Obituary: Norma Rocchini / Oakmont High chemistry teacher was 'inspiration,' 'meant to teach'

April 23, 1921 - May 31, 2013

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Norma Rocchini taught the same chemistry classes for 25 years at Oakmont High School, which later became Riverside High School. But she still worked continually on improving her lesson plans, spending hours poring over them at home in the evenings until she was satisfied she was prepared for her students.

They, in turn, took her lessons to heart so much that decades later many of them would stop by her classroom or her home to thank her.

"They would stop by and tell her what an inspiration she was," said her son, Paul Rocchini of Oakmont. "She really worked at it -- she really wanted to help kids, and you could see she was meant to teach because she got through to people very easily."

Mrs. Rocchini, of Oakmont, died Friday. She was 92.

Born at home in Squirrel Hill on April 23, 1921, Mrs. Rocchini was the daughter of Italian immigrants Louis and Rose Squitieri, who came to Pittsburgh and met and married here.

Norma graduated from Allderdice High School, and earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, where her father worked as an art professor and a commissioned sculptor.

After graduation, she worked at Gulf Oil's research center in Harmarville, where she focused on oil and gas mixtures as the company's first female chemist, according to her son. She met her future husband, fellow chemist Albert G. Rocchini, at the research laboratory, and the couple married in 1944.

They soon had three sons: Al, in 1946; Lou, in 1949; and Paul, in 1953.

After her youngest started kindergarten, Mrs. Rocchini decided to go back to work as a substitute chemistry teacher in 1959, then a full-time chemistry teacher in 1960, at the former Oakmont High School.

The job allowed her to continue taking care of her children while also using her education and training to teach the sciences that she thought were so important, Mr. Rocchini said.

As a teacher, Mrs. Rocchini was kind, outgoing and personable, but she also knew where to draw the line with students, said her longtime friend and colleague, Chuck Wagner of Oakmont, a former world history and economics teacher and head football coach.

If any of his football players misbehaved or earned poor grades, she would go to him and they would talk to players together to help them improve.

"She knew how to handle herself in all the different positions you get into as a teacher, but she hung in there tough with the kids," said Mr. Wagner, who coached and taught at Oakmont High from 1961 to 1993.

"I think they felt very comfortable with her and showed her a lot of respect, as she did to them," he said.

Mrs. Rocchini's love of chemistry crept into the daily details of her home life as well. A recipe card for bread listed H2O (water) and NaCl (sodium chloride, or salt) as ingredients. Scraped knees and elbows might be cleansed with H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) and discussions of chemical formulas were standard dinner conversation with her chemist husband, Mr. Rocchini said.

Along the way, Mrs. Rocchini couldn't help but sneak some chemistry into conversations with her sons about how to make soap, or what happens when vinegar touches baking soda, or the physical process that turns granular sugar into a Christmas confection.

"We were learning things without knowing we were learning them, like when we would make hard candy at Christmastime," Mr. Rocchini said. "It was done sort of constructively -- making candy -- but she was also teaching us that certain minerals affect the boiling point."

Even after retirement in 1985, Mrs. Rocchini stayed busy with puzzles and projects. She loved to knit for her children and grandchildren -- she made each one homemade Christmas stockings when they got married, for instance -- and continued buying the newspaper for its crossword puzzles and cryptograms even after she could no longer read the articles easily, her son said.

She enjoyed playing bridge with friends and stayed active in her church, St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Oakmont.

And she continued thinking about chemistry, reciting the periodic table of elements after a recent surgery to check if she still had her wits, or describing the chemical formula for glyceride after a nurse mentioned it during another hospital visit, Mr. Rocchini said.

Even as recently as a few weeks ago, his mother was very alert, very bright and doing her crossword puzzles with her usual vigor, her son said.

"She gave a lot back to a lot of people," he said. "She was a very special lady."

Mrs. Rocchini is survived by her sons, Al of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Lou and Paul of Oakmont; and her sisters, Ligia Marguglio, Aida Jordano and Eleanor Williams.

A Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. today in St. Irenaeus.

Memorial donations may be made in her name to St. Irenaeus Catholic Church, 387 Maryland Ave., Oakmont, PA 15139.

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Amy McConnell Schaarsmith:


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