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Italian Pride

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In honor of the 34th annual St. Coleman Italian Festival, Lighthouse Point magazine gets to know Dr. Richard Porraro, the founder of the festival and organizer for over three decades.

Mark your calendar now for one of Florida’s most beloved, delicious, and fun-filled festivals— the St. Coleman Italian Festival. Enjoy wonderful food, exciting rides, games, arts and crafts, and top-notch entertainment.
WHEN: Feb. 17, 1 – 11pm;
Feb. 18, 12 – 11pm;
Feb. 19, 12 – 8pm
WHERE: Saint Coleman’s Church, 1200 S. Federal Highway, Pompano Beach
TICKETS AND WRISTBANDS: Tickets may be used for food, rides, and St. Coleman sponsored games. Wristbands are available for unlimited rides. For pricing, advance sales and more information about this year’s festival visit italianfest.org.

Sitting on a living room couch in his Pompano Beach home, Dr. Richard Porraro turns the pages of a photo album and periodically calls attention to one or another of the pages. There’s a little girl — tiny blue and yellow flowers painted on her cheeks — contemplating a plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce. There are kids riding on a miniature train and families huddled around tables of food. Another, from 1998, shows a newspaper ad promoting the appearance of the popular music group The Drifters.

These photos tell the story of the St. Coleman Italian Festival, which will be held this month for the 34th time in Pompano Beach — a history that’s inseparable from Dr. Porraro’s last three decades. You can say he’s a father of the festival and a driving force in planning and managing it all these years. Nothing goes on forever though, and as Porraro approached his 80th birthday he decided to let loose the reins of this year’s festival.

Flash back to 1984. As Porraro tells it, he and five other men planned among themselves to raise money to expand and improve the original St. Coleman Catholic Church, and opted for a family festival in the church parking lot. It was a modest beginning with pony rides, a dunking booth, a raffle and food. To their surprise, they netted $30,000.

“We thought we were in heaven,” he says.

What they saw as a windfall encouraged them to keep going and trying every year to make the festival bigger and better. And they did. The festival has now become a significant fundraising event — a three-day affair, including continuous entertainment, that attracts more than 10,000 people a year.

The fruits of their fundraising are now visible expansions and improvements at St. Coleman School and the parish, including added classrooms, a media center and an administrative wing at the school, and a parish hall kitchen. There’s also an outdoor gymnasium, which is appropriately named in Porraro’s honor.

None of this could have been done without dedicated volunteers. Porraro estimates that volunteers work as many as 10,000 hours each year to make the festival a success. Among the many examples he cites are the volunteers who began cooking spaghetti sauce four months before the festival to produce 90 or 100 gallons in time. Another took his vacation time from work to help prepare the festival grounds. Another traveled from Vero Beach to help. Others are parents whose children have long since graduated from St. Coleman School.

Porraro won’t estimate the hours that he, himself, has dedicated to the festival. However, Kathy Tight, who has worked closely with him for 17 years, put it this way: “He worked on it day and night. He’s a phenomenal leader with the unique ability to bring people together.” She added that he’s “quite a character,” which makes him a joy to work with.

This year’s festival will be held on Feb. 17, 18 and 19 on the St. Coleman School grounds at 1200 S. Federal Highway, in Pompano Beach. Festival admission is free, but tickets are needed for rides and food, of course. The fun includes continuous entertainment, amusement rides, games, arts and crafts, raffles, lots of food selections and a silent auction with a wide range of attractive items to bid on — from restaurant meals to vacations. (Information about the festival and ticket pricing is available on the festival website: italianfest.org. Click on “tickets” to see various combinations.)

From the get-go, the festival has been promoted as the “Italian” festival. You may have wondered about the “Italian” designation. That’s easy to explain.

“There were five Italian guys and one Irishman among the six of us [who initiated it],” Porraro says with a grin.

And so, through the years, it has remained the St. Coleman Italian Festival.

As Porraro steps aside from festival preparations, he’s also phasing out his dental practice after 52 years of serving patients in Pompano Beach and the region.

With more time on his hands, he’ll be sure to swing a golf club more often. His passion for the sport is evident by the large collection of golf balls displayed on his walls — one ball for each course he’s played on. And there are many, including the fabled St. Andrews in Scotland.

This month — for the first time in 34 years — Dr. Richard Porraro has no direct responsibility for the St. Coleman Italian Festival. But you may not want to bet he won’t stop by to see how things are going.

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