie — to add a neutral word of politics-aside transcendence to a heated City Council debate.

“He’d get along with every side,” said Fraser Building Official Randy Warunek, who met DiStefano his first week on the job in September 1996. “He’d always try to promote logic when he was saying anything at any of the meetings.”

DiStefano always wanted to comply with city building ordinances and adapted willingly as regulations changed, Warunek added.

“Joe’s understanding of the building industry was unique,” he said. “He took his vision for the small town of Fraser, applied it with the tools he had available and created a complex of buildings, his works of art, that will be his legacy.”

During his public comments, DiStefano always spoke highly of Fraser and even admired the city’s seal, which bore three words: “industry, education and community.” DiStefano said in 2012: “The last 40 years have turned out to be the happiest years of my life because the opportunities I had in this community turned out to be a dream come true.”

He also was generous with his homemade, all-natural wine and sausage, of which he was proud. He also kept up his vast backyard garden. He loved history and opera. Some describe him as a Renaissance man.

“He had a passion for life; he never lost it,” she added. “He had more energy in his 80s than any of his kids did. He’d be out there (in the garden) for hours, tying the tomato plants up in 90-degree weather.”

This past December, surrounded by his family, DiStefano was publicly recognized with official proclamations from both the city of Fraser and from the state of Michigan.

“The story never ends,” he said at the time. “Life can be a great pleasure.”

Fraser City Councilman Bill Morelli has many fond memories of the two talking over DiStefano’s homemade wine — “it had the kick of a mule” — and cheese in DiStefano’s basement wine cellar.

Ever the self-made man, DiStefano usually learned by doing things hands-on, Morelli said.

“He was a unique individual,” Morelli said. “We’re going to miss him.”