My Brother Rocco

Posted on 27 April 2010

Born December 19, 1924 and named, in the Italian custom after his paternal grandfather, my brother’s entry into this world was the beginning of a life that would come to enrich our entire family.  Twenty months later, I was born; our little brother Anthony came along almost four years later.  Early in Rocco’s life, he demonstrated the qualities of leadership.  Always an honor student through the course of his education, he was the pride of the family.

As the sons of an Italian immigrants, Donato and Rose, my brothers and I grew up during the Great Depression in a happy home in South Philadelphia.  We had great times together as a family, even though our economic situation, and that of other families we knew, was poor.  My dad was a barber who worked for my maternal grandfather, who happened to be my namesake.  This was convenient for all involved in the business, as the barbershop was situated on the corner of the street where we lived!

In years to follow, our uncles and aunts came to reside in the same neighborhood.  It was a fortuitous occurrence, because in the Italian-American culture, family was a big part of our lives and as you will soon see, it was also lucky for one of our aunts.  We all celebrated the major holidays together as well as the smaller glories that every family enjoys.

As kids, Rocco was the leader of our gang; he assumed the responsibilities of watching us and keeping us out of trouble every day of the week as well as during those occasions when we ventured beyond the neighborhood.  This included the simple pleasures of life afforded us by hiking through Wissahickon Park, taking a steamboat ride down the Delaware River to Riverview beach, and, of course, the many family gatherings.

When World War II erupted, Rocco, being of military age, was called for the draft.  Considered physically unfit for military duty, he was classified as a 4-F.  However, he proudly graduated Bok Vocational School first in his class by merit of his grades, and was presented the American Legion Award.  Here is how that happened.  Because his major was Machine Shop, during the war, he trained adults during night school in the use of many machine tools.  These folks took their skills into the factories, where they made equipment needed by our troops.  During the war years that followed his graduation, in addition to training these workers, Rocco was employed as a shop foreman by Clark Cooper Corp. in Palmyra, New Jersey.  This company produced vital equipment for the U.S. Navy.

When the war ended, my brother married the one and only love of his life, Teresa Cifuni; I was Best Man at the their wedding.  In the ensuing years Rocco would become the proud father of Donna, his only child.  He purchased a house across the street from my parents and went on with his life.

Determining to better himself and thereby, his family, Rocco decided to pursue a career as an engineer.  To prepare for entry into this field, he applied for admission to Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Because he held a diploma from a vocational institution and not a regular high school, he had to make up the credits he did not receive earlier in his education.  After twelve years of attending college three nights a week, for which he paid the entire tuition himself, my brother graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.   Upon his graduation, Clark Cooper Corp. elevated his position to that of plant engineer.  A few years later, the company was purchased by another corporation, which offered him the same position but in a different city.  Not wishing to uproot his family, he sought work elsewhere and was ultimately accepted at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Aircraft Division.

Rocco’s working knowledge of his trade soon came to the attention of his superiors, who utilized him as a troubleshooter.  Traveling extensively nationwide, he investigated and resolved technical issues with mechanical equipment.   His home phone was connected to the switchboard at the Navy yard!  One night while I was visiting him, I listened as he spoke to an American sailor in Naples, Italy.  Well before the age of computers and emails, my brother instructed this man remotely as to how to repair some equipment aboard his ship.

When the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard transferred the Aviation Division to Lakehurst, New Jersey, Rocco was assigned the job to coordinate the move.   He organized a shuttle bus system to transport workers to their new location, thus solving a problem for those who could not find transportation readily. Eventually, he was selected to serve as Acting Plant Manager at Lakehurst, in charge of the Aviation Division.  When he achieved that particular promotion, he informed me that his next salary increase had to be approved by the U.S. Congress!

When Rocco finally retired, he was given a testimonial dinner at the Cherry Hill Inn, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  My brother Anthony and our wives were invited, in his honor.  Needless to say, we watched and listened in awe as the Navy brass extolled the accomplishments of my brother.

Retirement for Rocco came easy, as he had lived in a modest home and well within his means. He said, “I am going to relive my childhood and have all the things I wanted but could not afford when I was younger.”  Thus did he acquire beloved stamp and coin collections and model trains, the latter of which were fully equipped with all the appropriate paraphernalia that any aficionado might covet.   He even got involved in home repairs.  Being a perfectionist, anything he built would outlast the Seven Wonders of the World.

When Mom and Dad passed away, Rocco was the glue that held the family together.  Then the question arose as to what to do with Aunt Angie (Mom’s sister), who was living with my parents and getting on in years.  Rocco called a family meeting and announced that we’d had two choices: allow our aunt to move in with her sister Lucy and her husband Ray, or let her stay and finish out her years in the house that was willed to we three brothers.  My aunt, who was always a loving aunt, was not always easy to live with.  In fact, she probably would have driven Uncle Ray to an early grave.  This left us with the one remaining choice.  Rocco therefore devised a plan in which we three brothers would share the expense of maintaining the house while Aunt Angie resided there.  Little did we know then that our frail aunt, who’d been sickly most of her life, would live to be 92!

An extremely generous person, Rocco offered to take up the slack if my brother or I fell short on the monthly payments.  Over the years as our family grew, my older brother’s nieces and nephews coined a phrase pertaining to Rocco and his wife.  Reflecting their generosity, RUR and RAT meant “Rich Uncle Rocco” and “Rich Aunt Teresa.”

On May 17, 1989 Rocco said goodnight to his wife and daughter and retired to bed, not knowing that these were the last words he would ever speak.  Rocco passed away quietly in his sleep, leaving a family devastated by his loss.  My brother, with all his generosity and attributes, was always a planner; in his wisdom, he left his family well cared for.  He also possessed a great sense of humor and serenity when meeting life’s many challenges.

Today as I reflect upon his life, I cannot help but count my blessings. I have lived a charmed life thanks to my mother’s prayers, the omnipresent and once-dreaded cod liver oil, and most of all, by being part of a happy home with loving relatives, such as my big brother Rocco.

In retrospect, I suppose my brother Rocco should have been christened Rocco III, after his grandfather and uncle. Whenever I think of him, he brings a smile to my face as I reminisce about the things we have done together and most of all, the joys we have shared.

I am now the oldest living member of our family that still on carries the tradition of naming youngsters Rocco.  My Rocco is our beloved Pekingese dog.  Sometimes I tell him about the men he was named for, and that he should be proud to have such a heritage.  My dog looks at me quizzically, as if he understands.  But don’t get me wrong; I do not believe in reincarnation!

As I have said before, I have lived a charmed life.  Among my few regrets is the fact that the younger members of our family will never have known my wonderful brother Rocco. 

This post was written by:

- who has written 267 posts on Write On New Jersey.

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21 Responses to “My Brother Rocco”

  1. Karen says:

    Rocco and his family are the equivalent of a wonderful Jimmy Stewart movie of the 40’s. It was a pleasure to read about someone who truly lived by family values and was himself greatly valued for his many talents and loving ways.
    Dear author, I can see why you smile at your recollections and I would say you and your brother grew from the same acorn.
    A toast to the whole family!

  2. Noller says:

    Thanks for a great post and interesting comments. Thanks for sharing this story.

  3. Diane says:

    What a great story! I hung on every word! It sounds like Rocco lived by the three C’s: courage, commitment and character. And his brother, the author, lives by the same. Rocco’s story is a reminder of the type of spirit that sustained this country for so many years. We can only hope to instill those values in our children. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Anthony Petruzzelli says:

    Tom: This a great recollection of our brother. You are absolutely
    correct in reliving our lives growing up. My immediate family was
    also blessed with the many evenings Rocco would come to our house
    and play with my children. I can still picture him sitting the living
    room (He normally came after supper) My wife Dot would offer dessert and coffee while he entertained our children, I can remember some nights, he would dooze off and Robert, Danny, Diane and Anthony would
    tease him. The Love they have for their Uncle will always be there. Rocco was truly the “rock”, he helped me rebuilt our house and taught
    me how to be a better father. At Rocco’s Funeral, Robert gave a deserving glowing tribute to his Uncle. Again Tom, thanks for a great
    tribute, this shows what a great brother you are. My Love, Your Brother Anthony

  5. Suanne Gendusa says:

    I was rather thrilled to twig this site. I wanted to acknowledge you for this great article! I enjoyed every bit of it.

  6. Illa Tocchio says:

    I’m going to share your information from My Brother Rocco | Write On New Jersey with people at my work. Thank you for posting this. Nice website layout btw.

  7. Barbara says:

    I had the great honor of being present at just a few family gatherings at RUR’s home. I was always warmly welcomed and cherish the memories. Thanks for reminding me of those happy times.

  8. Rebecca says:

    That is some inspirational stuff.

  9. Robert says:

    Great stuff as usual…

  10. Rory Fitzsimons says:

    I categorically enjoyed the article.

  11. Kittie Huenink says:

    Great post, thanks so much!

  12. gene cifuni says:

    i also remember uncle rocco, as a small boy going to there home and uncle rocco showing us his train set he had set up i am one of the sons of aunt teresa brother john cifuni they were truly great times for me in my life will cherish them forever.

  13. Ipson says:

    I was very pleased to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this great read!!

  14. Tammy Mattheis says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing this with your readers…Obviously a lot of others appreciate it too!

  15. Vanderweel says:

    I really like your writing style, its not generic and extremly long and tedious like a lot of blog posts I read, you get to the point and I really enjoy reading your articles! Thanks for sharing..

  16. Diane says:

    I read your stories about your family holidays and the beautiful tribute to your brother. It brought back memories for me too. I use to take my brothers to yours Dad’s barber shop. Your dad was a Gentle Man. But it made me think about you too. You ARE your dad and your brother Rocco. You were ALWAYS kind and nice to everyone and I miss you.

  17. Author says:

    Thank you Diane for your comment and compliment its nice to hear from friends from the old neighborhood. Tom

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