Once upon a time, about 37 years ago, my brother, Jim, then director of the Norwich Chamber of Commerce, told me about a most wonderful man who had come to town. “Bill,” he said, “You’ve got to meet this guy. He has so many ideas and so much energy.” So, it came to pass that my brother first introduced me to Ron Aliano.
Ron was then only 28 years old, and I was only 43. But from that day until the day he died, Ron and I became very good friends. We were as different as day and night, but I will say that Ron Aliano was a great treasure that Norwich has now lost.
I have no idea who will take his place, but he changed the face of Norwich more than anyone else I know. He created a world-class marina, which once was only the ruins of an abandoned coal yard.
He built the ambulance business in Norwich from two to a fleet of 27 ambulances today. Norwich can now boast one of the best ambulance services in all of Connecticut. When they arrive with paramedics, you know that you are in good hands.
Ron built the headquarters for American Ambulance on the West Side. Without him and New London County Mutual, the hill would be barren.
I remember the transition. Two very dear friends, Herman Leone and Joe Viadella, owned City Cab, and they ran the ambulance business in Norwich. If you called the hospital — there was no 911 in those days — they would call City Cab and the ambulance would be dispatched to your home. Then, City Cab would radio two taxis to your home, and the taxi drivers would lift you from your bed to the ambulance, and the ambulance driver would drive you to The William W. Backus Hospital. Then, at the hospital, you would be taken from the ambulance.
Many may think it was a real Rube Goldberg ambulance company, and, of course, it was. Herman and Joe ran the ambulance service after taking it over from Backus. When Backus ran it, the maintenance men — janitors, painters, whoever was available — would drive the ambulance.
While everybody in Norwich associates Ron with American Ambulance, he was much more than that. He was American Ambulance, American Wharf Development, American Professionals Education Service and The American Group. There are others, but he always used the word “American,” because Ron was a super patriot. Even the names of his ambulances symbolized great American achievements.
Ron has his critics, and I have often wondered why so many people criticized the wonderful things he did. Probably because of jealousy. Ron accomplished what other people only dreamed of. Those who criticized him might be better looking the mirror and asking themselves: What have I done for Norwich that amounted to anything?
Ron Aliano worked with the Boy Scouts, and when he was on the board at the Huntington Home, he saw to it that the whole facility was modernized. When the Abe Lincoln flag had to be bought, then restored, he was in the forefront of restoring that historic flag.
He fought to have the community college downtown. It was one of the few battles he lost and one of the few times Ron and I didn’t agree. I felt it should be in East Great Plain, but the entrance should be on Route 32, through Uncas-on-Thames Hospital, and the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Highway Department should be along New London Turnpike.
But, as often as Ron and I disagreed, our friendship never wavered. He was a doer. He made things happen. He loved the press, and the press loved him. He always could provide a story on a slow news day.
I made an unfortunate comment that an out-of-town newspaper published. When talking to the reporter, I said, “Knowing Ron as well as I did, if he could have picked the day he died, he would have picked a Saturday so he would be the lead story in the Sunday paper.” He did die on a Saturday, and, in time, Norwich will realize what it lost. His fingerprints are all over this town.
Father Tony said the Mass, which would have please Ron very much, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to capacity for Ron’s funeral. That doesn’t happen very often, but Ron touched so many people in so many ways that news of his death was a shock.
Ron worked with Backus Hospital and United Community Services. In fact, the last time I had lunch with Ron, it was to ask a favor. I sat down and explained to Ron that I was the chairman of the Forgotten Founders — a historical group that wants to establish in Norwich a presidential library for the 14 men who were president of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. I told him my health was so bad that I couldn’t do what I needed to do and needed someone who could break doors down at Norwich City Hall and at the State Capitol.
Ron told me that day, “I will do everything I can,” and I asked him to be vice chairman. He was vice chairman or chairman of so many things, I was not even going to try to list them, but one award he was proud of was Citizen of the Year in 1988, after completion of the Marina at America Wharf.
He was a Fighter
There was tough side to Ron. He was, after all, a businessman, but the man cared for people and believed in service. I don’t think anybody loved Norwich more than Ron, though Norwich was his adopted city. As he loved Norwich, I don’t know anyone who can take his place, to dream great dreams for this city, and then carry them out like the marina or his American Center on Mount Pleasant.
He did stumble occasionally. It must have cost a million dollars to create Putts Up Dock, and it just didn’t work, but there were few things that Ron did that didn’t work. He was known for success, and I loved him for all that he did.
We were good friends, and the one deep regret I have is that I wasn’t physically able to see him in the final days. We did talk on phone often, and he suffered so much. Then, one day called me and said, “Bill, I have got to tell you something because I don’t want you to hear it secondhand.” Then he said. “I’ve got cancer,” and he went into detail.
My only response, “I’ll pray for you, Ron, because that’s all we can do.” But I thought, as I said that, his happiest years were those spent with his wife, Valerie, and how proud he was of his two children, Michael and Ronda.
At his funeral, after Mass, Rob Simmons, our former congressman, speaking characteristically of Ron, said to me, “You know, Ron is probably on a first name basis with St. Peter and making suggestions for improvement. Maybe a marina.”
Ron Aliano was a wonderful man and a Norwich treasure. He will be sorely missed by this old town.