by Nicholas J. Vocca
While Ashtabula has retained many of its fine eateries and pubs from its heyday, as well as adding some newer ones, there is a sad lament in the hearts of many from those times when they pass by the former Sassler's Roselawn Steak House and Motel on the northwest corner of U.S. Route 20 and State Route 45 in Saybrook Township.
What enhanced the cordial ambiance, mouth-watering steaks or chops, and always convivial mood of the faithful patrons was the always-pleasant and jovial owner, Joe Sassler.
This stocky, square-jawed man, with broad shoulders and thick, brushed back dark hair and friendly smile was right out of Hollywood's central casting; his ever-proud stature drew one to automatically think of a handsome, brave young soldier, star collegiate athlete, or strong, commanding football coach who led his team to victory after victory on the field.
Though you would never hear even the slightest indications that he was all of the above from him, there are people and documents who will attest that Joe was everyone of these things, and more.
Along with Korea being America's "Forgotten War," those who have ever been there, be it in war or peace, can give credit to the fact that its winters are harsh, cruel, and bone-numbing, regardless of whatever winter gear you are provided. Though my assignment was only a one-week affair where we studied cold weather operations and the employment of unconventional warfare strategies in mountain terrain in my secondary M.O.S. as an advanced logistics technician, not a day passed that I did not think of Joe, and how he survived his years as a soldier there in his service to America.
Upon his return home from "Hell's Ice Box," Joe, like many veterans, took advantage of the G.I. Bill, and was rightfully accepted to college.
Though I have as much interest in sports as I do drowning myself in boiling oil, a business acquaintance from Cicero, Illinois, once gifted me and my then-wife, Wendy, with some tickets to a Duke versus Purdue football game at the Boilermakers home stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana. The main reason we attended?
Not the beer or hot dogs! Though both were good, especially the foam, I wanted to see the actual field where hard-charging Joe ran, dodged, and bull-horned his opponents like a freight train on full throttle!
No wonder why, in the late 1960's, the powers that were at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary called on Joe for his guidance and expertise to coach the Badgers after greats like Donnie "Golden Feet" Iarocci, Louis "Quick Silver" Didonato, Chuck "The Truck" Benedict, and others graduated and went on to win, win, win, for Saint John's.
Hearing that Joe would lead the team along with former Ashtabula Police detective Joe Foglio and Jimmy "The Eternal Animal" Rebera, I decided to give it a shot and join the team, despite the fact that I was five-feet-nothing, 98-pounds of nothing, and going up against future grid-iron masochists who ate grenades and drank Napalm for breakfast, such as Robert Petronio, Jimmy Severino, Mark Sassler, and now Doctor Richard Orlando, who is also part of the Ohio State football medical team.
Holding three Number 1 titles as bench-warmer, tackling dummy, and assistant water boy, I can say that my time on the team gave me a very good opportunity to observe this man-among-men as he stood tall, massive, muscular arms across his chest, and remained completely absorbed and focused on the team in action.
Because perfection speaks for itself, awesome, epic, and absolutely mesmerizing, are the only words to describe watching how Joe coached.
Nothing slid by him, and there were no compromises or favoritism for anyone; even his son, Mark, who years later was the subject of a January 8, 2010 Star Beacon article by Don McCormick when he led Baltimore's Hereford Bulls to the National Youth Football Championship that same year in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Too slow on your pivot after the quarterback handed off the ball to you? Joe caught that! A bit of panic when being rushed? Joe caught that! Anticipating where the ball would go when performing a kick off instead of focusing on where you wanted it to land? Joe caught that!
Nothing slid by him, and he had no qualms in bringing that to a players attention. Why? Because those whom he coached knew some absolutes.
Joe was there to do a job. Joe was there because he cared. And Joe was there to recognize and develop each players potentials as an athlete, team player, and individual.
It is because of Joe's dedication, influence, and attentions to detail that the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Badgers went on to scoop up three successive years undefeated; and why those youth who felt the Sassler influence went on to do very well in all other aspects of their lives.
An asset to everyone who knew him? That would be the greatest understatement ever said, for Joe was more than that!
Joe coached you about life, its realities, and its benefits, if you dug in and held your ground! I know this for a fact, based on the few talks I was blessed to have with him.
About a year after graduating by the skin of my teeth from Mount Carmel, I followed the path of some hundreds of thousands other juvenile delinquents where I lied about my age, and promptly enlisted in the Marines. Why not? Uncle Sam's Misguided Children in 1969 was haven for losers, misfits, and other bottom feeders hoping climb to gain some recognition as a possible somebody, and maybe climb out of despair to net a few morsels of the American Dream.
Ten months later, with Parris Island, Infantry Training Regiment, and my primary Military Police Academy behind me, I was given leave prior to shipping out across the Pacific. After a few days of carousing the local bars and being served top shelf liquor, often at the compliments of former Marines and other veterans, while most of my friends had not even yet been served the old 3.2 beer, I walked into the Roselawn wearing my Dress Blues with the brash swagger and cockiness typical of a still-green and wet-behind-the-ears Marine.
Taking a seat at the bar, I caught Joe shaking his head at me as he began approaching me directly from the other end. "I'm proud of you, kid, but I can't serve you a drink," he said. Under other circumstances me, or any other member of the Armed Forces, would protest how we were old enough to lay down our lives for the country, but not old enough to drink, but I could not do that to Joe; he had much to risk, and I could not put him in a vulnerable light.
He drew me a coke, told me to hold on, and went into the kitchen, only to return shortly after with a sizzling platter of steak, and all the trimmings, compliments of the house. In between servicing his customers, he would return to talk with me, and being the man he was, showed a genuine concern about where I was headed, and how I would do?
About an hour after finishing my delicious free dinner, and overhearing me telling some other patron how I had to get "walking" back into Ashtabula, Joe motioned for me to wait, then went to the phone and made a call. Upon his return, he told me he called me a cab, "compliments of the house", and I waited for its arrival.
When the driver entered the bar, Joe paid him, then pulled me aside. "Take this...you deserve it," he said, and then stuffed a folded bill into my hand, adding that if I got into any kind of jam while home, to call him.
Once in the dimly lit cab I unfolded the bill, and drew a stunned breath as my head comprehended what Joe gave me! $100! That was a whole month's pay, plus $6! For the remaining 26-days of my leave, I never drew a sober breath or woke up without a headache, and the motel room I stayed in probably still reeks of Wild Turkey bourbon, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and 10 mg Valiums, all "compliments" of Joe.
Several years later I slid into Ashtabula, around night in August while on my way to visit a recently discharged friend who now worked with Lakewood Police Department.
Now of legal drinking age, I hung a left at the intersection of 45 and 20, followed by a quick right into the Roselawn parking lot,and entered to see Joe working the establishment like the gifted people-person he was.
Waving to the barmaid to hold off serving me as I took a seat at the bar, he politely excused himself from the gentleman and lady whom he was speaking with, and quickly stepped behind the bar where he poured a double shot of bourbon and drew a large draft beer which he presented me with by saying I was "now legal."
Nodding in approval as I told him of my accomplishments in the Corps, and how I was now an 0911...something I never believed possible...Joe's reception was both appreciative, and congratulatory. "Just remember something, Nicky," he advised, "as a leader, a true leader, you be your best follower of the rules and standards you expect from others."
"As for what you've done, you did well. But don't sit back and take any breathers, because though life is short, we all have a long way to go. Keep that in mind."
If I have any regrets about Joe, it is that I was not made aware of his passing until several months later when returning to Ashtabula, from my assignment in Emporia, Kansas. stuneed is the only way I can describe how I felt at receiving the news, and I remember three things racing through me mind.
His wife Teresa, a women of great charm, impeccable taste, and refined social graces had lost a man who loved her totally for these qualities, and the fact that she was a woman of great inner strength.
His sons, all self-motivated men whose actions far outweigh the words of most, all lost a truly committed and dedicated father, mentor, and friend.
Ashtabula lost a man who knew that honesty, humility, and continual hard work were not only the reasons to live, but the key to achieving true honor.
Joe Sassler: Combat veteran of the United States Army. All-American gridiron player for Purdue University. And the coach who took a team filled with apprehensions and uncertainties, then led it to a still unbroken record of undefeated seasons.
Joe Sassler: A man who found true, untarnished love in the likes of his wife, Teresa, who was not just his mate, but his "best friend," his "best adviser," and his his "most trusted confidant" whom he relied on in times of "uncertainty."
Joe Sassler: A man who never took any recognition for the great successes of his four sons, Mark, Paul, Tommy, and Joseph enjoyed; but a man who told me how he simply "gave them the tools of life...and they built their own way."
Joe Sassler: Though many such men came before him, very few have followed or been able and worthy of emulating him; and it is these reasons why he remains an Ashtabula unforgettable.