Rocco Siciliano — son of Italian immigrants, decorated World War II veteran, University of Utah sponsor — dies at 96

(courtesy photo) Rocco Carmine Siciliano died at the age of 96 on Nov. 6, 2018. He was a war hero, an adviser to President Dwight Eisenhower and a donor to the University of Utah.

He was the son of Italian immigrants and grew up working in his parents’ Salt Lake City restaurant. He enlisted in the Army during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. He served four U.S. presidents. He graduated from the University of Utah and later started a political forum there.

In many ways, Rocco Siciliano’s list of life achievements was fit for 50 people, his son jokes. And there was no way he could fit them all in an obituary.

“It’s not a book,” John Siciliano said with a laugh.

But he hopes those highlights show what kind of man his father was. Someone who dabbled in a bit of everything and somehow seemed like an expert in all of it. Someone who credited much of his success to luck and tried to create chances for others to do the same.

“His view always was that many people are blessed with good fortune but not all are blessed with opportunity,” said John Siciliano.

Rocco Siciliano died last week at the age of 96 at his home in California. He was born March 4, 1922 in Utah.

Siciliano and his two brothers grew up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, always running back and forth to their parents’ restaurant on 600 East and 1300 South. Chickens scuttled around the backyard, and it always smelled like marinara.

He was proud of his mom and dad, who came to the United States by boat and couldn’t read or write English. He admired their determination and business acumen. He wanted to follow in their footsteps.

“I think it meant a great deal to him,” said John Siciliano.

He enlisted in the war because he wanted to give back to his country. And he ended up serving in Italy, his parents’ homeland, which was a point of pride for him.

When he returned, he enrolled and graduated from the University of Utah, earning a degree in political science in 1944. He then received a law degree at Georgetown University.

Siciliano served in assistant secretary, special assistant and financial advisory positions in four presidential administrations: Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton and the second Bush. He later chaired a handful of financial services and real estate companies. But his real passion was for arts and culture.

He gave money to orchestras, museums and political institutes. He and his late wife, Marion, created and endowed an annual forum at the University of Utah to bring in nationally renowned speakers, including Adobe co-founder John Warnock and Republican political adviser Karl Rove.

“Rocco was the consummate statesmen who never stopped pushing students to lives of public service,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, which annually hosts the Siciliano Forum. “Thanks to his generosity, he’ll continue to have a positive impact.”

John Siciliano said his dad “really prized” his relationship with the university where he got his start. Though he lived in California later in his life, Rocco Siciliano loved traveling back to Utah, loved seeing how the state changed, loved it so much he spent a good chunk talking about it in the book he wrote about his life.

That work — “Walking on Sand” — captures his father in a way that his 500-word obituary couldn’t, John Siciliano said. So when his two brothers and two sisters complained “You left that out” and “What about that one time?” he told them to go read it again.

A memorial mass will be held in Rocco Siciliano’s honor Dec. 28 at 10 a.m. at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills Calif.