PRIME TIME: Looking at the life of a World War II hero

Published on Sunday, 3 June 2018 17:15
Written by Bob Montgomery

While putting American flags at some of the gravesites of our military veterans at St. Joseph’s Cemetery recently, I came across the one for Joseph J. “Sarge” Riley, Jr. He had a stone in front of the family headstone, which already had an American Flag. And with this, I thought I’d share his story with readers, one which I wrote in 2002 as part of the Builders of Bristol - Millennium Edition series.

“Having been a lifelong Bristol resident after being born in Hartford, he moved to South Orleans, Mass., upon his retirement in the mid-1970s. When he left, he left a legacy of accomplishments during his 20-plus years as superintendent of the Bristol Parks and Recreation Department. He was also one of the most respected and popular individuals in the city.

“Born on Jan. 7, 1916, he was the son of Joseph and Celia (Campbell) Riley. He attended St. Joseph School “in the old brick building down the street from St. Joseph Church.” A classmate and longtime friend, Thomas R. Monahan, who served as director of athletics and physical education from the early 1950s to late 1970s, recalled that Joe was popular with classmates because from time-to-time he’d “plead with cause” with the nuns for an extra five minutes of recess on the Federal Hill Green.

“Riley later attended Bristol High and following this worked for Associated Spring until being called into military service in 1941. He served in the 43rd Infantry Division in some major battles of the southwest Pacific. There, according to Monahan, he again ‘pleaded the causes,’ this time with supply sergeants to come up with baseball bats, gloves and baseballs to initiate a first-rate program of recreation for he and his fellow GIs during off-duty breaks.

“Following World War II, Riley returned to Bristol and Associated Spring where he would spend 30 plus years, an outstanding organizer and communicator and part of this was organizing sports programs for workers in their spare time.

Monahan wrote, “The program he developed became the prototype for many individuals throughout the state.”

“‘Sarge’ was an aid to the corporate officers at Associated Spring and was called upon many times to spearhead various drives for community needs. Again, he could ‘plead the cause’ because of his gregarious nature and the fact that he knew everyone in positions of authority.

“Associated Spring made Riley available ‘on loan’ to the community in 1954 to become superintendent of parks and recreation, where he developed a close relationship with Mrs. DeWitt Page. She listened to Riley regarding the needs of the city’s parks while making generous contributions to the Bristol park system.

“As superintendent of parks recreation for the City of Bristol, he was instrumental in obtaining and maintaining many of the beautiful parks for which the city was well-known and this brought pride to the city. He was also active in the National Recreation Association, including serving as its president.

“When he submitted his resignation to Mayor Frank Longo, Riley recommended that it become a full-time paid job. A testimonial was held for him in 1975 at Lake Compounce with an impressive 500 in attendance, those being family, friends and fellow co-workers. Among the speakers were Carlyle F. Barnes, chairman of the board of the Associated Spring Corporation, Sports Editor Bill Lee of the Hartford Courant, former major league pitcher Frank “Spec” Shea and the managing editor of the New Britain Herald, Richard F. Conway.

“Eighteen years later, when word on his death on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1993, at Cape Cod Hospital reached Bristol, friends recalled a well-known and community-spirited man. Monahan wrote, ‘I felt in 1975, when the Rileys moved to the Cape, that a bit of luster and energy of this city had been dimmed. Now, that light has been distinguished permanently on this earth. And we cherish its memory.’

“Joseph J. “Sarge” Riley was buried with military honors. He left behind his wife, Anne (McCusker), three sons, Christopher of Weston, Colin of New York City and Garrett of Boston; a daughter, Jo-Ann Lossio of Boston; and his sister, Mary Riley of Bristol.

Joseph J. “Sarge” Riley Field on Shrub Road, recreation property belonging to the City of Bristol, is named in his honor and the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame inducted him posthumously in 2008.

Write to Bob Montgomery, The Bristol Press, 188 Main St., Bristol, CT 06010. Call 860-973-1808 or email:

Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol, General News on Sunday, 3 June 2018 17:15. Updated: Sunday, 3 June 2018 18:02.