Dr. Americo W. Petrocelli, or Rick to all, welcomed me into his seemingly boundless sphere of influence, and disarming friendship, late in his life, a little more than a year ago, in fact.
This email arrived in May of 2017, out of the blue:
“I am a longtime resident of Westerly and for the past three years a resident of StoneRidge in Mystic.
“I am still active as a writer. ‘The Magic Table: Prose & Poetry Inspired by the Over-Eighty Crowd’ and ‘Hello said the Caterpillar to the Butterfly’ are my two most recent efforts.
“Your article was an excellent piece of writing. You presented, in a concise work, a compelling history of the area and some of the personalities that enriched it. Thank you!
“I hope to read more of your writings in the future.”
That’s all it took, and likely he very well knew it. Within days, I was visiting with him in his first-floor room at StoneRidge, where Melanie Greenhouse, a dear friend of his and playwright and poetry muse to any number of folk, especially the elderly in these parts, joined us. Rick, wheelchair-bound and then 87, was all energy and enthusiasm for the writer’s world he invested in and helped inspire around him.
But it wasn’t just writing, or humor, or generosity of spirit and purse that he embodied. There was a confidence and determination and a modesty about him, not affected, but genuine. Never did he brandish a resume. It didn’t require much effort, however, to find it:
Son of Italian immigrants and raised in Providence and Pawtucket, he was a chemist by calling, with a Ph.D in physical chemistry from the University of Rhode Island. He taught at URI and served as vice president of business and finance there. He worked as head of engineering at Electric Boat in Groton. He did classified work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He was CEO and president of Yardney Electric Corp. in Pawcatuck. He was commissioner of higher education for the state of Rhode Island, from 1988 through 1995, creating in 1989 the College Crusade to increase high school graduation and college readiness for the state’s youth.
After leaving public office, he helped establish, with his sons, two software startup companies, one eventually purchased by Agfa Corp. and the other by Oracle.
In recent years, he was instrumental in forming and supporting the Mystic Geriatrics Institute, dedicated to improved delivery of medical care to the elderly as well as encouraging policies best suited to the comfort and wellness of seniors living, as he put it, “in a multigenerational village.”
His capabilities and research carried him far and wide: He met globally with politicians and presidents, scientists and scholars, astronauts and cosmonauts, European royalty. He remained an ardent humanitarian, railing until the end against tyranny and despots.
Regrettably, I knew none of this before I met him, though he lived in Westerly from 1960 until the death of this adored wife, Doris, in 2014. They raised four children. What I did know, because it was printed on the cover of one of his books, was that he was Americo Petrocelli, Ph.D and VSC. The VSC? Very Senior Citizen, an honorary degree.
I wrote a profile of Rick, published in the Westerly Sun on June 4, 2017. Several weeks ago, on Aug. 14, he died.
I had my say, and would say more, but here is how others who knew him appreciated him.
“Dr. Petrocelli was my mentor. He looked me straight in the eye about three years ago and implanted his will in me. Create a geriatrics practice, in his neighborhood, to care for the older and frail citizenry through home visits. A lost art,” said Dr. Michael Feltes, a cofounder of the Mystic Geriatrics Institute and owner of Mystic Geriatrics. “As a scientist, businessman, visionary and poet, he crossed into our hearts with a simple man’s touch.”
Dr. Christopher Morren of Stonington, a friend of mine and my former doctor, is president of the Mystic Geriatrics Institute.
“When I first met Rick, I saw an elderly man in a wheelchair,” said Morren. “He was unpretentious. When he spoke he had a thick New England accent. I was surprised to learn he was a doctor of philosophy, a scientist, an educator who had been in charge of Rhode Island education, a poet, an author of children’s books, a founder of several companies …When Rick spoke he was gentle and congenial, but his words were always economical and precise.
“I am better for having known him. We were all fortunate to have such an exemplar in our midst.”
And from Melanie Greenhouse, by his side and at his “magic table”:
“If someone’s eyesight was failing, he bought them a talking watch. He cared about his StoneRidge neighbors as the aging process took its toll … Even in his last months, he kept writing and avidly interested in learning more poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and how his poems, written decades ago, are still relevant today.
“… His kindness and generosity have been a powerful influence in my life. He left the world a better place. How he will be missed.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at email@example.com.