Vintage Vince: JPAC turns into mini-Lambeau

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Thursday, September 29, 2011
— The spirit of the late Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, was alive Wednesday night at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.

Even Lombardi’s daughter, Susan, on hand to dedicate a plaque commemorating her father’s Feb. 26, 1969, speech at the former Marshall Middle School auditorium, was overwhelmed.

After Lombardi impersonator John Pinero performed excerpts of his two-hour one-man play, “Vince: The Life and Times of Vince Lombardi,” Susan met Pinero at the intermission and wept.

“You look like him, you act like him, and you scared me half to death,” Susan said after hugging Pinero.

Before the curtain went up on a nearly full house, Susan said she was thrilled with the enthusiasm for her father.

“I love it. I absolutely love it,” said Lombardi, who lives in Florida. “My dad has been dead 41 years, and all these people make him alive.’’

Lombardi and Packers’ fans listened to Pinero, watched a highlight from the HBO documentary, “Lombardi” and were treated to a host of Packers’ characters, including Middleton’s John O’Neill, who portrays St. Vince, and Gary Martin of Danville, N.J., who voluntarily tends to Lombardi’s grave.

The spirit of Lombardi motivated each man.

“I was raised a Packer fan by my dad,” said Martin, who takes a 90-minute once-a-month ride to care for Lombardi’s grave. “My father, who was a Marine in World War II, was a big Vince Lombardi fan.

“He said to me that Vince Lombardi was an ‘individual that if you were surrounded by the enemy in a foxhole, he will never surrender.’ That was very powerful on me as a little boy, and from then on, I followed everything about Vince Lombardi that I could.’’

Lombardi died in 1970 and is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Middletown, N.J.

“The grave was never in bad shape,” Martin said. “We always maintained it, but people leave a lot of garbage down there.

“I always go down there after the Super Bowl every year, and I give it a good cleaning so it’s always presentable,” Martin added. “The last couple months, I’ve made quite a few trips.’’

Martin was taken with O’Neill’s honor for Lombardi in a letter O’Neill wrote Martin, inviting him the Janesville show.

“St. Vince (O’Neill) wrote me a letter that was totally overwhelming about friendship and Lombardi,” Martin said. “I had a difficult time believing somebody loved Lombardi more than me, so I had to meet him.’’

O’Neill has been doing the St. Vince character since the Packers’ 1996 Super Bowl victory in New Orleans.

“My wife said, ‘Lombardi is got to be smiling down from heaven today,’ ” O’Neill recalled before Super Bowl XXXI. “I decided to try and represent the spirit of Lombardi, and my wife made up this outfit.’’

O’Neill is dressed in green and gold vestments of a bishop, wearing a mitre picturing Lombardi and holding a staff topped with a cheese hat.

“When I got down there (to New Orleans), I had to idea whether people would get it,” O’Neill said. “Well, they liked it quite a bit.”

O’Neill’s costume opened doors to a good thing.

“We have done a lot of charity work over the years,” O’Neill said, who is retired from Department of Corrections. “We’ve raised thousands for the cancer society in the name of Vince Lombardi.’’

O’Neill, who pays for his tickets to Packer games, had the support of the Packers.

“Bob Harlan (former Packers president) put it to me this way: “I just want to let you know we appreciate what you do. We consider you an ambassador.’’

Program organizers were Tom Presny, Howard Gage, Matt Miller, Carla Krueger, Sue Conley and Joe Kuhar.

Last updated: 6:14 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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