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It's a Long Road to Head of Rose Parade

Tradition: It will take Gary DiSano years to work up to president of the Tournament. He lives for that day.

June 30, 2002|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary DiSano didn't think anything was unusual when the outgoing president of the Tournament of Roses invited him to San Marino for a casual dinner.

The invitation, the president explained, was merely social, a way of thanking DiSano for his hard work as volunteer in charge of selecting floats for the 2002 Rose Parade.

When DiSano arrived at the president's San Marino home on a chilly Monday evening in January, he was led into the basement. As the president mixed DiSano a gin and tonic, other members of the tournament's executive committee appeared out of the den's dimly lighted corners.

"Welcome!" they shouted, taking turns shaking DiSano's hand.

In that moment, a stunned DiSano realized a long-held dream--and instantly felt a new weight on his shoulders. The handshakes meant that the general manager of a Montebello automobile wheel and rim company would be president of the world's most famous parade.

The catch?

He won't take office for eight years.

DiSano, 55, has embarked on what one Tournament of Roses member calls the longest apprenticeship in America. During a period of study as long as that required of surgeons, DiSano will coordinate every facet of staging the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game, from negotiating TV contracts to supervising the delivery of portable toilets--even, according to parade lore, earning the power to control the weather.

He will have one day of reward. On Jan. 1, 2010, DiSano will don the traditional red coat of president and ride down Colorado Boulevard. As president, he will give the parade his personal stamp, picking the theme, the grand marshal, the first float, maybe even one of the bands.

"Of course, there's a big if," says DiSano, his mood suddenly turning somber, as he uses a cane to slowly walk around the desk in his company office. "I don't know if I'll live that long."

Lifelong Dedication

Friends say DiSano lives for the parade.

Growing up in Los Angeles in such neighborhoods as Lincoln Heights and Leimert Park, he often watched the Jan. 1 spectacle. In 1972, as a recently discharged lieutenant who served in Vietnam, he found himself living in Arcadia, lonely and bored. His girlfriend had left him while he was in the service; his next-door neighbor, a Tournament of Roses member, offered to nominate him for membership in the organization.

Since then, DiSano has had two careers--one as a tournament member, the other working in the family business. Frequently, the two overlap. He married a German woman who worked at one of the companies; their three children sometimes accompany him to parade functions.

Before agreeing to sell Century Wheel & Rim to an out-of-state corporation a few years back, DiSano, who continues as general manager, made sure the 20 hours a week he sometimes puts into the tournament would be OK with the prospective buyers. Century's headquarters are decorated with mementos from his 30 years as a tournament member.

"A commitment like this is always a balancing act," DiSano says.

From the moment a new volunteer joins (and pays a $45 annual membership fee), the tournament insists on learning by doing and decades of dues-paying. DiSano spent his first six years as a member providing muscle for the three "street committees," which line up the floats and bands, run parade operations and oversee post-parade events.

These are thankless jobs, usually requiring volunteers to stay up all night New Year's Eve on the streets of Pasadena. In his first year, manning a traffic barricade, DiSano was nearly run over by a speeding newspaper delivery truck. One year, he cleaned up horse droppings.

After their first six years, the tournament's members are assigned for two-year terms on the organization's 31 other committees. DiSano served on committees that fete special guests on New Year's Day, inspect the construction of floats, choose parade bands, oversee public relations staff, and choose the Rose queen and her court.

Each committee has a chairperson. Promotions to chairmanships are based, like other promotions, on grades from above. Every tournament member is graded annually on his or her work in each parade.

" 'Apprenticeship' is a good word for how all this works," says Dave Davis, the treasurer.

The highest rung of the tournament is the 14-member executive committee. Five of those members are chosen at large from among all 935 tournament members, a recent innovation designed to give the committee more youth and diversity. One of the 14 is the immediate past president. The remaining eight are the princes of the tournament--all standing in the line of succession to the presidency.

Slowly Moving Up

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