Rocco Sacco – Founder (1927-2020)
I visited with my Italian professor from college in the summer of 2017, 20 years after studying abroad in her program in Verona, Italy. She told me she remembered me saying, “If I can learn about Italian history and culture, I think it will really help me understand my grandfather.” I’m not sure how successful I was in fully understanding the man, but as Norman Mclean wrote, “we can love completely without complete understanding.” Even so, I think my studies helped connect me to Grandpa Rocky in ways that would have otherwise been impossible. After all, he grew up in abject poverty, orphaned as a teenager in a country that would be far more accepting of him than his parents. And it was largely his work ethic and determination that allowed him to spare all of his descendants (from his children to his great, great grandchildren), the same poverty. He grew up during the Great Depression with little extended family and virtually no resources. He left behind four generations who’ve never had to steal peaches from a neighboring farm in order to eat as he and his siblings did.
He would tell stories about going to “the Big House” a place that provided clothes and shoes for those on welfare. He described clothes that never fit right and shoes that were so shiny his classmates at school could all tell they were welfare shoes so he would scuff them on the sidewalk to try to hide their origins – a story that certainly influenced his obsession later in life with clothes and shoes and how they looked and fit.
After his father died, his mother, who never learned English, would ride the bus to the grocery store without paying. She would get on and just sit, ignoring the bus driver telling her in a language she could barely understand that she had to pay – another story that probably explains his desire to always have a luxury car. And throughout his life he did have just about every type of luxury car from Corvette to Audi to Mercedez to Lexus to Jaguar. And he would let his children and grandchildren drive them, often gifting them away to family members.
Following his older brothers, Grandpa Rocky joined the military (Coast Guard) in 1944 at the age of 17. He told me he has no idea how he passed the swim test which literally consisted of jumping in the deep end with the requirement that he make to the other side of the pool. Somehow he managed it and then was shipped off to Atlantic City for basic training. Grandpa could have quite a joking sense of humor which apparently got him into some trouble with the senior officers. Fortunately for him, the “brig” was a floor of the hotel where they were stationed (he couldn’t remember the reason why they were in a hotel for basic training as opposed to a military base) which, he recalled, was hardly a punishment and not a strong deterrent for his mischievous streak. After basic training he was commissioned to the Aleutian Islands as a radio man. Often he would tap out our names in Morse code when sitting around a table.
After the war, he got work at Oak Hill Country Club. Thus began he his deep love of the sport of golf and it became a huge part of his life from country club memberships, to instilling the love of the sport to his son and grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Many of us in the family played golf with him or at the very least, hit golf balls in his yard. He was 89 when my brother, father, and I last played with him. Though he could no longer hit his drives far off the tee, he was still incredibly skilled around the green. I remember the last putt I saw him make was about a 20 footer to beat my brother and I for the match. It was working at Oak Hill Country Club where he met a member who eventually got him a job with Teal Machine – the job that would set up his career.
Sometime around 1949 or 1950, my grandfather met his future wife, Barbara Bond, at a bus stop in the city of Rochester. As he tells it, he would get to that bus stop to meet her as much as possible and often let his own bus go by several times in order to continue to sit and talk with her. She was working as a bookkeeper in the city and eventually, she agreed to go out with Grandpa Rocky. They wed in 1950 and their marriage lasted 67 years, until my grandmother passed away in 2017. They had three children, Richard, Susan, and Janet, who expanded the family to 12 grandchildren and then 34 great grandchildren and one great, great grandchild.
After working at Teal Machine for a few years, under what he described as suboptimal pay and treatment, he took an opportunity to start a joint venture in the same industry with a coworker. This was quite a learning experience for Grandpa Rocky as his partner cut a number of legal corners before selling the company and left Grandpa with some of the legal fallout and IRS liability. My grandparents would often recall Grandpa’s old partner saying “There is a sucker born every minute.” At the time, they very much felt like they were the suckers. Even so, this opened the door for my grandmother to bring her bookkeeping skills into my grandfather’s business. They were able to leave that initial partnership with enough seed capital to begin their own machine company. Grandpa purchased 3 Davenport machines and they founded “Radax Industries” in 1967 (named by my grandmother because she thought is sounded like Xerox or Kodak – the big thriving industries in the region). It began in a small warehouse in Phelps, NY, just a couple of blocks from my own home, though I didn’t even know it at the time I bought it. The warehouse had no phone so Grandpa would use the payphone in the “Lion’s Club” restaurant attached to the building. My grandfather liked to say that all the waitresses there were his secretaries as they would come get him whenever he got a business call on the payphone.
Slowly but steadily the business grew and expanded. In good part because of my grandfather’s ability with machines – I’ve been told stories of him going to buy used machines and upon seeing another machine in disrepair set aside or a drum of old parts sitting in the corner, he would get those thrown in as part of the purchase and then use them to repair and build another machine. He also described his strategy of stealing away workers from his old company, Teal Machine. “I knew who the good guys were and how much they made because I had worked there,” he’d say. “So I offered them a dollar more an hour to come work for me. And it worked out pretty good.”
Grandpa passed his business on to his son, who then taught his children and even his grandchildren (Grandpa Rocky’s great grandchildren) the business. It’s amazing – four generations of workers at Radax Industries.
In 1981, after a long search, Grandma and Grandpa purchased a 48 acre parcel of land with an old barn on in it, in Victor, NY. I remember Grandpa telling me about buying the property. He told me that Grandma and her nephew had visited the property and called him to describe it. He said he told her, without ever seeing it, that he could tell it was the right place. “’Buy it!’ I told her,” he said. And they did.
Their son Ricky was an avid skier who frequented Song Mountain – a name my Grandmother admired. And, since this property in Victor was teeming with song birds, she decided to name it Song Hill Farm. For the next 25 years, their nephew Jimmy Bond, trained and bred thoroughbred horses on Song Hill Farm.
Song Hill Farm has touched all of our extended families lives. Uncle Ricky helped with the horses. The Grandchildren learned to ride the horses, or helped clear paddocks and erect and paint fences, or learned to drive tractors and mow the hay fields, or helped plant flowers, lay mulch, and weed. So many of the grandchildren and great grandchildren have memories of the farm: hay rides, weddings, birthday parties, bon fires, driving the golf carts around with abandon, feeding the horses, catching fish and frogs and snakes and turtles, eating wild raspberries.
Even though the horses moved away to larger pastures in 2006 and the farm shrunk down to 31 acres, my Grandparents and their children continued to work to keep it alive and make it a place for family to enjoy. They planted Christmas trees, fruit trees, and flowering trees for sale along with dried lavender, quilts, and antiques. In 2010, my Grandfather and his son in law planted a small plot of grapevines, not yet knowing that in 2012, they would open up the farm again to a very different business, allowing me to start a winery there. Grandpa helped me rototill straight lines for the rows. Then, along with his children, their spouses, and some of his grandchildren, we planted over 500 vines in one of the old horse paddocks. Some of my best memories with my grandpa are changing flat tires or changing the oil in the tractors, or hopping in the big farm truck with the trailer and driving down to Keuka Lake together to pick up grapes. I remember distinctly the cold January day when I had driven out to a winery in the Catskills to pick up a used wine press I had bought. I made it almost all the way back without incident until, when making the turn off the exit the press had tipped over in the bed of the truck snapping a valve and making it incredibly difficult to lift out. When I arrived at the barn, my cousin’s husband and one of their sons went and grabbed my grandfather who immediately fired up the tractor. We worked together and using ratchet straps to connect the fallen press to the tines of the tractor arms, my grandpa was able to lift it gently out and set it down perfectly in the barn.
Still today, so many of the grandchildren and great grandchildren have similar memories and adventures on the family farm.
Another great memory all of the grandchildren share is the wonderful trips we would take with our Grandparents. For our 16th birthday, Grandma and Grandpa would take us on a trip. Mine was during the summer of 1994 when two of my cousins and I went on a tour of five countries in Europe. The first time I set foot in Italy was with my Grandfather. But they also had vacation homes throughout the years in California and Florida and we would all take turns visiting with them periodically.
They helped expand our worlds in other ways, too. They helped send many of us off to college and were so proud of our educational accomplishments: several of their grandchildren and great grandchildren have college degrees and graduate degrees – accomplishments that were never a possibility for my Grandparents. I am forever grateful for their support in helping me study abroad in Italy – a trip that has had enormous influence on my life.
Grandpa Rocky passed away on the morning of December 31, 2020. After 93 years his heart decided it was time to stop. What an amazing run.
He began life as a child of poverty, immigration, and the American dream. Out of those origins he went to war like his siblings and served for his county. Then built a thriving manufacturing business that still is going strong today from the ground up. He bought a farm that is the basis for more family businesses along with countless childhood adventures and memories. He leaves behind an enormous, thriving, diverse, and complex family. A family begun by him and his wife, and connected by his stories.
- Conor Gallagher, son of Janet Gallagher (Rocco Sacco’s child #3) and Rocco Sacco’s Grandchild #6