He was an organizer, a fascilitator, a connector. More than a man with a plan, he knew how to get things done.
He was the P.T. Barnum of local sports in Lebanon County.
While his accomplishments are too numerous to list, his greatest feats involved helping people and making Lebanon, Pennsylvania a better place to live.
There’s never been anyone who’s ever had a a greater influence on the local sport scene than Gus Deraco. And there probably never will be again.
“He cared about the people who didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Deraco’s daughter, Traci Deraco-Ginnona. “He wanted to help everybody. His mission was to bring people together. It was his way of making an impact. Obviously, he wanted to win, but he also wanted to make people happy. He wanted everybody to get a chance to be who they are. Everybody wants to come, but nobody wants to do anything.
“He’s as famous for his hoagies as he is for sports,” continued Ginnona. “He couldn’t go anywhere without someone knowing him. The greatest thing he ever did? I wonder what he would say to that. He’d probably say his family.”
“He was a good father,” said Tony Deraco, Gus’ son. “My father never took a hand to us. If you did something wrong, he’d make you read passages in the Bible. He would tell us to watch and learn how to do things. He was always coaching. He wasn’t a flowery guy. He was always trying to make you better.
“He was a good man,” added Deraco. “He had a quiet way about him. I never really heard my dad swear. He tried to be a good example.”
It’s been 14 years since Deraco passed away on October 30, 2006, at the age of 84. Sixty-five of those years were spent hustling, promoting and re-inventing what Lebanon County sports would look like.
Things have changed since then, sports and culture are different and memories have faded. But Deraco’s contributions to Lebanon County were so important that they simply have to preserved.
“My dad was a happy person,” said Ginnona. “He was driven. He had ideas. He did what he knew he could do. He just never stopped. He was always trying to do something. He was kind of an innovator.
“He was athletic as a kid, and he loved sports,” Ginnona added. “He was always getting up a ball game. I wouldn’t portray him as a non-athlete, but he was more interested in organizing and getting things together. He was better in that role. It was about bringing everybody together to play sports. When he first organized the (Lebanon) Rams, he was a quarterback.”
“He loved to organize and help out guys with sports,” said Deraco. “He wanted people involved with sports. Just get involved. He was past the age where he could participate.”
Among his many athletic accomplishments, Deraco founded the Lebanon Valley Amateur Basketball League, the Interstate Football League, the Lebanon Valley Sports Hall-of-Fame, and was heavily involved with the Lebanon-Lancaster Twilight Baseball League and the Mason-Dixon semi-professional football league. But he is probably best known for ogranizing, managing and coaching the highly-successful Lebanon Rams, a semi-professional football club which was formed in 1939 and played at various Lebanon-area locations until 1968.
“Football was dad’s baby,” said Ginnona. “He started the Rams in 1939, they played in 1940, 41 and 42, then they all got called to war (World War II). In 1946, they all came back, he started it up again and that’s when it really took off. We had all the equipment at the house.
“Clearly there are so much politics and money and business in sports today,” Ginnona. “It’s more of a business today. Back then, people got together for the love of sports. It’s safer today, because of the equipment, which is a good thing. There’s more money behind it know. It’s advanced with the technology and the times. But I think there’s a camaraderie today like then. Back then, it was just a bunch of guys trying to have a good time.”
“I think he was most proud of the Rams,” said Deraco. “The first few years they weren’t that good, but then they won championships. It was top-notch football. He had some awesome players. The guys played for the love of the game. They didn’t play for money. They didn’t play for notoriety. They wanted to play football.”
If anyone was worthy of induction into the local Central Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, it was Deraco. But Deraco started the Lebanon Valley Sports Hall of Fame, not to induct himself, but to induct others who he believed had been overlooked more established hall.
“He wanted to honor the old-timers,” said Ginnona. “There were two people he wanted the Central Chapter to induct, and they wouldn’t do it. So he said, ‘Then I’ll start my own hall of fame.’ He didn’t do it for himself. He did it for others.
“Lebanon was his hometown. He did love the town,” Ginnona continued. “He wanted to make Lebanon famous. He was proud of his hometown and everything in it. He talked fondly about different things. He loved the town, the streets, the parks. He walked those streets and pounded those pavements. My dad wanted to make Lebanon better. He wanted to put Lebanon on the map.”
“He loved the fact that he could help young people get involved with sports and stay out of trouble,” said Deraco. “If you were involved with sports, you weren’t doing drugs and you weren’t doing crime. He wanted people to do good. He wanted people to do the best they could at whatever they excelled at.”
Of course, Deraco is also famous for introducing the Italian sandwich hoagie to the Lebanon area. It was a production that started in the basement of the Deracos’ residence in the 1950s, before being relocated to south Eighth Street, where it was a cornerstone of Lebanon’s downtown business district for nearly 20 years.
“In the late 1940s, my dad went to Philadelphia and had a hoagie,” said Ginnona. “There were no hoagies in Lebanon at the time. He was the originator of hoagies in Lebanon, and he spelled it ‘Hoagy’. We’d make hoagies in the basement for Lebanon Valley College and the church, and we’d deliver them.
“They built this little luncheonette, and my dad would have dances where teens would go,” Ginnona added. “They had refreshment stands at the Annville pool and Coleman Park. In the mid (19) 70s, he got rid of his lunch wagon. He ran a truck stop in Fredericksburg in the mid 70s, and then got out of it. He started making hoagies again and started taking them around to stores. In September of 1978, he opened the shop on south Eighth Street, and it kind of went from there. He sold the shop to my brother in the (19) 90s.”
“He loved Lebanon,” said Deraco. “But he wanted to be his own boss. He didn’t want to work for someone. He bought an old hearse and set it up as a hoagie wagon. He’d set it up at different places and sold hoagies from it.”
Deraco read the Bible cover-to-cover 55 times. He was three-quarters of the way through his 56th time when he passed away.
“No, I don’t think the younger generation has ever heard of him,” said Ginnona. “The old-timers know. But I don’t think even some of the people who have heard of him know what he did. They didn’t know who he was, and the man I grew up with. The impact he made was very special. I really think he helped build things in town. I don’t think people realize the difference he made in people’s lives. Another thing people don’t know about my dad was that he was funny. He was a character.
“He believed that no matter what you do in life, you should make a difference,” continued Ginnona. “His goal in life was to bring people together. He accomplished that through hoagies and sports. I don’t think people know what he did for Lebanon. I don’t know if people knew who he was. I just want them to know the real Gus.”
“I think it’s like anything, as time passes, it’s important to relate the history,” said Deraco. “Semi-pro football doesn’t really exist any more, and neither does basketball. Nobody understands where these guys come from. Now it’s all about the money. It’s sad in a way.”