Rear Admiral Joe Rizza
January 30th, 1915 – October 5th, 2012
As a career naval officer married to a movie star, Rear Adm. Joseph Rizza frequently met the famous and the infamous. He was friends with Princess Grace of Monaco, had drinks with actress Lana Turner, broke bread with Zaire’s King Mobuto, lunched with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, dined with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and shook hands with Adolf Hitler — before World War II.
Adm. Rizza’s 31 years in the Navy was bookended by a stint in the Merchant Marines and as a key adviser in U.S. foreign policy. In between, he fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
In 1972, at the invitation of Gov. Ronald Reagan, he became president of the beleaguered California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. During his tenure, which ended in 1983, he opened the school’s doors to women and expanded the study course from three to four years, enabling the academy to become an accredited institution in the California State University system.
“That academy was a mess when he took it over,” said friend Joe Ditler, who penned Adm. Rizza’s biography, “The Life & Times of Joe Rizza: Friend of All the World.”
“He ended up turning it around. His great contribution was his fairness and his ability to make suggestions in a professional, but personal way.”
Adm. Rizza died of congestive heart failure Oct. 5 at Sharp Coronado Hospital. He was 97.
Joseph Patula Rizza was born Jan. 30, 1915, in Johnstown, Pa., the eldest of three to Angelo Rizza and Concetta Patula. He and his younger brother were sent to an orphanage after their father died in the 1918 influenza pandemic because their mother couldn’t provide for them. They returned home after their mother and their father’s brother married, an arrangement made so he could care for the family.
To ensure he never had to go back to the orphanage, Adm. Rizza worked from an early age, shining shoes and working six days a week in steel mills until he was accepted to the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy.
He graduated from the academy in 1936. He returned to school, graduating cum laude in political science from the University of Washington in 1951. He received a master’s in political science from Boston University in 1958 while working evenings and weekends as an instructor and chairman of the Strategy and Tactics Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
After the maritime academy, he sailed for six years with the U.S. Lines Steam Ship Co. out of New York. He joined the Navy at the onset of World War II and fought in numerous major amphibious assaults in the Pacific Theater.
Among his first assignments was as navigator and operations officer aboard the Leedstown in the Marshall and Solomon islands campaigns, and as executive officer of the Banner throughout New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa, where he narrowly escaped a kamikazi attack that plagued him with nightmares and back pain for the rest of his life.
He was also executive officer on the destroyers O’Brien and Lloyd Thomas, and was commander of the destroyer escort Spangler, destroyer Gregory, the Destroyer Escort Squadron 3 in the Pacific Fleet, and the Mountrail in the Atlantic Fleet Amphibious Force.
From 1960 to 1963, he played a key role in building Korea’s navy as commander of the U.S. Naval Advisory Group to the Republic of Korean Navy. In the mid-1960s, he served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as Far East politico-military planner in the Plans and Policy Directorate, where he was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal for outstanding performance.
In 1968, he was personally chosen by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt to be his chief of staff, overseeing all allied navies in the Vietnam War.
His personal life equaled the stuff of novels. In the late 1940s, he met his childhood screen idol, actress Dona Clara (born Marie Antoinette Follin), at a ship’s christening. The two married in 1949 and remained together until her death in 1991.
Adm. Rizza belonged to several organizations, including the Council of American Master Mariners, Navy League San Diego, Coronado Roundtable as president emeritus, World Affairs Council-San Diego as director, San Diego Civil Service Commission as president, and Propeller Club Port of San Diego as president emeritus, and the Coronado Rotary Club.
“Joe was always a very thoughtful, considerate person who was interested not only in his friends, but in the family of his friends,” said longtime friend Mike Dabbar. “In his waning days, when I told him my wife had broken her foot, he sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers the next day.
“He remembered it and did something about it. Frankly, I thought that was remarkable.”
Adm. Rizza is survived by his second wife, Fran Walker Rizza of Coronado; grandsons Phillip Monroe of San Diego and Michael Monroe of Moraga; and six great-grandchildren.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Resurrection Lutheran Church of Coronado. Interment will be 11:30 a.m. Dec. 7 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made in Adm. Rizza’s memory to the Coronado Rotary and Coronado Roundtable.
Biography from the San Diego Union Tribune