Around Joe Rotter, something as innocuous as a summer vacation or a trip to the toy store occasionally resembled a real-life action thriller.
His wife and now-grown children recalled with awe and affection the time they were passing a row of recreation vehicles during a family trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"We were on vacation and there was this man with a beach towel, and he was wrapping it around his arm," said his wife, Donna Mascaro Rotter. "He [was using it on glass and] breaking into all these RV's."
Mr. Rotter, 64, who died Friday after a brief hospitalization at UPMC Shadyside, was a federal Drug Enforcement Administration stalwart whom family, friends and colleagues described as a gentle bear of a man dedicated to helping others, loving his kin and enforcing the law.
Mrs. Rotter and his children, Joseph Rotter III and Melissa Brown, remembered him stopping the car all those years ago, handing his DEA badge to his wife and asking her to call the police.
Then he went in after the burglar.
"My dad got him out and sat on him until the police came," Mrs. Brown, of Irwin, said, laughing.
When the kids were even younger, the family was shopping at a Children's Palace store in Monroeville. Mr. Rotter didn't like the looks of three men who entered the store and were approaching the check-out counter, so he ordered his family to go to the back.
He broke up the attempted robbery as one man fled and he apprehended the other two.
"I remember my saying to my dad -- and I was really little then -- 'Are we going to get some free toys?' " said Joe Rotter III of Chicago.
As was his habit, Mr. Rotter rebuffed any reward attempts.
"That was my dad. I was a young little boy and he was my hero," said Joe Rotter III.
"I think his sense of duty was special because he really, sincerely cared about the work that he did," said Gregory Nescott, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Violent Crimes section who worked with Mr. Rotter on many occasions.
"He was really great with people, all kinds of people -- officers and agents, with informants, with difficult witnesses, with defendents.
"He could really just deal with people and relate to them."
Mr. Nescott, who was an assistant DA when Mr. Rotter was an Allegheny County deputy sheriff, said he was "simply one of the best agents I've known in my 34 years as a prosecutor."
Mr. Rotter grew up on the border of Point Breeze and Homewood, the son of Lena Smith and Joseph A. Rotter. His father was a City of Pittsburgh police officer, which sparked an early interest in law enforcement.
As a student at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, he met his future wife and they attended her prom in Penn Hills, where they would eventually settle down and raise a family. After earning his degree in criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh, he became a deputy sheriff.
Later, when he graduated first in his DEA training class, his reward was getting to choose his assignment city.
"I remember telling him which cities I wanted to live in, based on which other NFL teams I liked," his son said.
But leaving Pittsburgh was never an option, his wife said, even when he was offered a good job in San Diego: "He told them, 'I would not be here if it weren't for the love and support of my family. I couldn't take them somewhere where I'd be working across the border half the time, and they know no one.' "
After mandatory retirement from the DEA, Mr. Rotter worked as associate director of police/security at UPMC Shadyside and became a go-to guy for staff, administration and even patients with questions about a wide range of legal and domestic issues.
By then, he and his wife had moved to Irwin, and Mr. Rotter enjoyed listening to oldies tunes on the drive into town.
The Rotters were married 43 years -- "It sounds like a lot but sometimes just doesn't seem like enough," his wife said -- and doted on their grandchildren. A black belt in karate, Mr. Rotter, known as "Pappy," was instructing the young ones and would often try to have lunch with the kids at preschool.
"When my son had colic, he would put him to sleep in those big arms of his," Joe Rotter III said. "He was tough, but he was gentle. He was a throwback."
The family has been moved by the many condolences received in recent days.
"I knew he touched our lives, but I had no idea how many other people's lives he touched," Mrs. Brown said.
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Rotter is survived by five grandchildren.
Visiting hours will be 4 to 8 p.m. today at Clement L. Pantalone Funeral Home, 409 Pittsburgh St., Greensburg, with Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Irwin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Interment will follow.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1478 or on Twitter @MariaSciulloPG.