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In memoriam: Joseph M. LaRocca.

Mr. Joseph M. LaRocca, an international leader and noted pioneer in rehabilitation for over half a century, died September 27 at his Silver Spring, MD, home after suffering a stroke. He was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery. During World War II, Mr. LaRocca served with distinction as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

He was born on Nov. 23, 1908, in Cleveland, OH, graduated from Cornell University, and completed training at the Graduate School of Applied Social Sciences of Western Reserve University. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Margaret Hunter LaRocca; a daughter, Margaret L. Bishow, of Takoma Park, MD; a son, Robert J., of Philadelphia; a brother, Charles, of Cleveland; a sister, Mildred Wright, of Portland, OR; and two grandchildren.

Mr. LaRocca advised organizations and agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, Urban Institute, World Rehabilitation Fund, and the State Department about setting up medical and vocational rehabilitation programs, largely in war-torn countries. He began his career in the 1930's with the Works Progress Administration. He directed sharecropper assistance programs in Atlanta, GA, and Jacksonville, FL, before moving to Washington in the late 1930's.

In Washington, he was an advisor to the Bureau of Public Assistance of the Social Security Administration, helping with the initial Social Security regulations, and later became a senior administrative officer with the Federal Security Agency.

After serving with the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to work at the Social Security Administration. He was a regional representative for vocation rehabilitation in New York and chief of guidance, training, and placement but also was assigned as a public welfare advisor in Greece and Egypt for the State Department.

Mr. LaRocca was technical director for rehabilitation in the White House Conference on Aging in 1959 and 1960 and executive secretary of the National Citizens Advisory Committee on Vocational Rehabilitation from 1965 to 1967.

In the rehabilitation field, Mr. LaRocca, or "Joe," as he was called by all of his friends, will always be remembered with honor and appreciation. He devoted many years to providing exemplary services that have contributed immeasurably to the quality of life for people with disabilities. He served in the original Vocational Rehabilitation Service (precursor to the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, OVR, later known as the Vocational Rehabilitation Administration, VRA, and currently designated the Rehabilitation Services Administration, RSA). His service to the federal rehabilitation program extended from 1943 to 1965. During this period, he served as special assistant to Commissioner Michael Shortly and to Commissioner Mary E. Switzer and as Director of the International Program. He was responsible for legislation, for the development of standards to insure the quality of state operations in the national program of rehabilitation, and for the management and direction of the international program.

The 1965 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act provided for a major expansion of the national program, which included basic services, research and demonstration, training of professional personnel, and new federal initiatives for the hearing and visually impaired and others with severe disabilities. Commissioner Switzer appointed Mr. LaRocca chairman of a task force to develop regulations for implementation of these far-reaching provisions. He consulted with experts on a daily basis and obtained the recommendations of specialists in every field of endeavor. Decisions were made and new national policies adopted to insure a major expansion in the development and implementation of programs. These provisions have improved the quality of life each year for more than 200,000 people with disabilities over a sustained period from 1965 to date. If one person can be singled out as critical to their implementation, that person was Joseph LaRocca.

Mr. LaRocca subsequently served as administrator of the George Washington University Research and Training Center in Washington, DC, and as the primary consultant to the Urban Institute in completing the statutorily mandated Comprehensive Needs Study. The findings from this study led to legislative amendments that authorized the current national program of rehabilitation for all Americans with physical and other disabilities.

At the same time, Mr. LaRocca was also providing leadership in the development and implementation of Public Law 480 for the support and encouragement of rehabilitation programs in developing and war-torn countries. His work led to efforts in Cyprus that brought Turkish and Greek Cypriot doctors together and to a similar program uniting physicians in war-torn Lebanon. He advised medical practitioners in Laos and Vietnam treating farmers injured by land mines and helped plan training for healthcare workers in India, Bangladesh, Israel, Mozambique, and Uganda.

In Mozambique, a country with an estimated 20,000 amputees caused by over a decade of devastating civil war, Mr. LaRocca led the rehabilitation effort personally. Drawing upon a wealth of knowledge about the issues and his consummate diplomatic skills, he rallied the cooperation of several private voluntary and international agencies, the Mozambique government, and the U.S. embassy in support of a war victims project. Our embassy had never participated in any project like this before. In both Mozambique and Uganda, he produced timely reports on needs and recommendations that were incorporated virtually verbatim into those countries' war victim plans.

In cooperation with the Agency for International Development, Mr. LaRocca handled numerous difficult assignments in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America. He was always ready to give his time without consideration of payment, to jump on an airplane for distant and dangerous parts of the world, and to go the extra mile to make certain that a program not only worked but worked well. Recently, the staff of the United States Senate responsible for these programs shared with me their appreciation and their regard for Joe as "a national treasure."

He was also a very caring and humble individual, always interested in getting the job done and serving the scores of people in need of services, rather than seeking the limelight. In his work overseas, he was always viewed as an ambassador of goodwill and hope. He saw rehabilitation as an international language that served as a bridge between peoples to enhance mutual trust and respect and, especially, peace between nations. His commitment and dedication were matched only by his foresight and selfless resolve to help people gain independence and dignity.

This past year, in celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act at a reception during the Switzer Memorial Seminar, Joe LaRocca was selected as an honorary Switzer Scholar for his work with other legends in the field of rehabilitation, including Mary Switzer, Howard Rusk, M.D., and James Garrett, Ph.D. In 1990, Dr. Garrett told me that Joe had spent a lifetime dedicated to meeting the needs of people with disabilities and "that those who would honor Joe would, in reality, be honoring themselves."

In summary, Joseph M. LaRocca helped shape the history of rehabilitation. He made an immeasurable contribution to the quality of life for people with disabilities and served as a role model for others. Through his wonderful family, his many friends, and his inspiration to all of us, Joe LaRocca will always be remembered and his work will be of lasting benefit to world rehabilitation.


"The yearnings for usefulness, for the warmth of family and friends, and for the respect of the community are very real factors in rehabilitation, for upon these are built the services that give substance to hopes and desires."

--Joseph LaRocca, from Rehabilitation for the Aging: A Growing Responsibility

"The outstanding thing that rehabilitation achieves is preservation or the restoration of dignity to the individual. We in the rehabilitation field are fortunate to have so precious an objective and purpose which in reality gives meaning to life."

--Joseph LaRocca (Excerpt from paper prepared for the Seventh Annual Institute for Rehabilitation Personnel, Southern Illinois University).

Wesley E. Geigel Director, Federal Program Liaison Electronic Industries Foundation. Former Director of the Division of Rehabilitation Facilities, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, and Acting Assistant Commissioner, Office of Developmental Programs, RSA.
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Author:Geigel, Wesley E.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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