While being evaluated this spring before his reluctant admission to a nursing home, Alfred J. Roach's diagnosis of dementia appeared all but certain. During screening, he told doctors the unlikely tale that he'd been the founder and chairman of several companies, a firefighter, brewing company and investment-firm executive, author, world traveler - even a prize fighter.
"All true," Teri Kroll, Roach's longtime friend and executive assistant at Tii Network Technologies, remembers telling doctors at the time. "Everything except his being a priest."
While most recently chairman emeritus of Tii, an Edgewood-based telecom company he founded in his Levittown garage in 1964, Roach lived a large life. "He was a Long Island legend," said Ken Paladino, Tii's chief executive.
Born in Harlem on Aug. 4, 1915, Roach dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Army. He took up boxing and went on to claim the Army's welterweight title in 1935.
He was in and out of the New York City Fire Department by the age of 28, following an injury at the 1939 World's Fair. As part of a fire department demonstration, Roach volunteered to jump five stories into a small pool. The stunt went terribly wrong - he broke his back and was administered last rites, he said, but survived to tell the tale, including in his 1998 autobiography, "Fire In My Belly."
Roach went on to half a dozen careers, including brewing company executive - all before the age of 50. (Of his tenure at Iroquois Brewery of Buffalo, he once said, "If you serve one year in Buffalo you don't have to go to purgatory.") He used his stock fortune from the sale of the brewing company to start Tii, which he eventually moved to Copiague. Company sales now approach $60 million a year.
A Republican who donated to both major parties, Roach rubbed elbows with presidents, and an interest in superconductivity won him an advisory role in the administration of Ronald Reagan. He traveled extensively on business and quasi-diplomatic roles, including to Russia and Ireland while chief of his American Biogentic Sciences, a biotech startup, to oversee research projects.
In a 2000 profile in Newsday after he'd turned 85, Roach, sporting scars from a recent bicycle accident, celebrated the fact that ABS had been listed as one of the region's fastest growing companies. The company liquidated two years later, after years of losses.
But Roach kept going. At 88, he invested his own money in a venture with Tii that sought to bring its surge protection products to consumers. The effort was short lived, too, but Roach stayed active with the company. "My career is not over at TII," he boomed when a reporter asked him how he wanted to be remembered. "I have a four-year contract! I know I'm going to come out with something else. This is big!"
"He was a character, always making jokes, always working on the next deal, to the very end," Paladino said. He recalled Roach's ice-breaking humor at a ribbon-cutting ceremony several years ago for the opening of Tii's headquarters in Edgewood. Executives and dignitaries were gathered for a photograph. Roach was handed a giant pair of scissors to do the honors. "I always wanted to be a rabbi," he said.
Roach made friends all over the world. Kroll remembers waiting for him at an airport after one of his many trips to Puerto Rico, where Tii had a factory. When Kroll discovered that a driver she'd been talking to was waiting to pick up boxing promoter Don King, she wasn't surprised when she saw Roach emerge in a wheelchair pushed by King, the two men bantering like old friends.
"He was a piece of work," Kroll said.
In addition to his wife, Dorothy, Roach is survived by a son, Timothy J. Roach, and a daughter, Dorothy Heater; two sisters, Sister Ellen Cecile Roach and Mary Kenny; two brothers James Roach and Joseph Roach; and nine grandchildren. Another son, Timothy P. Roach, died in 2004.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Lindenhurst, before a private cremation.