March 31 – Happy Birthday Rocco Petrone

Just 18 months after Rocco Petrone was born on this date in 1926, his father Anthony, a railroad worker, was killed on the job when he was struck by a train, just east of Amsterdam. There was no social safety net for a widow with two young boys back then and he remembers getting a job delivering ice as a young boy to help the family make ends meet. His Mom would eventually marry again, to Joseph Scaccia. They moved to Scaccia’s home at 24 Holly Street, where today’s birthday celebrant was raised with his brother John and stepbrother Anthony. When he was fourteen years old, he played baseball in an Amsterdam youth program called the Knot Hole League. He was a pitcher for the Hurricane’s and  his teammates included wonderful Amsterdam originals like Bob Sise, Babe Stratton and Pete LaBate. Two years later, he and big Ray Marciniec were the very good pair of starting tackles who anchored the defensive line of Coach Stan Machoskey’s Amsterdam Varsity football team. Though he was a fine athlete, he was an even better student, graduating as the Salutatorian of the 1943 class of Wilbur Lynch High School. With World War II still raging in both Europe and the Pacific, he secured one of Congressman Bernard Kearney’s appointments to the US Military Academy at West Point, where he lettered in football on the 1945 Army squad that won the National Championship. But once again, he did even better in the classroom. When he graduated in 1946, he was stationed for three years in Germany before being sent to MIT where he earned a Masters degree in mechanical engineering. From there, the young Captain was assigned to the Redstone Arsenal, headquarters for the Army’s vast guided missile and rocket programs.

It was there that he found his true calling, working on the team of engineers that developed the Redstone rocket, the very first U.S. ballistic missile and the vehicle used to send the first American, astronaut Alan Shepard, into space. From Redstone he was put on loan to NASA, where shortly after retiring from the Army in 1966, he was given the job of Director of Launch Operations. He then became director of the Apollo program. It was in that role that Amsterdam native, Rocco Petrone became responsible for all phases of the flight that landed Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 20, 1969 and returned him safely back to Earth. That one small step for man was certainly one giant leap for a fatherless boy from Amsterdam, NY.

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