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Joe Rollino: Brooklyn strongman, boxer and war hero dies at 104

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As a grizzled reporter covering Brooklyn, it’s hard to be impressed by tales of exploits, but Joseph Rollino was truly a one-of-a-kind person.

Rollino, 104, a former Coney Island strongman, boxer and World War II hero, was walking across Bay Ridge Parkway near 13th Avenue at 6:48 a.m. when he was struck and killed by a 1999 Ford minivan.

The female driver was not at fault but was cited for having a defective horn, cops said.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rollino in January 2008 at the Seagate home of 10-time Golden Glove champ Pete Spanakos. Rollino, then approaching his 103rd birthday, was the oldest of several former fighters on hand participating in a documentary film about the fight game.

He told me that back in the 1920s and ‘30s he boxed out of the armories under the name Kid Dundee, and fought hundreds of times without ever being knocked out.

“There were fighters in those days, great heavyweight fighters. I’ve seen Dempsey at 188 pounds knock out Jess Willard on July 4th 1919 in Toledo, Ohio and the man [Willard] weighed 250 pounds,” said Rollino.

Born March 19, 1905 on Hamilton Avenue and Degraw Street in Red Hook, Rollinoperformed as a strong man in Coney Island and in circuses.

“Coney Island was a resort in my days. It was the days of the horse and carriage. There was no restaurant except Feltman’s by the Bowery. Then Nathan’s came in 1916, but Feltman’s and Child’s Restaurant were the biggest restaurants in those days,” he recalled, adding that Gargiulo’s Restaurant came later in a smaller place.

Rollino said he was 13 when World Way I came so he missed it, but spent five and a half years as a member of the 41st infantry division during World War II starting when he was 34.

Of that time fighting in the South Pacific, Rollino received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, and spent 24 months in military hospitals.

“The guy was beautiful,” recalled Spanakos. “He went through World War II in the Pacific theater with so much shrapnel in him he could have made money in a junk yard. Joe said on one island in the Pacific there was so many guys getting hurt that he would just go in the battle under enemy fire and put one injured man under one arm and another in his other arm and keep marching them back and forth from the front.”

After the war, Rollino worked in Red Hook as a longshoreman, and was an extra in the movie “On The Waterfront” for a scene that was cut. He told me he also helped former heavyweight boxing champ James Braddock get work on the docks.

A vegetarian for some 90 years - since the age of 13 -Rollino lived in Dyker Heights with his niece and woke every day at 5 a.m. and walked several miles.

He also attended church at St. Bernadette’s, 8201 13th Avenue, several days a week.

Following a viewing, his funeral will be held at 9:45 a.m. this Saturday at St. Bernadette’s. The burial will be in Queens.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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