The Great Joe Rollino, Bender of Steel, Is Dead at 104 - NYTimes.com
- [EXCERPT: Mr. Rollino stayed away from meat. And cigarettes. And
alcohol. He said he walked five miles every morning, rain or shine.
At the height of his career, he weighed between 125 and 150 pounds
and stood about 5-foot-5.]
THE NEW YORK TIMES
January 12, 2010
At a Mighty 104, Gone While Still Going Strong
By MANNY FERNANDEZ and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Joe Rollino once lifted 475 pounds. He used neither his arms nor his
legs but, reportedly, his teeth. With just one finger he raised up
635 pounds; with his back he moved 3,200. He bit down on quarters to
bend them with his thumb.
People called him the Great Joe Rollino, the Mighty Joe Rollino and
even the World's Strongest Man, and what did it matter if at least
one of those people was Mr. Rollino himself.
On Monday morning, Mr. Rollino went for a walk in his Brooklyn
neighborhood, a daily routine. It was part of the Great Joe Rollino's
greatest feat, a display of physical dexterity and stamina so subtle
that it revealed itself only if you happened to ask him his date of
birth: March 19, 1905. He was 104 years old and counting.
A few minutes before 7 a.m., as Mr. Rollino was crossing Bay Ridge
Parkway at 13th Avenue, a 1999 Ford Windstar minivan struck him. The
police said he suffered fractures to his pelvis, chest, ribs and
face, as well as head trauma. Unconscious, he was taken to Lutheran
Medical Center, where he later died.
New York is a city of extraordinary lives and events, and here,
indisputably, was one of them - one of the city's strongest and
oldest, struck down on a Monday morning by a minivan in Brooklyn.
"Pound for pound, in the feats that he practiced, he was one of the
greatest performing strongmen we've ever had, if the lifts he's
credited with are accurate," said Terry Todd, a co-director of the
Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of
Texas, who knew Mr. Rollino for more than four decades. "He certainly
wasn't one of the strongest all-time strongmen, because of his size.
To ask a well-trained 130-pound man if he can lift what a
well-trained 400-pound man can lift is asking an unreasonable
question. But for his size, Joe was apparently one of the strongest
men who ever lived."
Mr. Rollino stayed away from meat. And cigarettes. And alcohol. He
said he walked five miles every morning, rain or shine. At the height
of his career, he weighed between 125 and 150 pounds and stood about
He was a teenager when he watched Jack Dempsey knock out Jess Willard
in 1919. He later boxed under the name Kid Dundee, became a Coney
Island performer, worked as a longshoreman, fought in World War II
and had a bit part in "On the Waterfront" that never made the film,
not necessarily in that order.
Among his many accomplishments, Mr. Rollino was proudest of one in
particular. "My finger strength," he told an interviewer for ESPN The
Magazine. "Six hundred thirty-five pounds. See the size of it. At 150
pounds, nobody ever beat me in this world."
He was a legend within that small Coney Island society in which few
New Yorkers would want to become known as legends: the men and women
who swim in the Atlantic when it is at its harshest and coldest. On a
6-degree day in January 1974, Mr. Rollino and six other members of
the Iceberg Athletic Club swam into the waters off Coney Island. The
freezing Atlantic was like steel: It didn't intimidate him.
"People told me he holds the record for swimming every day for eight
years," said Louis Scarcella, 59, a former homicide detective and a
member of the city's oldest winter swimming club, the Coney Island
Polar Bear Club. "He was known as the Great Joe Rollino, and he was
great. You knew he was great just by standing next to him. He just
had that humble confidence and strength. It shined."
Mr. Scarcella, like many of those who knew Mr. Rollino, has a Joe
Rollino story, or several Joe Rollino stories. And though some of
them can be neither confirmed nor refuted, they get told and retold
and told again, because they are too good not to. Mr. Scarcella heard
that one winter in the 1950s, Mr. Rollino recovered the bodies of two
people who drowned in Prospect Park, because the police did not have
the necessary protective equipment and it was too cold for anyone
else to jump in and bring them to the surface.
Mr. Rollino was a longtime member of the Association of Oldetime
Barbell and Strongmen. Dennis Rogers, a fellow member and a
professional strongman, remembered seeing him at the association's
annual dinner in June, at a hotel near the Newark airport. "He just
came in to say hi to everybody and coached some of the guys that were
performing," said Mr. Rogers, who in 1995 prevented four motorcycles
from moving at full throttle for 12 seconds, according to his Web
site. "He would regularly work out in the gym. He was in pretty good
shape. He walked a little slow but looked fine."
Mr. Rollino had lately been living in Brooklyn with a niece, in a
house on 14th Avenue, about a block from where the accident occurred.
The driver of the minivan that struck Mr. Rollino, a 54-year-old
woman who lives in the neighborhood and who remained at the scene,
was not charged. She received a summons for having a defective horn,
and the police said that neither speed nor alcohol was a factor. Mr.
Rollino had been walking about 40 feet from the nearest crosswalk
when the minivan hit him, according to the authorities.
Old photographs of Mr. Rollino are displayed in several neighborhood
shops. People called him Puggy. "If he shook your hand, he'd break
it," said James Romeo, owner of Romeo Brothers Meats and Foods on
15th Avenue. "He wasn't feeble."
Charles Denson, a historian and the author of "Coney Island: Lost and
Found," first met Mr. Rollino at his 103rd birthday party at a
neighborhood restaurant. "He was one of the last links to the old
strongman days of Coney Island," he said. "Coney Island was the
training ground for strongmen. He was one of the best."
Mr. Rollino wowed the crowd at the party, Mr. Denson recalled. He
told stories about the old days, of course, but he was more than just
talk, even at 103. Mr. Rollino put a quarter in his teeth. Then he
Stacey Solie and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.