Friday, December 1, 2023

Icon, Legend and a Land Line: Remembering Leo LaRocca

The world bid farewell to a living legend, a icon of the St. Ignatius community—Leo LaRocca '53. The black and white photo posted front and center of a tribute email from SI President, Father Eddie Reese says it all. Sitting with a phone in hand—a secure land line if you will—Leo gifted SI with his presence and the ability to "make things happen." This sentiment is confirmed in Spiritus Magis—a chronicle of the first 150 years of St. Ignatius College Preparatory.

Paul Totah writes,

Leo La Rocca, who served as SI’s Athletic Director for 34 years, first came to SI as a teacher in 1965 and quickly became known as “The Godfather.” It’s not just because this towering man’s grandparents came from Sicily. Leo is the least threatening man you could meet. He was, however, the man to go to if you wanted a favor done. He gained a reputation as someone who could provide help with just one phone call, whether it was finding a donor for a scholarship for a senior whose father had just died or finding a job around campus for a freshman who had a hard time fitting in.

Although I never officially worked with Leo—I came to SI two year after he retired—I got to know him because of that gift of presence. He never missed the end of the year coaching banquets at the House of Prime Rib. Why should he? He hired so many of the men and women in that room. He attended his granddaughter's regattas at Lake Merced and did not fail to greet me: "Good morning Coach." I loved that he was in attendance throughout the winter break basketball tourney named in his honor: The Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Classic. He was forever respectful in his acknowledgment of me as a teacher and coach of his alma mater. Thank you, Leo.

I will never forget sitting one row behind him for a varsity boys' basketball game. We were both watching one of my favorite high school players, #22 Paul Toboni warm up. A great shooter, I said to Leo, "as they say, practice makes perfect." He remained quiet. He nodded and said "no, perfect practice makes perfect." I took note.

I know there are many, but my favorite Leo LaRocca story took place at a crab feed on campus for faculty and staff. This San Francisco tradition was gifted to us by A. LaRocca Seaford, founded by Leo's grandparents in 1906. The crab feast took place in the faculty dining room on a Friday—because back in the day, we ended school at 1:10 p.m. TGIF! 

Teachers were sitting at tables with their bibs on tight, buckets for crab shells were out and filling up. The sourdough was plentiful and the volume in the room was getting louder by the minute. I turned to see Leo walk in. He pointed two fingers to someone on the kitchen staff and the next thing I know, a bottle of red found its way to every table. No words were exchanged. He did put some teacher/coach into a headlock hug before he sat down to eat. I felt like I was living  what I had seen in "A Bronx Tale." Amazing.

Long before John Lynch made things happen for the Niners, Leo was doing that for SI. And reading that he was the fourth AD, and SI has only had six to this day—makes me think SI:WCAL :: the Pittsburgh Steelers: NFL (they have had four head coaches). The biggest difference however is the bottom line Leo chose to meet. Spiritus Magis says.
LaRocca never judged his success by whether his teams won or lost. “Driving home after a basketball game, I couldn’t tell you the final score. I get the most satisfaction not from watching a team win, but from watching kids play as hard as they could, win or lose. Championships are nice, but it’s far more gratifying watching kids grow into men and women, have families, be happy and do well professionally. I only hope that I’ve been a little part of their success.”
I am certain the tributes to will be plentiful—Jim Dekker's citation in Genesis is a must read. In remembering Leo, celebrating his life and sharing stories, I can only hope we will reflect on Leo's legacy and model his values, dedication and service. 

I would like his family to know how grateful for what I learned from their father/ grandfather/etc from his presence and sure example. When we meet again, I expect him to point two fingers. Can we get a bottle of white the heavenly banquet? Please and thank you.

Eternal rest grant unto him oh Lord—and may perpetual light shine upon him.

Photo Credits
A. LaRocca Seafood

1 comment:

  1. Anne -- What a moving tribute to a great man. Well done! -- Paul Totah