Greenwich bids farewell to Sgt. Roger Petrone

As a light snow fell, officers from the Greenwich Police Department joined First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman David Theis, at far right, to say goodbye to Sgt. Roger Petrone, who died of ALS after a long struggle with the disease. —John Ferris Robben

As a light snow fell, officers from the Greenwich Police Department joined First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman David Theis, at far right, to say goodbye to Sgt. Roger Petrone, who died of ALS after a long struggle with the disease. —John Ferris Robben

A life well lived is not measured by the number of years but by personal accomplishments, connections and dreams.

This message was delivered by MaryEllen Woodman, aunt of Sgt. Roger Petrone, who passed away last month after a difficult seven-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), at the age of 44. Ms. Woodman delivered a eulogy on Feb. 26 at Sgt. Petrone’s funeral, where he was remembered as a beloved father, husband, son, and Greenwich resident who served 17 years with the Greenwich Police Department (GPD) as a member of its SWAT and scuba teams.

The funeral, held at St. Mary’s Church, was attended by police officers, local town government officials and the many family members and friends whose lives Petrone touched.

Police bid Sgt. Petrone a solemn and ceremonial farewell. Dressed in full regalia, officers honored him with a final salute and presented Mr. Petrone’s family with an American flag. Though Sgt. Petrone retired in 2012 when his disease left him unable to work, it was clear that he steadfastly remained a part of the police community and the town of Greenwich as a whole.

He dedicated his last years to raising funds for and raising awareness about ALS. The disease, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a terminal, progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It is characterized by rapid muscle atrophy and the eventual loss of basic functions such as speaking, eating and breathing.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair and left unable to speak or walk, Sgt. Petrone was committed to continuing his efforts to raise awareness. In a 2011 letter he wrote to the community, he remembered his love of being active, recounted the difficulties he underwent in obtaining a proper diagnosis, and candidly discussed his disbelief and shock upon realizing he had such a rare and devastating disease at age 37.

ALS affects two out of 100,000 people, with onset typically later in life, between the ages of 40 and 70. The death of motor neurons in the brain and spine inevitably lead to total paralysis, while intellect often remains uncompromised. There is no known cause and there is no known cure.

In his letter, Sgt. Petrone discussed his fear about leaving his daughter and family, and his sadness at giving up his active lifestyle, losing his independence, and being a burden on others. He wrote about no longer being able to speak, move, play tag with his daughter, Sydney, or ever carry her on his shoulders again. He described himself as being “reduced to a mere spectator of life.”

But this is not how those who loved with him remembered him last week. To them, he was far from a spectator or burden. He was a devoted father, husband, son, brother, colleague, activist, and friend. On Wednesday, he was celebrated for all that he was, and all that he achieved in a life that was tragically cut short.

In the eulogy, Ms. Woodman painted a picture of Sgt. Petrone, whom she fondly called R.J., as an active, outgoing and spirited man who followed his dreams and lived with “courage, compassion and love.” She shared lighthearted stories about his childhood and tales of his days pulling mischievous pranks with his brother Robert, with one gem even involving an elementary school-age Sgt. Petrone eating a worm on a dare. When his mother admonished him, he insisted that she need not worry, because he had washed the worm and made sure it was clean.

Ms. Woodman commemorated his great personal qualities, from his “joker smile” to his talent as a vivid storyteller and his wicked sense of humor. She remembered him for his spirit and his love of life. He was a man who was always on the go, who described himself as an “adrenaline junkie.” As a kid, he loved to be outside fishing and bicycling, and as an adult, he loved flying, scuba diving, motorcycles, and his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

She remembered him for his lifetime of service. For his commitments as a volunteer firefighter, emergency responder and decorated police officer. During his tenure at the GPD, he saved a life using CPR, arrested a bank robber, helped recover $2 million worth of jewelry, and even assisted in saving more than 150 senior citizens in a 2002 ferry incident. There was no shortage of commendations and accomplishments in his career.

Above all else, she remembered him as a man who influenced many lives, especially that of his 11-year-old daughter. She addressed Sydney personally, saying that she would “forever be Daddy’s greatest pride and joy” and told her that her father adored her “more than anything in this world.”

And lastly, she expressed the family’s gratitude to all those who had supported him throughout his fight. From his friends to his colleagues and medical caretakers, she thanked them for their ongoing support. His peers at the GPD organized countless fund-raisers, participated in annual ALS awareness 270-mile bike rides, and even spearheaded a project to tailor his house to be wheelchair-accessible.

“To the Greenwich Police Department … a big, big wow. There are too many names to mention, our gratitude is in abundance for all that you’ve done for him,” said Ms. Woodman. “You never forgot about him and someone always found the time to come to the house to visit, sending him emails, staying in contact, making sure he remained connected to the beloved police world, and more importantly, to the outside world.”

There were many others who also composed the “village of support” for Sgt. Petrone, extending to the broader Greenwich community. With the support of the town, Sydney began holding fund-raisers at the age of 8. Over the years, she continued to actively raise money for ALS research, most recently holding a series of benefit bake sales this past summer. With the help of Greenwich residents, she was able to raise roughly $2,000 last year. In an interview with the Post in August 2013, she said there was no one who took more pride in her efforts than her father.

As he fought his own battle with the disease, he continued to make Herculean efforts to raise awareness and support research for a cure. Though he realized that a cure might not materialize in his lifetime, he was “hopeful that one day it will happen so that other people will not have to go down this same road.”

These words of Sgt. Petrone reflect the kind of man he was and the values he embodied. Courage, love and compassion. Though he may have lived a life all too brief, there is no doubt that it was one “well lived, compressed into 44 years.”

 

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