"Had he been born into different circumstances, he had the intellect and charisma and leadership skills to be a CEO of a major corporation," said lawyer Alfred "Skip" Donau.
Unlike many organized crime bosses who died in prison or in mob rubouts, Bonanno died of heart failure at the age of 97 Saturday at a hospital in the city where he had retired in 1968.
"He was the last survivor of an era that made history in this country, and now he's gone, too," said his son, Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno.
By his own admission, the Sicily native was a member of "the Commission," which acted as an organized crime board of directors in New York and other major U.S. cities.
Bonanno also described himself in his autobiography as a "venture capitalist" who invested in businesses with owners who invited him to become a partner because of his connections. He denied engaging in such "unmanly" activities as narcotics trafficking or prostitution, though authorities said otherwise.
He led the Brooklyn-based Bonanno crime family for more than three decades before losing power in the 1960s, reputedly for trying to become the boss of bosses by assassinating his rivals, including Carlo Gambino and Thomas Lucchese, in what came to be known as the "Banana War." Gambino died of natural causes in 1976, and Lucchese died in 1967.
Bonanno was never convicted of anything more serious than obstructing justice. The 1980 conviction was for trying to block a federal grand jury investigating his sons; he served nearly eight months in prison before being paroled in July 1984. He also served 14 months in prison in 1985-86 for contempt of court because he refused to answer questions about other crime family leaders.
But he was arrested numerous times, including once in the 1930s when he was accused of transporting guns for mob boss Al Capone.
The crime family still bears his name, though he maintained in his 1983 collaboration "A Man of Honor, the Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno," that "I'm not a Father anymore and there is no Bonanno Family anymore."
He wrote that the term Mafia "refers to a process, a special set of relationships among men. I stay away from the term because it creates more confusion than it is worth."
He lived a relatively quiet public life in Tucson but much of Bonanno's time in the southern Arizona city was spent under the watch of federal agents.
"My dream of retiring peacefully in Tucson was a delusion," he wrote in his autobiography. "Such was my reputation as 'Mafia chieftain' that people became engrossed with their image of me and overlooked the man who actually lived in their midst."
His notoriety was revived in January 1995 when his family threw him a much-publicized 90th birthday party at a resort in Tucson. The 300 guests included priests, politicians, actors, attorneys, authors and relatives from across the country.
"I am here present before you all because God loves me," Bonanno told guests at the party. "And with the gift of God, how can I go wrong?"
Despite Bonanno's age, friends said he remained mentally sharp. He read often until he had a stroke three years ago.
Bonanno was born Jan. 18, 1905, in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. He entered the United States illegally through Cuba, and wrote that he became a bootlegger during Prohibition and an enforcer in a New York gang run by Salvatore Maranzano.
A deadly power struggle between Maranzano and rival gang leader Joseph Masseria ended in 1931 with the assassinations of both leaders. Lucky Luciano proposed the creation of the Commission and the five crime families, with Luciano taking over Masseria's mob and Bonnano, then just 26, taking control of the Maranzano family.