Former Norwalk Mayor Luigi Vernola dies of COVID-19 at 76

Luigi+Vernola+was+the+former+mayor+of+Norwalk%2C+councilmember+and+philanthropist+who+died+of+coronavirus+complications+on+Jan.+1.+Many+family+and+friends+remember+him+as+a+kind+and+charitable+man.

Luigi Vernola was the former mayor of Norwalk, councilmember and philanthropist who died of coronavirus complications on Jan. 1. Many family and friends remember him as a kind and charitable man.

Daniel Suarez Jr. and Vincent Medina

Editor’s note – Correction April 7, 2021

Vernola is also survived by his son, Tommy Vernola. 

On Jan. 1, the former Mayor of Norwalk Luigi Vernola died from complications due to COVID-19, according to multiple sources close to him.

 

Vernola is survived by his wife, Joan Vernola, son Tommy Vernola, daughters Lisa Vernola and Kristina Freesmeir, his ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

 

In December, the Vernola family also lost Luigi’s brother, Mike Vernola, and son-in-law Gilbert Salas. Both had a strong relationship with Luigi.

 

Freesmeier, who teaches at Lakeview Elementary School, said her father “loved America.”

 

“He was so proud to be American. He wanted to give back to the community that gave so much to him while he was building his business,” Freesmeier said. “He was there for anyone that needed help.”

 

Vernola’s eldest daughter, Lisa, now runs his towing company, Vernola’s Tow Service, at 13514 Norwalk Blvd. His company is contracted with the AAA Auto Club.

Luigi Vernola died on Jan. 1, and was a well-known philanthropist and businessman. His eldest daughter, Lisa, now runs his towing company "Vernola&squot;s Tow Service" at 13514 Norwalk Blvd.
Luigi Vernola died on Jan. 1, and was a well-known philanthropist and businessman. His eldest daughter, Lisa, now runs his towing company “Vernola’s Tow Service” at 13514 Norwalk Blvd. Photo credit: Vincent Medina

 

Vernola was actively involved in community projects and charitable organizations. He donated to the Norwalk Lions Club, holding food drives and Turkey trots and founding the Santa’s Sleigh Foundation.

 

Vernola’s foundation would organize volunteers and community members every December in a drive-by gift-giving celebration. A float with a photo set would set up in several neighborhoods, inviting families to take pictures with Santa and elves.

 

Due to the pandemic’s severity, Santa’s Sleigh didn’t run in 2020, marking the first holiday season without the program since its founding 30 years ago.

 

“He loved Christmas and he loved kids,” said friend and Norwalk Lions Club member Custodio Celeste who has volunteered for Santa’s Sleigh from the beginning.

 

“He would drop off furniture for families and would always visit the elderly. He liked to help out a lot of people for Christmas,” Celeste said.

 

Vernola’s love of children encouraged him to help students pay for their trips to Washington D.C.

 

Vice-Mayor Tony Ayala recalled when the hospital refused to release seniors because they did not have the proper equipment at home. Vernola used his personal funds to build ramps for the seniors to return home.

 

Vernola, the son of Italian immigrants, graduated from Norwalk High School and remained faithful to his community.

 

He once journeyed back to Italy and met Pope John Paul II.

 

In the 1980s he was appointed to the Norwalk City Council and later served as mayor. He held office again in 2013.

 

“Everyone knew he was the right man for the job. He always thought in terms of right and wrong. He listened to his morals first,” Ayala said. “He was a leader, and that’s what I will miss most about him.”

Vernola served on the city council at the same time as Bob Arthur, who is the father of Norwalk’s current mayor, Jenifer Perez.

 

“I had a very long and great relationship with him and his entire family,” said Mayor Perez.

 

“One of my favorite memories of Luigi was back in the ’90s when they brought around the Santa’s Sleigh float to the city,” she continued. “His face would light up when he saw the kids happy. He was charitable all the time.”

“I will miss his out-of-the-box thinking,” said Councilman Rick Ramierez. “He was always thinking about the community and wanted what was best for the city.”

During Vernola’s tenure serving Norwalk, he was a strong advocate for local control.

 

“Congresspeople and legislatures did not know Norwalk like we did,” said Perez. “We knew, as a council, what was best for our city. Luigi always fought to maintain that local control.”

In March 2020, Vernola stepped down from local politics when he lost his city council seat as vice mayor to Margarita Rios, who now serves as a councilwoman in Norwalk.

 

“I worked closely with Vernola when I was elected to the council in 2017,” Rios said. “One of the things I’m going to miss about Luigi is how much he cared about young people and students. He always tried to make a difference in their lives.”

“I will miss his love for our country, for our veterans,” Perez recalled. “He was always very mischievous. He would get that look in his eye and that smile on his face and you knew he was up to something.”

While it is still unknown where Vernola contracted the virus, Ramirez stated that the city is following safety guidelines to keep employees and the public safe.