Jeff Guaracino was such a consummate hospitality and communications professional, he planned his own funeral.
On Tuesday afternoon, friends, family, and colleagues will gather for a mass to remember the former head of the city’s tourism marketing corporation at Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Society Hill, the parish where Guaracino was known to attend mass daily. He died of cancer last week at age 48.
“He wanted to do a reception following mass, but with COVID we felt like that’s not really wise,” said Joanne Calabria, who more than 25 years ago hired Guaracino as an intern at CBS and became a lifelong friend. “There will probably be some kind of a memorial service after the mass, probably in the spring.”
The flags at Philadelphia’s City Hall will also be lowered on Tuesday, in honor of Guaracino, who was the CEO of Visit Philadelphia.
A Philadelphia native and graduate of Rowan University, Guaracino eventually ran the Atlantic City Tourism Alliance during the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. He later served as CEO of Welcome America, which puts on the city’s Fourth of July events.
By the nature of his work in tourism and his personality (“Just bigger than life,” said City Representative Sheila Hess), Guaracino had relationships with many people, but kept news of his illness from most of them. Calabria was one of the few with whom Guaracino shared his cancer journey, sometimes accompanying him to doctor’s visits and treatment sessions.
“He just didn’t want to burden everybody with his illness. He also wanted to work until the last minute,” she said. “I was with him at a lot of doctors appointments, and every time a doctor came in to talk to him about his condition, his first question was always, ‘When can I go back to work?’ He loved what he did. He loved the city. He wanted to give so much to the city. That was always top of mind for him.”
Professionally, Guaracino will be remembered for his groundbreaking marketing work targeting specific demographics, in particular the LGBTQ and Black communities, that have made Philadelphia a model for the tourism industry.
Personally, Guaracino will be remembered by many as a dear friend.
“His sudden passing just devastated everyone, to know that he is no longer with us,” said Hess, who met Guaracino professionally as the city representative, but it quickly grew into a friendship. “But guess what? He will always be with us. Jeff Guaracino will be a living legend within the city of Philadelphia.”
Hess said there has been some discussion among people who knew Guaracino well to create a permanent memorial to him, but it is too soon to imagine what form that might take.
“So many people have reached out that want to do something to continue the memorial for Jeff. Things have not been solidified,” she said. “He was involved in so many different boards and organizations, between Visit Philadelphia and his own staff, but also the hoteliers, the restaurateurs — everybody wanted to do something for Jeff. We’re waiting to see what we can do collectively. Conversations have begun, but nothing has been confirmed yet.”
Old St. Mary’s church is relatively small, and with COVID-19 physical distancing practices, only a fraction of the people Guaracino touched in his life will be able to gather for the funeral mass.
Rosalyn McPherson plans to be one of them, with a mask and face shield. McPherson, the founder of The Roz Group, is another one of Guaracino’s former bosses, in the 1990s at the Franklin Institute, who maintained a close relationship with him.
They met when Guaracino’s mother had died and shortly thereafter, McPherson’s son died at age 26, about the same as Guaracino at the time. They bonded in a kind of surrogate mother-son relationship.
“That’s a young man to go at 48, but look at how this city is responding to his transition,” said McPherson. “I said to somebody this morning, ‘I know he’s up there in heaven causing a ruckus already.’ You’ve got to put some humor in this, the sad tragedy, because this is a real loss for me.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!