Joe Stortini: “10 percent of life is what happens. 90 percent is how you react to it”

Jun 18th, 2019 | By | Category: Spotlight

One of the mottos at Joeseppi’s Italian Ristorante and Deli in Tacoma is “Community Service, A Way of Life,“ owner Joe Stortini proudly proclaims.

And he should know. The 86-year-old Tacoma native has practiced what he preaches his entire life as one of Pierce County’s most impactful and influential statesmen in his day.

Stortini was born in Tacoma after his parents (Giuseppe and Giuseppina) immigrated from Port Sant’Elpidio in Italy in 1914. As a large Italian family, they struggled during their first years to make their way.

“We were poor, we never had a car as a kid growing up in Tacoma. But, we had a lot of love as a family. We did everything together,” Stortini fondly recalls. “We’d even all ride the bus together out to the Puyallup Valley to pick berries in the summer.”

Not surprisingly, his family is also fond of mottos. He grew up knowing that he needed to “Have Something to Do, Have Someone to Love, Have Something to Look Forward To.”

Stortini developed a passion for sports at an early age, which carried through attending Tacoma-area high schools and into college at the University of Puget Sound, where the UPS Hall of Fame member was a two-sport standout in football and baseball.

In football, Stortini helped guide the NCAA Division 3 Loggers to a 26-6 record, earning All-Conference honors as a quarterback and defensive halfback during his junior and senior seasons. As a four-year starter on defense, his five interceptions in a single game remains a school record. He was also a two-time All-Conference baseball selection for his alma mater, where he would later become an assistant football coach.

His love of sports continued after graduating with a masters degree in education from the University of Oregon to become a highly popular high school teacher and coach in the Tacoma School District from 1955 to 1975.

He taught government and history classes at Wilson and Mount Tahoma high schools, where he coached a number of football and baseball state championship teams, as well as several notable athletes, including Los Angeles Dodgers great Ron Cey and National Football League legend Ahmad Rashad (Bobby Moore in his high school days).

Teaching civics, Stortini would constantly encourage his students to get interested in public service, telling them, “People make a difference, politics can make a difference.”

Eventually, a group of students, including Rashad, told him, “Why don’t you run for office, coach?”

“So, I accepted their challenge and have never forgiven them since,” Stortini declared with a wink.

He ran for his first office as a Democrat in 1968, taking on powerful incumbent Pat Gallagher for the 27th District state Senate seat. Running a true grass roots campaign, his students and high school football team and families even stood in line to save his place at the elections office the day before candidate filing opened, because “back in those days the first to file was the first listed on the ballot, which can be a big advantage when the final votes are counted,” he proudly explained of his move on a veteran politician.

His parents suggested they do a spaghetti feed to raise funds for his campaign. After all, the family had experience doing similar fund-raisers for all of Stortini’s high school teams. With the whole family helping, as well as his football team, students and their parents, the first “Ma Stortini’s Spaghetti Feed” for Joe raised a little under $3,000.

“I ran my whole campaign on that money,” he noted. “And we had money left over when we were done.”

Political compromise is a lost art

During the most recent election, a candidate running for the same seat raised and spent nearly $1.1 million, Stortini points out.

“Politics have really changed over the years,” Stortini affirmed. “I really loved it back then. You had to learn to compromise. No one will compromise these days. Now everyone thinks they are completely right and the other person is completely wrong. No one will work together. Now everyone wants to be seen as the winner, including how much they raise in finances.”

Stortini recalls how Dan Evans, a Republican governor from 1965 to 1977, communicated well with both sides of the aisle in the Legislature, constantly working out compromises to move state legislation along.

“He was a very good governor, and I admired and respected him,” Stortini said. “Politicians don’t respect each other as much as we used to.”

After serving eight years (two four-year terms) in the Senate, in 1977 Stortini set his sights on the Pierce County Commissioners seat then held by George Sheridan, another powerful incumbent, because he always wanted to work in public service at a local level.

As the underdog once again, Stortini’s campaign slogan was “A Breath of Fresh Air!” The slogan was fitting, as Stortini came at the tail-end of a major racketeering scandal in the 1970s that served as a catalyst for change in Pierce County government and led to approval of a new county charter by 1980, doing away with the old three-commissioner system in favor of an elected executive and seven-member council.

Shortly after defeating Sheridan and taking office, Stortini and fellow commissioners voted 3-0 to approve an asphalt plant in the east Tacoma area. A week later, he drove by the area and saw a sign that read, “The Breath of Fresh Air Has Polluted Pierce County.”

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Welcome to local politics,’” he reflected.

After serving eight years as a commissioner and council member and spearheading the new county charter, Stortini ran successfully for county executive in 1984 after incumbent Booth Gardner moved on to his first term as governor. He was re-elected in 1988, then retired at the end of his second term after 24 years of local government service. At the time, he was considered to be one of the bright stars and success stories for the state Democratic Party.

Among his accomplishments at the county level was the establishment of a personnel department to do hiring of county employees, instead of the commissioners doing it directly. Tightening up the county budget over time and establishing open bidding practices for county projects were also given more priority, along with land-use planning.

“If there was one thing I think we could have done a better job on and could still do a better job on, it would be land-use planning,” he noted.

A new career

After retiring and spending some idle time watching TV, Stortini decided to go into the restaurant business in 1993, opening the first Mama Stortini’s Italian Restaurant in University Place.

“After watching some ‘Jerry Springer’ shows, I knew I couldn’t just sit around all day,” he said. “As a youth growing up in an Italian neighborhood, good food was always a big part of my life. The aroma of Italian dishes filled the air. A good meal could always be found on the table, and the door was always open to welcome our neighbors.”

The restaurant business seemed like a natural extension of his passion to serve others and the community around him in more ways than one. Mama Stortini’s was an immediate success and highly rated by local Italian cuisine aficionados. But Joe and his co-owners eventually lost their lease on the University Place location when the property owner decided to re-develop the spot. So they branched out to Puyallup with a location near the river that soon became one of the most popular restaurants in eastern Pierce County–popular enough that Stortini sold the restaurant to a group that has now opened up locations in Kent and Seattle, as well.

Using the money from the sale, Stortini returned to his roots and stomping grounds when he opened Joeseppi’s Italian Ristorante and Deli in 2005 in North Tacoma, where he provides his special brand of community service to this day.

“Community service is a way of life,” Stortini said. “I love that we can use our restaurant to serve the community.”

Besides serving great food, Joeseppi’s is well-known for hosting banquets, reunions, Christmas parties, and lots of fund-raisers for athletic teams, including his own seniors softball team that captured the 80-and-over title in the Softball World Master Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. In 2013.

“We held several fund-raisers for the team here. It was a great experience,” the spritely octogenarian middle infielder stated.

In fact, Stortini thrives on hosting fund-raisers for charitable events as a way to continue to give back to the community. He also serves as an auctioneer at many of the events.

“I’m good at getting money out of people,” he joked.

He has also managed to have Cey and Rashad, the Tacoma sports legends, donate various autographed items for some of the auctions, as well as an appearance on occasion. He is most proud of a signed photo of Rashad and its inscription: “Coach Joe, thanks for teaching me the game of life!”

“It really meant a lot to me,” Stortini said with pride. “It proves that people really do make a difference.”

Like most great Italian restaurant owners, Stortini greets his customers each day, stopping by each table to welcome his guests, tell a joke, or swap old stories. He is also known for his daily trivia question that, if you answer right, is good for a free appetizer.

“I’m here every day starting at 11 in the morning, eight days a week,” he quipped.

And, if there is one rule he still follows to this day, it’s that he makes sure he returns all phone calls.

“Like I have always told my students and people I work with, 10 percent of life is what happens, 90 percent is how you react to it,” he proclaimed. And, he added, “Let your smile and positive attitude change the world.”

Married for 64 years to his wife Carol, Stortini has two sons, a daughter and three grandkids. Most of the family still helps in the restaurant when they can, including his 92-year-old sister who works there on Fridays along with a 96-year-old bus boy, both of whom are highly popular with patrons.

Steve Kruse, who wrote this story, is a former journalist whose work as a newspaper editor and reporter included covering Pierce County government during Joe Stortini’s time in office.

THE REAL ITALIAN DEAL

Joeseppi’s Italian Ristorante and Deli

2207 N. Pearl St., Tacoma

253-761-5555, Joeseppis.com

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