The ability to find humor in any situation may be difficult for some, but not for Pasquale “Pat” Rocchio. To those who knew him, the long-time Kokomo Tribune editor’s laughter could bounce off the walls of any room he walked into. And you heard it – a lot.
But that joyous laughter grew silent earlier this month.
Rocchio died on Sept. 6 at age 71 after a lengthy bout with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a disease that affects roughly 5.8 million Americans, and there is still no cure for its debilitation.
But even then, in the throes of the disease, if you thought he was just going to give up, well then you didn’t know Pat Rocchio.
Born the son of Italian immigrants, family and friends said Rocchio was fiercely loyal to that ancestry, even jokingly reminding those around him that St. Patrick himself was Italian.
John Wiles, former city editor of the Tribune, met Rocchio in first grade, and they shared a friendship that spanned six decades.
“We lived in the same neighborhood and would walk to and from school together,” he said. “… At that time, growing up in the 1950s, it was certainly an easier time for kids to be raised because everyone looked out for everyone else. So it was normal for us to camp out in the backyard and then get up at 4 a.m. to go to the doughnut shop. Pat was always just a really fun kid to be around. ”
And in the early-1970s, when Rocchio joined the Tribune staff as a business editor, Wiles and he got a chance to work together in a more professional environment.
“’Roke’ never let anything phase him,” Wiles said. “He was really an easy-going guy. I remember there was a coal strike making national headlines in southern Kentucky, and there was physical violence on both sides. We got a call from I believe someone that lived in Kokomo but had lived down there, and Pat said we needed to get the real story on what was happening. So he and a reporter went down there, and I think he even ended up winning an award for that one.”
Rocchio’s time in the newsroom also gave him one of life’s greatest gifts, his wife, Sharon, who was a farm editor with the Tribune when they met. They married in 1975 and together raised four children and spent 44 years together until her own sudden death in July.
“They were so devoted to each other,” former Tribune reporter Linda Ferries said. “We were a family as well as friends when we were at work. We got married around the same time and had kids at the same time. And both Sharon and Pat were professionals. They cared about other people and their community, and it always showed in their work.”
The Rocchios eventually left the Tribune in 1987 and took jobs at the Northwest Indiana Times in Valparaiso before retiring and moving down to Indianapolis in 2004 to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Frank Rocchio, 43, is Pat’s eldest child.
“It’s funny, but when I was a kid, I remember my dad always came home smelling like newspapers,” he recalled during a phone interview last week. “…It was important for him and my mom both to stay informed. As journalists, that was their thing. I still remember seeing him sitting there reading the newspaper on his day off, and I also remember him saying that was their [journalists] most important role is to be a conduit of local happenings with people.
“He said people lose sight of that when they lose sight of the local hometown newspaper,” he continued. “People watch the national TV news, but that doesn’t tell you what’s going on in your own hometown.”
But as Alzheimer’s began to take over Pat’s body, even something as simple as reading a newspaper eventually faded away.
“The last 10 years, he [Pat] was kind of racked with Alzheimer’s, and it was just so difficult,” Frank noted. “The dad that I had in college and everything, it was just so long since that guy’s been around. … There was sort of phase one and phase two of my dad’s life.”
Phase one, Frank noted, was life before the disease. It was playing around in the newsroom on Saturday mornings with his dad sitting nearby, visiting his grandparents’ house for family dinners and Pat visiting Frank while Frank was in college at the University of Notre Dame so that they could attend football games together.
And then there was phase two, when the nasty grips of Alzheimer’s disease began to take hold of Pat’s mind.
“When he [Pat] was diagnosed, it was beyond devastating for him and the rest of our family,” Frank said. “But there was also very little self-pity. He told us he wasn’t just going to waste away in his room. He was going to do something.”
So he did.
A few years ago, Pat signed up to share his story in a movie called Turning Point, which shines a light on the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and he even participated in several experimental trials throughout the course of his battle with Alzheimer’s.
And though Frank said he and his siblings will miss their father, Frank said Pat is finally free.
“This is a release in a way,” he said. “He’s been put out of his prison if you will. This burden we’ve been given is not good at all, but we’re going to bring some good out of it. This sucks, and I’m going to miss him, but what this disease did to him, it was just evil. For him to be unbound by all of that is a good thing.”
Toward the end of the phone conversation, Frank began to talk about his father’s legacy and what he believes people will remember about Pat.
One word came to Frank’s mind.
“We named my son after my dad,” Frank said. “There’s a legacy right there.”
P.J., as the family calls him, will be four next January, and Frank admits that there are a lot of similarities between his son and his father. He also admitted that his son would likely only know Pat through stories, pictures and videos.
But everyone’s legacy is really left up to the ones who knew him or her, Frank also noted, and he hopes his father is remembered as a fair, honest and humble man.
“I think you have to find good times in everything,” Frank said. “That’s what my dad taught me because really, you just never know.”