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Getting to Know Him : Estranged Father, Son Reforge a Relationship

December 18, 1992|JONATHAN GAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Tortorici left his father 22 years ago, full of the bitterness and rage of an 11-year-old who had come from a broken home and learned his lessons on rough streets.

Passed from relative to relative and house to house, Tortorici spent much of his adolescence in Watsonville, running with gangs, dealing and doing drugs and snatching purses for spending money.

At 17, the Santa Cruz native joined the Marines, but he didn't grow up, not even after 10 years with the Corps. After he was transferred to San Diego, he continued to hang out with the baddest of the bad, until police told him that a gang had put a contract out on his life.

It was then that Tortorici and his wife left San Diego for Arizona to join a church. Returning to this area three years ago, he began leading his own church, the Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in East San Diego, ministering to the youths there and starting anew himself.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 24, 1992 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Reunion--An article published Friday in some editions of the Times about the reunion of San Diego's Chris Tortorici with his father, Bill, incorrectly suggested that Chris Tortorici did not become a Christian until after he left the Marine Corps. Actually, he says, it was after only two years in the Marines. Also, a quote attributed to Bill Tortorici should have read: "It was a good time for us to meet again. He (Chris) had found God and I was finally at peace with myself."

Last month, Tortorici stumbled across a surprise: His father.

After being told that an artist named Bill Tortorici lived in Imperial Beach, Chris drove by the studio twice and telephoned once, pretending to be an art enthusiast, before he finally knocked on the door.

"I really felt that it was a second chance that Christ had given me to see my father," Tortorici said.

Now, reunited and reconciled with their past, the two are trying to restore their relationship as father and son.

"We're going to learn to be friends first," said Bill Tortorici, 56. "After that, then we'll learn to be a good son and a good father."

The two share an interest in art; the father paints and the son draws. Chris Tortorici, now 33, had never drawn for a gallery before, but his father, whose work will be displayed at George Lucas' Skywalker Sound in Santa Monica, is helping show the way.

Their work is on display at the B Street Gallery in San Diego and in Bill Tortorici's own Imperial Beach studio.

Aside from their art, the two seem to have little in common. Chris is fervent in his Christian beliefs, while Bill "isn't sure if there even is a God."

Bill's long blond-gray hair tied in a ponytail by elastic, his purple slippers and his wildly patterned shirt contrast sharply with his son's burgundy socks that match his well-creased slacks, his brown, tasseled dress shoes and his short-cropped hair that gives away his Marine Corps background.

The past month has been a series of finding common ground between them. This Sunday, Bill Tortorici will go see his son preach for the first time.

For Chris Tortorici, the reunion means a chance to forgive his father for the broken home of his childhood. His parents divorced when he was 7, and when his father gained custody of the three children four years later, Chris ran away.

"I know he felt indebted, I know he felt guilty, I know he felt a sense of failure," said the younger Tortorici. "And when you're in debt to someone, you don't even want to see their face. But if they come up to you and say, 'Hey, it's OK,' then everything works."

The two had a five-minute encounter 15 years ago that ended in harsh words because, they said, neither of them was ready to accept the other back.

"There was a huge chasm between us that neither one wanted to cross," Bill Tortorici said. "I might not have been able to go to him, because I couldn't confront the rejection."

"The fact that he came here with this friendship just put me at ease immediately," the father said.

But the reunion, they said, could not have occurred at a more appropriate time in each of their lives. While Chris Tortorici had endured tumultuous times in his life over the past 22 years to become settled down with his wife and family, Bill Tortorici had weathered his own trials.

Twice remarried and having declared bankruptcy once, Bill Tortorici floated from one retail job to another, from one house to another, finally ending up in a Palm Avenue mobile home park in Imperial Beach. Inspired by a painting he saw in a gallery, he decided to become a painter three years ago. He sold his first piece to a San Diego gallery.

"It was a good time for us to meet again," Bill said. "He had just found God and I was finally at peace with myself. To know that he has straightened out his life so far to come to what he is doing is wonderful."

And now, Bill Tortorici and his third wife, Marla, are instant parents and grandparents.

"We went from having no relationship with children in my life," Marla Tortorici said, "to having an intense relationship with children and my grandchildren in one fell swoop."

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