Anthony Pizza, who spent a record 45 years in the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office - including 20 years as the elected prosecutor - and was known for his commitment to the community, died yesterday in Toledo Hospital. He was 85.
He died of pancreatic cancer. He underwent surgery this year but learned last month the cancer had spread.
Mr. Pizza helped expand the office from 10 assistant prosecutors to 50 and saw a jump in the number of felony cases tried from 600 to 3,000.
Respected by both members of the prosecutor's office and defense attorneys, Mr. Pizza is credited for offering ideas on the Crime Stopper program, reaching out to school children, and helping create the Toledo-Lucas County Victim Witness Assistance Program.
"He was a hero. He was a tremendous mentor. He was a fierce fighter of crime. He was loving to his family. I guess his legacy is incredible," said Prosecutor Julia Bates, who was elected after Mr. Pizza retired in 1996. "His legacy will survive as one of greatness, an advocate of victims, and truly a scholar of law."
Known for his integrity and honesty, Mr. Pizza decided at a young age to serve the public. The son of Italian immigrants, he once told his wife of 63 years, Madlynn, that his earliest memory includes deciding to become a lawyer to help people.
Mr. Pizza graduated from Libbey High School, where he played varsity football and was class salutatorian. He attended Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Toledo law school in 1950.
A year later, then-county Prosecutor Harry Friberg asked the 30-year-old Mr. Pizza to join his staff. He said he talked it over with his father, who suggested that he do it for a couple of years for the experience.
Two years turned into 45.
"Toledo has lost one of its elder statesmen and a pillar of the legal community," Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said.
"People will always remember him as a prosecutor who kept the victims of crime foremost in everything he did. His creation of the Victim-Witness Assistance Program led to a dramatic increase in the number of people who came forward to assist in the prosecution of crime.
"He was a dedicated public servant," Mr. Finkbeiner said.
Assistant County Prosecutor John Weglian, chief of the office's criminal division, remembered Mr. Pizza's tenure as one that included an "open door." Mr. Weglian worked as an assistant prosecutor for Mr. Pizza from 1980-82 and again from 1988 until Mr. Pizza's retirement.
It was Mr. Pizza's personable demeanor and constant smile that made him endearing to both his staff and the public. After his initial appointment to serve as prosecutor in 1976, Mr. Pizza, a Democrat, ran undefeated for the office until his retirement.
"Tony was terribly active. Not only was his office door open, but he answered his own phone and he was always available for people to talk to," Mr. Weglian said. "His popularity ratings were in the 70s [percentile] regardless of who ran against him. He was just loved by the people in the community," he added.
"Tony was charmed and he had a good staff, and his staff did a very good job for him."
In fact, many assistant prosecutors who worked for him, and some lawyers who ran against him, became judges.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick said she recalls working with Mr. Pizza as assistant prosecutor and specifically the mess that was his desk. But he always knew where everything was and would always be available to talk to the public or help a colleague.
"Tony was an exceptional person. Often we can't go through life without making enemies. But one thing about Tony, he never did," she said. "He was fair to everyone and he was a humble person. He didn't act important in his position. He was truly very unique."
Throughout his tenure, he had his share of successes and failures - and controversies.
One of the high-profile cases prosecuted by the office during his tenure included the murder of University of Toledo student Melissa Ann Herstrum, which resulted in a controversial plea agreement that spared convicted killer Jeffrey Hodge, a UT police officer, the death penalty.
Blade editorials at the time were critical of the decision, saying that Mr. Pizza lacked the toughness expected of a prosecutor.
Mr. Pizza's effort to outlaw adult bookstores proved unsuccessful. He won the first round at the appellate court level, but the Ohio Supreme Court in 1989 overturned that decision.
Throughout his five terms, he often said his goal was to work as hard and as best as he could.
"He understood the importance of civility in the practice of law. He understood that integrity was important and honesty was important, and he understood the prosecutor had his or her role and the defense attorney had his or her role," said longtime attorney Alan Konop, who as a young lawyer tried one of his first cases against Mr. Pizza.
Mr. Pizza was just as dedicated to his family, Mrs. Pizza said.
A veteran of World War II, he was a second lieutenant with the Army Air Corps, serving in the Pacific Theater as a navigator. After his discharge, he returned to Toledo and his wife, whom he married in 1944.
Devoted to his faith, Mrs. Pizza said she cannot recall a time, until he became ill, that her husband missed Mass. A parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Mr. Pizza took an active role in the church.
"He was such an outgoing fellow," said his son, Toby. "I think one very important point about him was his sense of humor."
Mr. Pizza experienced personal loss when both his daughters died of cancer. Mrs. Pizza said that despite the sadness he encountered, her husband had a love of life, one that extended into his retirement.
Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge James Bates said he remembers his former colleague and boss as "a very nice, very lovable person - except if you broke the law."
Surviving are his wife; Madlynn; sons, Michael and Toby; six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be at 2 p.m. tomorrow in the Coyle Funeral Home, with a Scripture service at 7 p.m. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Friday in Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
The family suggests tributes to the University of Toledo College of Law, the Anthony G. Pizza Foundation, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, or the Old Newsboys Goodfellow Association.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.