‘TIP’ DIDONATO DIES AT 91
HAMMONTON—Dominic “Tip” DiDonato, of Hammonton, the legendary longtime owner of what became DiDonato Family Fun Center and a community-minded man who received the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce’s “Nice Going” Award and was the father of two Hammonton mayors, died at home on January 1 surrounded by his loving family. DiDonato was 91.
A lifelong resident of Hammonton, DiDonato learned his legendary work ethic from a young age, having purchased a 20-acre blueberry farm with his brother John DiDonato at the age of 12, according to his obituary. DiDonato graduated from Hammonton High School in 1949. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1952 to 1954, stationed in Japan during the Korean War, during which time his brother John sold the farm and bought a four-lane bowling center, the obituary said.
When DiDonato returned from the service, they grew and expanded the business, adding more lanes and a cocktail lounge, until a fire destroyed everything in 1966, his obituary said.
Underinsured, Tip and John DiDonato, through grit and determination, rebuilt the business from the ground up, laying the foundation for what today is DiDonato Family Fun Center, according to the obituary.
His sons remembered their father fondly in interviews with The Gazette earlier this week.
“Everybody has their heroes—like Mother Theresa, the Pope—and they’re all good people. My hero was my father. He always tried to help everybody, he always tried to be fair to everybody. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ He lived that life. My hero was my father,” his son Don DiDonato said.
“Tip” DiDonato was a person who worked hard to improve his community, Don DiDonato recalled.
“You know how people say ‘you have to leave it better than you found it?’ He left it better than he found it. When he was born, Hammonton was a Depression-Era town. The bowling alley was built on a dirt road. He gave the town everything—donating and helping others—including two mayors who have collectively served longer than any other mayors,” Don DiDonato said.
Even with all the hard work and service to the community, “Tip” DiDonato found plenty of time to enjoy life.
“He and his friends knew how to have fun. They would hang out at Chateau Bilaz, the restaurant and bar at the corner of the White Horse Pike and Fairview Avenue. That’s where they came up with the idea for the ‘Italian Stallions’ softball team. They had complete uniforms, just like the pros, in red, white and green,” Don DiDonato recalled with a laugh.
Hammonton Mayor Stephen DiDonato said he worked with his father at DiDonato Family Fun Center full-time for more than 40 years.
“I started full-time in ‘79, and before that I worked there when I was in school. It was really neat. My father was a tough man. He expected you to give 110 percent for the customers. He always said, ‘I know you have a little more for me,’” Stephen DiDonato said.
He said his father was always someone who dedicated himself to whatever he did.
“It was unbelievable to watch him, not only when he loved you, when he worked, out partying, he always gave it his all. He always lived life to its fullest … I think he was very proud of all three of his boys, whether it was playing ball or being mayor of the community. He was always proud of us, just as long as you carried yourself in the right way,” Stephen DiDonato said.
Decades of business led “Tip” DiDonato to strive for excellence, his son Stephen DiDonato said.
“When things are good, you keep them going and you keep working to stay on top. He used to say: ‘It’s easy to get to the top of the ladder but then you have to work harder to stay there because everybody’s grabbing your ankles,’” Stephen DiDonato recalled.
When it came to family, “Tip” DiDonato believed in unity, his son Stephen DiDonato said.
“He would look out a window in his house and say, ‘See those oak trees in the field? They all have roots, and if their roots wrap around each other, then nothing will ever take them down.’ He had a lot of sayings like that,” Stephen DiDonato said.
Former Hammonton Mayor John DiDonato said his father was always an example to him.
“Watching him and how he set the tone made you want to follow in his footsteps and do things in a positive way, do things in the right way, as he was always teaching us. He would always get involved, not just sit back,” John DiDonato said.
His father knew how to have a good time as well.
“He always impressed upon us that you work hard and you play hard. He would say ‘when you work, you work hard, and when you play, you play hard,’” John DiDonato said.
“Tip” DiDonato’s influence was also felt up and down the East Coast, because when his son John DiDonato was in the yacht-building business, he would go to boat shows and people would ask about his father, he said. He recalled that his father could connect with anyone.
“It didn’t matter age, race, or religion, he loved everybody. Whether it was somebody his age of 91, or somebody 14 or 15, he genuinely cared about them,” John DiDonato said.
According to John DiDonato, his father’s life centered on his family.
“Family meant everything. He was a successful businessman, but it was the family more than the money. What drove him was family and people from the community. If he had to do something to make something right, it didn’t even come into question,” DiDonato said.
“Tip” DiDonato’s obituary said he was a man of great integrity who always gave back to the community. He was a longtime member of the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce who received the “Nice Going” Award in 2014. DiDonato was once again honored by the Chamber in 2022 when the family business was awarded Business of the Year.
Upon receiving the “Nice Going” Award in 2014, “Tip” DiDonato said he was honored to be given the award and happy to see Hammonton’s progress.
“There are a lot of people that have won this award before me that are probably far better than me. But I couldn’t have accomplished this without my wife Phyllis, my three boys, their wives, my grandchildren, and it was a family affair. I couldn’t have done it without them.
“I have seen a lot of things in the town of Hammonton over the years, and I will tell you this: now, it is on a roll. It is beautiful. I can’t go anywhere without somebody asking me: ‘Are you from Hammonton? ‘Yeah, I am from Hammonton.’ I tell them about it and they are all talking about Hammonton. And I will say to all of you: Let’s keep it going. We are on a roll. We got to keep it going,” “Tip” DiDonato said in 2014.
DiDonato served in local, regional, and national Bowling Proprietor organizations. Having always been an ardent fan of sports who made the All-Atlantic County baseball team in high school and played semi-professional ball upon returning from his military service, DiDonato supported youth athletics by sponsoring local teams for 70 years.
A devoted family man, DiDonato beamed with pride for his three sons and their families. He never missed an event for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his obituary said.
DiDonato is responsible for inspiring his family’s work ethic, often quoting his Class of 1949 motto: “Climb though the rocks be rugged.” He spent 58 wonderful years with his loving wife Phyllis.
“They were always the life of the party, especially in the basement of their Hammonton home and at the shore on their boat and later on the back deck of their home on the water in Ocean City,” “Tip” DiDonato’s obituary said.
“Tip” DiDonato was predeceased by his devoted wife, Phyllis (nee Chiappine) and is survived by three loving sons, Donny and wife, Tracey, Steve and wife, Debbie and John and wife, Gigi; grandchildren, Christina Dillon (Drew), Matthew, Erin and Zachary; great-grandchildren, Luke and Filomena Dillon; sister, Mary Jane Short of Vero Beach; brother-in-law, John Calderone, who was more like a brother; and many nieces and nephews who he treated like his own children.
“Tip” DiDonato was also predeceased by his parents, Dominic and Marina (Galletta) and brother, John.
Relatives and friends were invited to attend a viewing on Thursday, January 5, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday, January 6 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., at the Marinella Funeral Home, 102 N. Third St., Hammonton. A service was held 11 a.m. Friday, January 6, at the funeral home.
Interment will be in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, 248 S First Rd., Hammonton.
Arrangements by the Marinella Funeral Home.