Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005


Joseph Ross, 84, was Manhattan’s Parks commissioner

By Ed Gold

Joseph J. Ross, 84, who worked his way up to Manhattan borough commissioner of Parks and who survived the Normandy landing in World War II, died on Feb.7 of complications from cancer, according to Rita Lee, his companion of 30 years, who was the first district manager for Community Board 2.

Ross, who was born in Manhattan, grew up in the Yorkville section, and went to Commerce High School, but never attended college.

After graduation, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal government project, building roads in the Northwest, and sending most of his earnings back to his family, which had been badly hit by the Depression.

Ross joined the Army in October 1942 and was among the first troops to hit the Normandy beaches in 1944. Later, he would discover a picture in Life magazine showing him in combat after the landing.

He had many memorable war experiences but one bizarre, almost unbelievable, incident stood out. While fighting in Germany, he witnessed a truck rolling over a G.I. He ran to the body, assumed the soldier was dead, brought the body to the side of the road and covered it. Years later, back in the States, he got a terrific shock. He spotted the same face; the soldier he had left for dead had actually survived.

After leaving the service in 1946, he joined a host of relatives in operating a bar in the Bronx, but he heard about tests being given by the Parks Department. He took a test and passed it, and was assigned a bottom-rung job as gardener.

He kept taking tests and passing them and the jobs continued to get better.

Illness sent him to Florida where he was recovering from an early bout with cancer. The phone rang and it was Gordon Davis, then Parks commissioner under former Mayor Ed Koch. Davis told him: “I need you to handle parks in Manhattan. Get your [butt] up here.” That’s how Ross became Manhattan Parks commissioner. He wound up spending 25 years in the Parks Department.

While working in the parks, Ross won an award — for bravery, no less. He was in a park near a rail line when he heard a crash. There had been a head-on collision between two trains. He ran to the site, jumped onto one of the trains, and found a man seriously bleeding. He applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and was credited with saving the man’s life.

Ross and Lee got together in the ’70s when both were involved in park projects. In 1977, Lee became C.B. 2 district manager, and she and Ross would take long walks throughout the district checking on park conditions.

In a “memory card” given out at the repose site, Lee noted that Ross loved the outdoors, traveling, gardening and dancing. She added: “He loved to fix things, mow the lawn, do carpentry work and collect tools.”

He had other distinctive habits and practices: He could play the piano, using only the black keys, never having had a lesson. As for reading, he liked the Science Times and the Times’ Week in Review. He did not like pricey restaurants, and while he liked music, he didn’t like to dress up, once going to the opera in dungarees. He also loved walking through the American Museum of Natural History and examining all the exhibits.

His love for animals had limitations. At the Ross-Lee house in Dingman’s Ferry, Penn., he prided himself on his gardens and declared various predators like squirrels, deer and bears unwelcome. He was careful in dealing with bears.

Lee is thankful that Ross treated her daughters, Jessica and Madeleine, as if they were his own.

In remarks prepared for the church service, Lee summed up their relationship:

“I cooked and messed up the kitchen, and he cleaned up. I put the clothes in the washing machine and he put them in the dryer and folded them. I dusted and he vacuumed. I bought the plants and he planted them.”

Survivors from an earlier marriage include his children: Alice Ross Leon of Oakland, Cal.; Joe, Jr., of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Mary Keenan of Clearwater, Fl. Also surviving are his sisters, Clementine Migliore of Pinton Falls, N.J., and Catherine Sauvan of Westwood, N.J.; and his brother, John of Riverdale, N.Y.

Funeral arrangements were made by Greenwich Village Funeral Home. A Mass was held at Lady of Pompei Church with Father John Massori officiating.

Ross chose cremation.

For those wishing to honor Ross’s memory, the family suggests contributions be made to the American Museum of Natural History, Development Office, Central Park W. at 79th St., N.Y.C., N.Y. 10024 c/o Caroline Sardorf.

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