By Tim Hayes
Every summer, it seems, we get inundated with movies about super heroes. Men and women who do amazing things against tremendous odds, while always keeping their humanity and their compassion for other people front and center.
But I knew a real-life hero when I was small. I only knew him for a short time, and the memories for me get a little fuzzy around the edges. His story, as recalled and retold by my predecessors, though, fills in the blanks and creates a tale of courage and caring and inspiration – enough to rival, and even surpass, any filmed fiction currently playing in your local cineplex.
This hero’s name was Rocco, and he was my grandfather.
Rocco came into the world just prior to the turn of the 20th century, born in Abruzzi, a fishing and farming village on the Adriatic Sea in southern Italy. His formal education ended in the fourth grade, when he began working to help support his family’s olive oil-processing enterprise.
While he had a loving family and lived in beautiful surroundings (Abruzzi today has become an high-end luxury resort destination for wealthy Europeans), Rocco dreamed of life in America. And at the tender age of 15, he boarded a boat – alone – for the long journey, armed only with a shovel and the equivalent of 15 American dollars.
Onboard the ship – where he rode on the crowded, windowless bottom deck – Rocco by chance discovered a distant cousin, thus making the trek much less lonesome. Once the two cousins came through Ellis Island, however, they both contracted typhoid fever, and Rocco’s newfound friend died. Alone, sick, and unable to speak English, Rocco nonetheless somehow arranged to bring his cousin’s body and have it buried in Pittsburgh, where Rocco’s sponsor lived and was waiting for him. Our family still visits that lonely gravestone today.
Rocco and his sponsor began a building contractor business, which grew and did well, even surviving the Great Depression. He was so skilled at his craft, that he once won a contest for brick-laying to build a new street. During World War II, black marketeers approached Rocco to siphon gasoline, which was strictly rationed, from his company’s onsite gas pump. He immediately threw them off of his property, insulted that anyone would even consider such a dishonest thing during a time of national emergency. His code of honor, honesty, and humility remained untarnished his entire life.
As the war raged in Europe, Rocco’s family had to flee into the hills to seek safety from the Nazis, who had overrun their village and sacked their home. When the war ended, Rocco returned to help them rebuild, contributing his building contractor’s talents, along with money and most of his own clothing he had packed for the trip. For the remainder of his days, he continued to send funds and supplies to his people living along the Adriatic.
His five children all grew to be successes in their personal and professional lives. And of his 19 grandchildren, there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. Doctors, lawyers, builders, medical researchers, an opera singer, artists, entrepreneurs – even a professional writer, of all things. If there’s any better or stronger or more gratifying legacy, I’d love to hear it.
Rocco passed from this earth in 1969, at the age of 73, after a series of medical issues. As the paramedics carried him out of the home he had built with his bare hands, the home where he had run his business, raised his family, and enjoyed his grandchildren so much, his doctor was heard to say, “Goodbye, you dear man.”
I wasn’t quite nine years old when he died, so my memories center more around sitting under the backyard grape arbor with my Grandpap, munching on the juicy grapes, and sharing the chunks of mozzarella and pepperoni that he loved to slice and snack on. Or taking rides in his car to run errands, or visiting a piece of farmland he owned far from the city. Little moments that meant so much, thinking back now.
As a little boy, I thought of Rocco as a hero because he was such a big presence with such a gentle soul. As a man, knowing and appreciating all that he accomplished, I think of him as hero for pretty much the same reasons.
He did amazing things against tremendous odds, while always keeping his humanity and his compassion for other people front and center. What’s more, unlike the costumed characters on a movie screen, Rocco’s story is true.
That’s inspirational. That’s an enormous legacy to live up to. And most of all, that’s downright heroic.
Copyright 2014 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting