A Tribute to Joe Rizzo: A Community Leader. Gone too soon

Flagler County Education Foundation Executive Director Joe Rizzo talks with families about the school district's Classroom to Careers program.

I was struck speechless when I learned that Joe Rizzo had passed. As he was to many others, I felt he was a friend. That’s because it was how he wanted us to feel. And so, I was heartbroken with no words that I could gather to express the loss and emptiness I felt. Then I thought about the loss to the Education Foundation, the School District, the students and the community overall. His impact was immense. My loss then seemed minuscule but no less real.


For those who may not have known Joe, he was born in Flagler County and graduated from Flagler Palm Coast High School in 1994. He graduated from Mars Hill College in 1998 and returned to Flagler County, where he and a group of friends opened Woody’s BBQ. He started his community service at about the same time as he began his restaurant entrepreneur career. To him, those were both intertwined. Joe joined the Board of Directors of the Flagler Education Foundation and later served as its president. In 2017, he exited his restaurant businesses and became the Executive Director of the Education Foundation. He said to me, “Howard, this was the best decision I ever made.” We all know that the students he touched in so many ways were the reason he felt so ecstatic about what he was doing.


I first met Joe in 2013 as I was deciding whether I would make a run for a seat on the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners. I was scheduling a number of meetings with elected officials and political influencers to introduce myself. One of them suggested that we meet for lunch at Woody’s Bar-B-Q, which Joe co-owned at that time. Joe came over to say hello to my lunch guest, who was an old friend of his. The next thing I knew, he was sitting across from me, wanting to get to know me. He asked why I was running, what my priorities would be, etc. He was aware that there had never been a black County Commissioner elected in Flagler County. He warned me that the task would be hard. But he also encouraged me to run. He said, “it’s time things got shaken up around here.” Well, I didn’t “shake things up.” In fact, I lost. But over the next nine years, I knew I had found a friend in Joe Rizzo. 


If you met him, you know how all who knew him feel about this loss. If you never met him, you should know that he was also your friend because he committed himself to making Flagler County a better place for everyone regardless of your birthplace, age, gender or race. When last we talked, he wanted me to meet a young black man interested in running for office to see if I could help him understand how to win. We both laughed when I asked, “why would you want a guy who lost his only election to give advice on winning!”


On behalf of all my colleagues at EVOLVE Magazine, Flagler Parent Magazine and TouchPoint Innovative Solutions, we pray for God’s grace and comfort for his family, his friends and our whole community. We lost a wonderful person, a true community leader, but he left a great legacy…. our cherished memories!