Inquirer's Frank Rossi, Award-winning Writer

Posted: April 21, 1992

Frank Rossi handled the language like a man who grew crops, nurturing every sentence, making sure each word was rooted to the one before it, cultivating each description, understanding that there were no shortcuts.

He wore tailored suits and loud socks, cooked Chinese food and sang bluegrass, cried and laughed easily, suffered neither fools nor editors gladly and wrestled with cancer for 19 years before his shoulders were forced to the ground. His family and close friends knew about the battle, but few others did.

Rossi, 44, an Inquirer columnist from 1980 to 1986, son of a Scranton cab driver, a gentle-fingered writer who liked the street, not the office, died yesterday at his home.

"I can't think of a thing I wanted to do that I haven't done," he told a doctor before he died. "I did everything I wanted to do."

Knowing he'd said that "put me totally at peace," said his wife, Mary.

He crafted stories about Texas wieners and haiku, racism and an abandoned bird his daughter taught to fly. He also taught writing at King's College in Wilkes-Barre.

He wanted to be perfect and wanted others to be perfect as well. "He was always hard on me," said Maria, 21, a senior at Pennsylvania State University and their only child. "He just didn't want me to screw up at all."

But it wasn't until a family vacation in Mexico two years ago that she understood why.

She and her father were snacking on nachos and drinking tequila at a Cozumel swimming pool when he said: "I was hard on you because I didn't want you to make any mistakes."

"He explained to me that he just didn't know how long he had to make me a good person," she said.

At The Inquirer, Rossi was a reporter and columnist in the New Jersey edition before becoming the newspaper's city columnist. In recent years, he had been a writer for Inquirer Magazine and the Daily Magazine section.

"He struggled so hard to develop his own writing style," said his wife. ''He used to tell me about the steps on the ladder of writing: In the beginning, you take big steps; then the steps become smaller - but it takes twice the energy to make the next rung."

Frank Rossi and Mary Rynearson met when they were in the eighth grade in Scranton. An accordion brought them together.

He played guitar in a wedding band that had his father, Gus, on rhythm guitar and his brother Phil on drums. The band needed an accordion player. Mary's brother, Lee, played accordion.

After high school, he and Lee Rynearson moved to Lakehurst, N.J., and played the Jersey Shore in a rock band called Terry and the Pirates.

It was about that time that he landed his first newspaper job.

"They were starving to death, and one day, he saw an ad for a reporter/ photographer," his wife recalled. An eighth-grade teacher had said he had potential as a writer.

The Ocean County Sun in Toms River hired him. He was 18.

Rossi returned to Scranton the following year. He and Mary were engaged, and he took a job with the Scranton Tribune, where he stayed for nine years, until 1976. In March 1975, he discovered the whereabouts of celebrity fugitive Patty Hearst and helped break that national story.

But he needed to be better.

He had taken some college courses, but he wanted more and applied to the University of Missouri's journalism school in Columbia, Mo.

"They rejected him, but Frank didn't take no for an answer," said Mary. So they drove to Missouri, stayed at the Tiger Hotel with its "Have Your Affairs Here" marquee and confronted the bureaucracy.

Rossi was admitted.

While attending college, he worked full time at the Columbia Daily Tribune - for $10,000 a year less than he had earned in Scranton. But it was in Columbia that Rossi hit his stride.

"He carried around a tape recorder that looked like his wife's hair dryer," said Carolyn White, former Tribune managing editor.

"Everyone fell in love with him. He was funny, he wore those tailored suits in blue-jean country. He helped shape that paper. His 'Rossihood' spoke through."

Jan Winburn, now at the Hartford Courant, was his boss.

"He came in and wrote about people in a way that no one in that community had ever done. He wrote about ordinary people. He used very carefully chosen detail. His short sentences carried a lot of power."

Missouri was a happy time for the Rossis.

"I think it was the best time of our lives," said Mary. "We were so poor and had nothing but each other and Maria. It was just the three of us."

In 1979, Rossi's stories about common people won him the prestigious Ernie Pyle Award.

"He always wanted to work at The Inquirer and wrote them nine letters," said his wife. "They never answered. Then he won an award and they came looking for him."

Eugene L. Roberts Jr., then executive editor, offered Rossi a job. "He had a fluid writing style," Roberts said. "His people came alive. He was one of the writers who sweated over every word. A proposed change in his copy was never received, initially, by Frank with open arms. Chances are that he had thought about every sentence and he liked the ring of it.

"I can barely think about Frank and not simultaneously think about Mary. One of the closest couples I ever met. Often, when Frank wanted to talk about his career, you talked with the two of them."

The couple's 23d wedding anniversary would have been next month.

He had endured numerous hospital stays, including one in November that he

cut short to attend Maria's wedding - in a wheelchair.

"The wedding was wonderful because Frank was there," said the Rev. Michael J. Doyle of Camden's Sacred Heart Church.

"He wanted to be there, to go up the aisle with Maria. I spoke to the fact that he was there, that he was very sick. I didn't not want to deal with it. He cried a lot. I kidded that I didn't need a lot of holy water because Frank had cried so much.

"His presence was dignified and gracious and holy. Holy. He was there, that was the point. . . . With his love and his tears and courage."

Before the Mass was over, Maria went to her father.

"Everybody in the church was bawling. He told me to go back to Steve, my husband. It was like he was telling me it was OK, that I was married now."

Rossi first became ill in 1973 and fought to remain in control of his treatment and his body.

"He wanted the treatment to be nonaggressive, non-invasive. He didn't want it approached with big guns," said his wife.

Sometimes he'd almost shut his body down and nod off when the sickness became too much. He tried vitamin therapy and acupuncture, this new treatment and that.

Once, not long after his lymphoma was diagnosed, he visited a healer in Maryland. He liked to tell the story. Mary tells it now:

The healer had been hit by lightning and laid his hands on people to cure them. "He didn't help Frank, but on that trip we had Chinese food for the first time. We've loved Chinese food ever since."

Unlike some journalists, Rossi had a life outside the newsroom.

He had family and music, his band - the Endless Mountain Bluegrass Band - and the cabin he'd built on a Pennsylvania hilltop near Hop Bottom, in Susquehanna County, near the New York border. He knew nothing about cabin building, but he built one, with French doors, cedar siding and parts from here and there.

He loved the cabin. He loved to hunt deer. He loved the family bluegrass get-togethers on his in-laws' porch in Hop Bottom. Mary would play, Maria would strum a banjo. Frank's mother, Rose, would sing. Old friends and new would come by.

Those who did not know that the 6-foot-2 man was seriously ill had no reason to suspect.

"He didn't want anyone cutting him any breaks," said White. "He did not work and he did not live as an ill person."

Roberts said that Rossi chose "the intensely private way" to handle his illness. "The newsroom leaks like a sieve, but he went through two, maybe three, serious bouts before it was well-known that he was sick."

He was admitted to Hahnemann University Hospital on April 3. His condition was deteriorating. His kidneys were failing. But he wanted to die at home, and on Sunday, his family took him back to their stone house in Overbrook. His daughter said his blood pressure improved after he came home.

Just after midnight, he had trouble breathing. He talked to a cousin. Mary kissed him and said, "I love you."

And he stopped breathing.

In addition to his wife, daughter, father, mother and brother, he is survived by his grandmother, Rose Rossi, of Dunmore, Pa.

A viewing will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Vince Vanston Funeral Home, 1402 Ash St., Scranton. A Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Rocco's Church, 118 Kurtz St., Dunmore.

Those wishing to make contributions should send them to Father Doyle at Sacred Heart Church, 1739 Ferry Ave., Camden, 08104, to help him in his work with needy families.

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