It wasn't just a lucky guess: For 42 years, Verna has been the parade's marshal. He's the guy who kisses the Common Pleas Court judges on the cheeks, then sends them walking and waving. He's part cheerleader, part hand-holder, part coach. He's got a whistle, and isn't afraid to use it.
Though parade-goers may never see him, Verna presides over a ritual that reaches deep into the soul of South Philadelphians. Sure, Columbus never came anywhere near Pat's, never saw a Flyers game. Whether he really discovered anything seems irrelevant on parade day.
The guy was Italian. Enough said.
``It's about honor, glory,'' said Verna, who runs Severino Verna Funeral Home and is married to City Councilwoman Anna Verna. ``Christopher Columbus found this great nation. We want to keep his memory alive.''
For Severino Verna, parade day is a spectacle six months in the making. ``Even in May,'' said his wife of 47 years, ``he's thinking about Columbus Day.''
Sevy Verna's parents came from Abruzzi, Italy, in the early 1900s. He was raised to revere Columbus. When he was 16, his father took him to an Order Sons of Italy in America lodge. He got into the funeral business soon after; parading came naturally.
``When you line up a funeral procession, everything has to be in order. So does a parade.''
Yesterday, his day began with a no-no at 5 a.m.: A sinful breakfast of ham and eggs, followed by a quick round of phone calls to make sure his team of volunteer workers was not oversleeping. By 8:30 a.m., he was in a Sunday suit at Mass at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. He sneaked out early - with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua's permission, of course - to get to parade headquarters by 9:30 a.m., headquarters being the JNA Culinary Institute. There, Verna presided over a pastry-filled pre-parade party that resembled a kennel of Philadelphia's top dogs. City Council could have almost convened, what with Anna Verna, Jim Kenney, Frank DiCicco and Rick Mariano gabbing over cannoli and coffee. District Attorney Lynne Abraham held court on one side of the hall, her opponent, Jack McMahon on the other. Every time a new face arrived, someone yelled out, ``Hey, Judge.''
Around 11 a.m., in walked Christopher Columbus himself - or was it Dominic Cermele, of the city's office of administrative review? - decked out in his explorer's costume, circa 1492. Later came State Sen. Vincent Fumo, who cochairs the parade with Councilwoman Verna. Among the last of the dignitaries was Congressman Tom Foglietta, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Italy who also happened to be Sevy Verna's best man all those years ago.
At noon, Sevy Verna sounded the call. At 12:15 p.m., he went for the whistle, gently nudging stragglers outside the building and into place on the street.
Though he used to walk the route, Verna now uses the golf cart, which he shared yesterday with Councilman Thatcher Longstreth, taking it easy after double knee surgery.
On the ride, Verna talked about how the parade business has changed in his 42 years. Though yesterday's event had the most-ever entries - 65 groups in all - it's a mix made up largely of high school bands and local lodges. Gone are the legions of police officers who used to come on motorcycles and horses. (This year, just two jeeps showed.) Gone, too, are the military tanks and regalia, which seemed to disappear after Vietnam.
The ranks of aging helpers - and parade fans - worry Verna, too.
``We try to get the younger people involved, but it's hard. They have TV. They have different values. The unity's not there.''
Some things - such as trying to keep eager politicians in line - never change.
``The judges are the worst. They'd like to stop the parade and shake hands with everyone.''
So does the archbishop, who surged ahead of the pack and was later spotted signing autographs on $1 bills.
``The cardinal likes to work the crowd,'' Verna said. ``If he was in politics, he'd be governor by now.''