One question can change your life. Just ask Joe LaPorte. In the late 1960s, he was standing in the shadows at Memorial Park, minding his own business while his son Dan raced around the bases during a Little League tryout. The coach sidled up to LaPorte with a devilish grin. “Can you help out?” he asked.
LaPorte watched the two dozen boys running around the field. Did he know what he was getting himself into? Probably not, but he rolled up his sleeves and jumped in.
“I said that I wasn’t going to be one of those fathers that gets all involved, but then Danny got picked as a nine-year old,” said LaPorte. “I didn’t even want to get involved.”
Two weeks later the coach was reassigned to second shift, LaPorte was thrust into the head coaching role, and it set in motion a career that has changed the town’s landscape. There have been countless construction projects, hundreds of fundraising drives, and thousands of meetings. He’s spent 30 years on the Board of Park Commissioners and two terms on the Town Council.
His wife Delores was dragged into volunteer work. Even his sons inherited his commitment to develop sports for Southington’s youth.
That coaching job set the foundation for thousands of local athletes, and it all started with a simple question posed by his son’s coach.
“Joe’s the most amazing person that I’ve ever seen in the community. He’s always giving of himself, and he’s never afraid to challenge you,” said John Fontana, a former classmate, teammate, and fellow park board member. “If he thinks that it’s good for the kids of this town, he’ll go to bat for them. You just can’t stop him.”
LaPorte quickly looked past his own players to the many other local kids that didn’t have a chance to play Little League. With just two local programs, the competition for positions was fierce. Cutting players was heartbreaking, so LaPorte did what any good volunteer would do. He started another league.
He joined forces with Don Stepanek and Bill DellaVecchia. A small baseball field became available on Mill Street, and the trio scrambled to form a third local Little League. In 1970, the Western Little League opened its doors to create even more opportunities for Southington’s kids.
Soon, the league outgrew their small field. LaPorte and DellaVecchia spearheaded a campaign to acquire a parcel of town land on Spring Street to develop a state-of-the-art complex. Armed with just $6,000, the pair began the process of raising funds, gathering volunteers, and building the facility that houses the league today. LaPorte rolled up his sleeves and led the crusade.
“I thought he was retired back in those days because he was always around. I found out later that he was in sales, so he had the time to do it, but every afternoon he was there working,” said DellaVecchia. “What can you say about Joe? When he gets into something, he’s totally involved. That’s what makes him what he is. When he takes on something, he doesn’t do it half. He’s 100 percent no matter what it is.”
It quickly became clear that LaPorte was a great organizer, an excellent motivator, and wasn’t afraid to jump in to any project. When his sons reached the high school, they turned to soccer. Once again, LaPorte saw a need for Southington’s kids, and he began to talk about it with anyone who’d listen.
“I saw how far behind we were in soccer because we had no feeder program,” he said. “Al Lederman was the Superintendent of Schools, and he had a kid growing up. He said that we should start a youth league. We went to West Hartford and sat in on some of their soccer league meetings. We got some ideas, and we started a soccer league in 1975.”
It didn’t bother LaPorte that he wasn’t an expert at soccer or any other sport for that matter. He still champions himself as an all-conference batting practice catcher for his two years as a backup to the backup catcher in the early 1950s. It didn’t matter that his sons were too old to benefit from a feeder program. It was a good idea, and that’s all that mattered to LaPorte.
“Our rules were meant to get everyone involved,” he said. “We shortened the fields because they were kids. We had substitutions, and we played quarters. Everybody had to play at least half the game provided that they went to the practice. There were no championships. There were no standings. There were no all-star games and no banquets. We got criticized. Some people told us that the kids deserved trophies, but what kind of trophy did they deserve? They deserve to play, have a good time, and have good coaching. That’s what’s important.”
The recreational league grew by leaps and bounds on five make-shift fields behind Derynoski Elementary School. The first year attracted almost 180 kids, aged 9-14. The next year, the league swelled to more than 300 boys and girls. The next year drew 400 kids. The fourth year drew more than 600 boys and girls.
“I never expected it to grow to the extent that it did, but I knew that it would grow because we had girls playing and a lot of other leagues didn’t allow that yet,” he said. “Football was the only game in town, but this allowed our kids another outlet. You didn’t really need to know a lot. If you were willing to run and put in the effort, you could play soccer.”
It didn’t take long for the startup league to outgrow the small facility. On Sundays, it was standing room only from dawn to dusk. Once again, LaPorte’s league needed a new home. Once again, he rolled up his sleeves. This time, he was able to secure an old dumping ground at the back of Recreation Park.
“It was just a big pile of junk, but we got it all removed. We got it graded, seeded, and developed,” said LaPorte. “The cost to the town was only $20,000, but it took a lot of work. Jiggy Egidio helped me out with the bulldozer. Gene DeRosa lent us a bulldozer, and we did it. The engineering department would come down and give us the grades. Everyone helped out.”
Soon a soccer complex took shape with four soccer fields with parking and room for spectators. Bob Swanson was one of the league’s first coaches before he took over the reigns years later. He’s seen the local soccer program continue to grow with a club house, more fields, a travel soccer league, and a feeder program that helped lift the Lady Knights to a state championship in 2002.
Swanson credits LaPorte as the catalyst for all that followed.
“He was the godfather,” he said. “He’s just a great guy, and he’s very interested in kids. He wants them to have fun and learn how to play a sport. They don’t have to be involved in a having-to-win-at-all-costs kind of thing. They don’t have to worry about titles or all-star teams or anything like that. He just wanted to form a program where they could learn to play soccer. If they got to a point where they wanted to go further, that’s where the travel club came in.”
With that project finished, LaPorte turned his sights to something new. Dave Kanute envisioned a wrestling program as a feeder program for Southington’s youth, so he turned to LaPorte. Once again, there was no hesitation.
“He’s probably one of the best supporters of sports, especially since it’s all been volunteerism,” said Kanute. “He didn’t run paid clinics. It was never to further his kids or anything else. It’s easy to get volunteers in kids sports when their kids are involved, but to have parents stay after they leave is unusual. That’s Joe. He’s a tireless worker. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical work, organization, or helping to raise some money. When you talk about it and it needs to be done, there’s Joe.”
That’s one reason why LaPorte was drawn into local government. He served his first stint with the park board from 1979-1984. He took a five year break before he was pulled in again, and he continues to serve through the present. LaPorte was appointed as chairman from 2000-2009.
When the town purchased the former drive-in site, town officials turned to LaPorte once again. He spearheaded the project to create an all-purpose field to be used as an additional field for one of the town’s midget football leagues. Last June, LaPorte was awarded a CT General Assembly citation for his public service.
“I just want to be remembered as a guy that really loved this town, loved the people that were working for it, and I did the best I could to make this a better town,” he said. “I’ve never been one to attend a meeting once a month and approve the minutes. I’ve always been involved. Maybe that’s one reason why I’ve been around for so long. I’ve been reappointed by Democrats, Republicans. It doesn’t matter.”
With his decades of ongoing service, it was no surprise that committee members selected LaPorte to be inducted into the Southington Sports Hall of Fame as a booster. He will be inducted during a ceremony at the Aqua Turf on Thursday, Nov. 8. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame, (860) 628-7335.
“I’m sort of disappointed that I didn’t make it on my athletic ability,” he said with a laugh. “I’m honored. It puts me in with a lot of really great athletes, and I never was a great athlete. Being associated with them is a great honor for me.”
Of course, without his contributions, many of the other hall of fame honorees might never have had the opportunity.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.