By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
A standing ovation greeted retired Great River Economic Development Foundation President Jim Mentesti Wednesday night, honoring the man who led economic development efforts for 27 years in Quincy and Adams County.
"You're all a part of the team," Mentesti said.
Brad Billings, who had toasted Mentesti's accomplishments for the GREDF annual meeting, stood nearby after presenting Mentesti with a bottle of chianti.
"Tonight we say ‘gracie,' and to you we say ‘salute,' " Billings said in recognition of Mentesti's Italian roots.
Proclamations from the city and the Illinois Legislature were presented to Mentesti, who reminded a packed audience at the Oakley-Lindsay Center that he will continue to do what he can for his adopted hometown.
"What I see are partners. What I see are people I trust," Mentesti said.
Born in 1939, Mentesti grew up in Roseland on the south side of Chicago. His father worked in the beer business and Mentesti started washing beer trucks at age 14. Two years later he drove his own delivery route.
After graduating from high school, Mentesti graduated from Thornton Community College and served in the Army.
"The day he got out of the service, he was in a tavern when a man bought him a drink. It turns out this man was a bank president and an alumnus of Quincy College. He saw something special in Jim and called Father Elmo at QC. The very next day Jim drove on two-lane highways all the way to Quincy to enroll and said, ‘What the heck am I doing here?' " Billings said.
Mentesti briefly worked in management at the Chicago beer business, but returned to Quincy College where he earned his business degree in 1966, prompting his mother to wonder if her 27-year-old son would need to be pushed down the aisle in a wheel chair.
Even after returning to Chicago and becoming manager of a Caravette Brothers liquor store, Mentesti was active in alumni events at Quincy College and was eventually hired as director of placement and alumni at the college where he also became the school's soccer broadcaster.
Mentesti later worked at Quintron Corp. during a time when the company grew its workforce from 70 employees to 370. During that time, Mentesti served on the board of directors of the Great River Economic Development Foundationn and was chosen director after the death of Al Sellers in 1986.
Billings said Mentesti's "ability to bring people together and work like family" is why many of his peers call him "the godfather of economic development." Mentesti retired as president of GREDF in September and has worked as a consultant since then alongside interim President Phil Conover while a permanent replacement is sought.
A sampling of accolades from cards and letters received since Mentesti announced his retirement in September credit him as a mentor, "a master at leading vision to change" and an ultimate professional.