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Robert Petrucci, ex-graphic designer and WWII Ghost Army vet, dies at 96

Robert Petrucci, of Levittown, died March 19. He

Robert Petrucci, of Levittown, died March 19. He was 96. Credit: Courtesy Robert Petrucci

If you wanted an invitation or a card made, you had to ask Robert Petrucci well in advance — he would need a few weeks.

But when the invitations arrived, they would be clever, creative and colorful, a labor of love from a creative powerhouse who sought to share his talents with family and friends. Petrucci, a graphic designer and an original Levittown resident, left behind dozens of designs, preserved and framed by his children. He died March 19 at home at age 96.

“I didn’t get the artistic gene but I could appreciate how much my father paid attention to what things looked like,” said his son, Robert Petrucci, of Manhattan. “He had a very good eye.”

The elder Petrucci was born in August 1921, the eldest of three children of Italian immigrants who lived in White Plains. He and his siblings spent part of their childhoods in Genoa, Italy, but moved back to the United States when the first rumblings of fascism in Italy began.

Petrucci was a charismatic comedian and had a strong knack for art, his family said. His talents led him to enroll at Pratt Institute in 1941, but before he could start his career, he was pulled into the Army and deployed to Europe during World War II.

Officially, Petrucci was a jeep driver. But 40 years after the war’s end, the truth was declassified: Due to Petrucci’s creativity and artistic ability, he was actually part of the United States’ Ghost Army, a unit of more than 1,100 specially recruited soldiers tasked with creating illusions that deceived enemy forces with items such as realistic inflatables and phony radio transmissions to misdirect spies.

“I was always interested in history and that’s something we bonded over,” said his granddaughter Natalie Sourbeck, of Northport.

When Petrucci returned to New York in October 1945, he took a job at the William Esty Agency, once a prominent advertising agency. There, Petrucci honed his skills and worked on campaigns for major companies of the 1950s and ’60s, including the famous 1964 Camel man billboard in Times Square that blew rings of steam.

Each morning, he took the train into Manhattan, a newspaper in his lap and a pencil in his hand for sketching passers-by. At night, he came home to a colorful house in Levittown filled with children and his wife, Beatrice, ready for a family meal. Beatrice, his high school sweetheart, died of lung cancer in 1978.

Michael Petrucci, of East Northport, said his father often helped him plan his science projects. The posters and presentations always featured a creative twist — a poster board cleverly folded to include a 3-D display of a Siamese fighting fish, for example.

When his children grew up and had families of their own, Petrucci shifted from school projects to home improvement ones. At his daughter Cynthia Sourbeck’s home in Northport, he built a compost bin and 14-foot carved arbor and bench for her garden.

“Every time I sat on it, I was amazed that he was 80 years old when he made it,” Sourbeck said.

Petrucci later became a freelance designer for Long Island’s Don Jagoda Associates until he retired in the mid-1990s. Petrucci continued to live in his Levittown home until his death.

“He was just a happy guy,” Robert Petrucci said.

In addition to his sons, daughter and granddaughter, he is survived by daughters Nanette, of Mindelheim, Germany, and Laura, of Westport, Massachusetts; and seven other grandchildren. He is also survived by his companion of many years, Helen Merola, of Holbrook.

Petrucci was predeceased by a daughter, Marie, in 1962. He was buried March 29 at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale.

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