Racine’s Rocky Has His Own Tale of Courage

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

MILWAUKEE – Herman “Rocky” Espinoza has always wanted to be a police officer, but he will never get the chance to realize that dream.

“He’ll wear his police shirts every day,” says his mother, Deborah Exner of Monroe. “I even bought him a police siren for his bike.”

Rocky, 12, a Racine native, counts several police officers among his good friends and owns a toy gun and authentic handcuffs.

“He’s the good guy,” Exner said. “That’s probably straight from his mouth. He really holds that status so high.”

Exner_Hospital
Deborah Exner holds her son’s hand at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. (Racine Journal Times photo by Mark Hertzberg)

Rocky has always been a boy full of life, rarely complaining and always looking out for his mother. But for seven years, Rocky has battled an inoperable cancerous tumor growing at the base of his brain.

Time after time he fights back from the effects of the tumor, but there is little doctors can do for him.

“I don’t think I ever put it to him that he’s going to die,” Exner said. “I put it to him that this is just a kind of stopping ground. The next stop is heaven. He understands that.”

Despite the troubles that have fallen upon him, Rocky shows the courage and optimism many adults would envy. On Friday, he lay in his bed at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, resting.

Pinned to his hospital gown was one of his favorite police badges. On the cassette stereo, a song from his idol, John Schneider, played softly.

Nice and simple, just how he likes it.

Exner walked around the side of the bed, leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek. She took his hand, looked into his half-open eyes and said a few reassuring words.

Behind Exner’s kind eyes and smile lie the thoughts of a woman who knows her son’s illness is beyond her control. All she can do now is make him comfortable.

Threat of death
Last month, Rocky had to return to Milwaukee after he began having seizures caused by the pressure the tumor exerted on his brain.

“All through the seven years there’s always been the threat of death,” Exner said. “No matter how bad the doctors thought it was, he popped out of it. (Doctors) don’t believe it. They are just amazed.”

The disease is to the point that doctors cannot keep up with an expanding cyst caused by the tumor. He has had three operations in three weeks to relieve the pressure.

Despite Rocky’s strong will to live, the cancer is exacting its toll.

“He’s been through so much,” Exner said. “I think he’s just real tired of fighting. He’s not giving up – he’s just tired.”

Rocky has trouble responding when people talk to him, but not always. “When I came into the room, I bent over and kissed him and said, ‘I love you,’ ” Exner said. “He said, ‘I love you, mom.’ “

Herman picked up the nickname “Rocky” because his cancer was diagnosed when the “Rocky” movies were popular. Besides, Exner said, he has been a real fighter.

“I took it worse than he did. I cried,” she said. “He took it really well. He has always just said, ‘It’s OK, mom.’ He knew he was real sick. He knew it was something he would have to deal with the rest of his life.

“He used to wake up in the middle of the night, just screaming with incredible headaches. I thought it was nightmares.”

When the headaches would not go away, she took Rocky to a Racine doctor, who referred him to a neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital.

“Dr. Dunn could tell that the tumor was quite large,” she said. “He told me right away that there wasn’t any hope at all. There wasn’t anything they could do.”

But Rocky kept fighting back and giving himself extra time.

‘I’m not a wimp’
Outgoing and charismatic, Rocky lever lets on if he has any fear of his illness, relatives say. Before he went in for a recent operation, he told the doctors, “I’m Rocky – I’m not a wimp.”

Bob Pitts, of Mount Pleasant, Rocky’s uncle, said he told the boy to get better so they could arm wrestle. But Rocky couldn’t wait – he stuck his arm out and put up a pretty good fight.

“When he was first diagnosed,” Pitts said, “he wasn’t supposed to make it three months. He’s fighting every inch of the way.”

Rocky also enjoys riding a bicycle. “He was just learning to ride the bike again, then he had to come back here,” she said.

Schneider, who played Bo Duke on the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series, met Rocky at a Janesville concert last year and gave him his ID bracelet, which is now one of Rocky’s “most prized possessions,” Exner said.

On Friday, Schneider heard Rocky was back in the hospital and telephoned the family to check on him, relatives said.

A former student at Trinity Lutheran School, Rocky was not real big on the books, but he did like school.

Financial toll, too
Exner said she has accepted Rocky’s illness, but admits it has been hard for her in many ways.

“I don’t work, because I stay home and take care of Rocky,” she said. “It’s very hard. Right now I’m trying to find some ways of getting some more financial support.”

Rocky’s medical bills are paid mostly by Medicaid. But Exner has to pay her way to Milwaukee and back, which she said is difficult on a very limited income.

“Financially, I’m very strapped,” she said. “I couldn’t get any help to buy a car” and had to take a loan. “Now, I’m a little worried about that.”

‘Going to heaven’
The biggest toll is emotional.

“It’s hard to face it,” Exner said. ‘What puts me at peace with death (is) he is definitely going to heaven. That gives me peace.

“Sometimes I just wish I could trade places,” she said. “God has always made me a promise that says ‘I’m not going to push you any more than you can handle.’ “

Exner’s adjustment to Rocky’s terminal illness has included hysteria, a lot of tears and anger. But she said her main concern is seeing that Rocky does not suffer.

“If his life is going to hurt him any more, with the love I have for him, I’d rather see him at peace in heaven, ” she said.

“If he does die, I guess a part of me will die too. But I don’t want to be selfish. He’s been through enough. We’ve done as much as we possibly can and now its time to stop.”

Exner’s pain seemed well hidden on Friday. She and her relatives were able to laugh and recall their favorite stories about Rocky. She knows the pain is not over.

“When he actually does die, I think I’m going to fall apart,” she said.

Instead of focusing on the bad things that have happened, Exner counts the good times she has had with her son.

“I’ve had 12 of the hardest but most wonderful years with that young man,” she said. “I’m just thankful for that.”

She said the mother-son bond between them could not be stronger.

“I think that kid is a miracle,” Exner said. “I’m just proud to be his mom. I don’t know what I did, but I’m glad he’s mine.” ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 10, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


Headline_DIes

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Herman “Rocky” Espinoza, the former Racine boy who battled an inoperable brain tumor for several years, died Sunday in a Milwaukee hospital, wearing his favorite police shirt and badge.

Rocky, 12, who dreamed of growing up to be a police officer, died in his sleep Sunday morning at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

Rocky
Herman “Rocky” Espinoza

“I was able to hold him, just like I wanted,” said Deborah Exner, Rocky’s mother, who now lives in Monroe. “When it came right down to it, it was just Rocky and I.”

Exner said she was sleeping on a cot next to Rocky’s bed when a friend noticed his breathing getting shallow. Exner said she got up, put music from Kenny Rogers and John Schneider – two of Rocky’s favorites – on the cassette stereo, then held his hand and waited.

Rocky wore the police uniform Exner had trouble getting off him at home. He will be buried in it, she said.

“l just held his hand and tried to talk to him,” Exner said. “I believe he was very, very peaceful ….I talked him into heaven.”

Diagnosed with cancer at age 5, Rocky was in and out of the hospital many times, fighting the effects of a cancerous brain-stem tumor. Only expected to live months after the tumor was diagnosed, Rocky bounced back time and again

Most every day he would wear the police shirt and badge given to him by a family friend. He also owned a toy gun and a pair of authentic handcuffs.

Even in the hospital, dressed in only a green gown, he wore one of his badges. This time, it seems, the badge was one of courage.

He got the nickname “Rocky” because the Sylvester Stallone movies were popular at the time and because his family felt he was a fighter. Exner said Rocky dealt with the disease without much fear.

“He was a very brave boy,” she said. “There were no tears.”

Rocky’s corneas were donated to the Lion’s Club eye bank and doctors removed his brain to study the large tumor they were unable to stop, she said. Funeral arrangements are pending in Racine.

Relatives described Rocky as an a eternal optimist who was always looking out for other people. On Sunday, Exner recalled one such occasion.

Rocky was being examined at the Shriner’s Hospital in suburban Chicago, Exner said, when the doctor asked to speak to her in the hallway.

“Rocky just spoke up and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got something to say,’ ” Exner said. ” ‘It doesn’t matter if you can do something for me. You just keep on helping all the other kids.’ “

Exner said although the seven-year ordeal has been painful for her, she was doing pretty well on Sunday.

“I’m very much at rest right now,” she said. “He went out like a champ and I was proud of him.”

Bob Pitts of Mount Pleasant, Rocky’s uncle, said, “I’m going to miss him very much. I think he was just a brave little boy. Now he’s at peace.

Late last week, Exner sat in the cafeteria at Children’s Hospital and described how Rocky would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, with what she thought were nightmares. When his headaches persisted, they sought medical help and the tumor was diagnosed.

At times on Friday, Exner laughed when recalling the good times she had with Rocky. At other times, pain seemed to well just beneath the surface when she discussed their pending separation.

“I get real angry sometimes,” she said. “At first I think, ‘Why me? Why not someone else?’ Then I get realistic about it, because who would I want to wish that on? Nobody.”

Exner, who described her son as “a miracle,” said she wants to write a book about the experience.

Family members attributed Rocky’s long survival with the massive tumor to a strong character, medical help and love.

“I think he made it this long because of his doctor (David Dunn) and this hospital,” Pitts said.

Exner thought about that statement for a moment, then added her own reason Rocky fought so hard:

“Because he loved me,” she said. ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 12, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


Headline_Guard

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Herman “Rocky” Espinoza never realized his dream of becoming a police officer, but on Thursday, local police will give him a funeral escort usually reserved for their distinguished comrades.

At least four squad cars and officers from the Racine Police Department, the Racine County Sheriff’s Department and the Sturtevant Police Department will escort Rocky’s procession from the funeral home to the church and cemetery.

After reading newspaper accounts of Rocky’s seven-year fight with a brain-stem tumor, several officers had planned to present him with police badges and hats Monday at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

Rocky died early Sunday in his mother’s arms.

Deputy Chuck Kwapil said officers then decided on the escort “to have an opportunity to show how he touched our lives.”

“I think it was the bravery,” Kwapil said. “He was a fighter all the way through. He cared about other people and I think that was touching.

“He would have been one heck of a policeman,” Kwapil said “It would have been nice to work with someone like that.”

Racine police provided an Officer Friendly hat and badge that will be placed in Rocky’s casket. The sheriff’s department will also present the family with an officer’s hat and badge.

“It has just been unbelievable,” said Bob Pitts, Rocky’s uncle, of the police response. “I think he would be the happiest little boy on earth.”

Pitts said when the family heard of the police offer of an escort, “We all had tears in our eyes.”

Pitts said Rocky “was always the good cop. To have a will that strong is something.”

A Racine native who most recently lived in Monroe, Rocky spent nearly every day at home wearing a Sturtevant police shirt he got from a family friend.

When a relative recently gave Rocky a bicycle, his mother bought him a police siren. Even when he was struggling for his life in the hospital, his favorite badge was pinned to his hospital gown. And the day he died, he wore the uniform in which he will be buried.

“I don’t know of anybody that read (news articles) that couldn’t be moved by his courage, what he was facing and his concern for others,” said Racine Police Sgt. Thomas Cooper.

“If somebody cared that much about being a police officer, it’s the least we can do, to show him the same respect we would show an officer,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Aiello.

“I’ve never come across anything like this, and I’ve been on this department 14 years,” said Sturtevant Police Sgt. Robert Mallwitz.

“There you’ve got a real, legitimate hero.”

The escort will begin about 10 a.m. at Strouf-Sheffield Funeral Home, 1001 High St., then proceed to Trinity Lutheran Church, 2065 Geneva St. After a funeral service, the procession will head to Calvary Cemetery, 2510 Kinzie Ave. ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 14, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


Rocky2

Racine area law enforcement officers form an honor guard for Rocky Espinoza. (Racine Journal Times photo by Mark Hertzberg)

Headline_Dream

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Herman “Rocky” Espinoza did not win his seven-year struggle with an inoperable brain tumor, but on Thursday, his dream came true.

The buoyant 12-year-old’s strongest wish in life was to serve the public as a police officer, but terminal cancer ended his life Sunday. Even in death, his wish was not forgotten.

Dressed in a blue police shirt, tan pants, badge, handcuffs and holster. Rocky was escorted to Calvary Cemetery by a procession of 13 law enforcement officers and eight squad cars.

The officers, representing the Racine County Sheriff’s Department and police from Racine, Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant and Caledonia, said they were not just honoring a courageous boy, but one of their own.

“He’s one of us now,” said Sturtevant police Sgt. Robert Mallwitz, a member of the escort. “It was just an honor to help a kid realize a dream.

“I was very proud, very honored to be there,” Mallwitz said.

At the funeral home, one officer stood at attention in a silent watch outside the visitation room. Others passed through the room in a show of solemn respect.

The procession to the church and cemetery was complete with a line of squad cars with emergency lights flashing. Nobody would have been prouder than Rocky.

At the cemetery, a police honor guard stood watch as Rocky was moved to his final resting place under a sugar maple. Atop the casket was perched a lone hat with the Racine Police Department logo on the front.

Inside the casket was Rocky’s collection of badges and hats from several other police departments. Even a teddy bear tucked inside wore a sheriff’s hat and miniature badge.

These were the symbols of a child’s very existence.

The officers who attended did not know Rocky, but the pain of loss was visible in their faces. They knew what their presence meant.

“We’re thinking that his dream did come true – finally,” said Racine Patrolman Scott Barrows, known to many children as Officer Friendly.

“He probably did see us there,” said Caledonia police dispatcher Pam Vanko. “I was glad that we could kind of help him with that dream.”

Mount Pleasant Patrolman Steve Swanson said he was proud that a young boy had such strong feelings for police.

“He came as close to being an officer as anyone has come without being sworn,” Swanson said. “(We) were in awe of his courage and strength.”

The escort was a fitting end to the story of a boy who, from the time he knew what the word police meant, wanted to be an officer. Despite a cancer that for seven years grew in his brain stem, Rocky spent his days and nights thinking of a time when he could wear the real uniform.

Officers in attendance Thursday believed Rocky wore the real thing.

“If he would have pulled through, he would have been one hell of a cop,” Mallwitz said. “It just seems unfair, a kid that’s so good gets taken so early.”

“I don’t think I could have gone through what Rocky went through for as long as he went through it and have the attitude he had,” Swanson said.

Students from Rocky’s former school, Trinity Lutheran, said goodbye with several songs at a funeral service. The school’s bell choir played music that for a brief moment drew a smile from Rocky’s mother, Deborah Exner.

The Rev. Patrick Baynes, of Trinity Lutheran Church, summed up what many in the church were undoubtedly feeling.

“Death can leave us helpless, because for once there is nothing we can do,” Baynes, said. “No treatments. And more frustratingly, no more words.” ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 16, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


Exner
Deborah Exner visits the grave of her son, Rocky, at Calvary Catholic Cemetery. (Racine Journal Times photo by Paul Roberts)

Headline_Remember

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Deborah Exner knelt over her son’s grave, quietly arranging the fresh flowers she placed in a decorative orange jack-o’-lantern.

She carefully plucked blades of grass from around the small wooden cross that marks the site, pulled a daisy from the planter and slowly walked away.

The mixture of pain and acceptance on her face went a long way toward explaining what her life has been like for the past eight years.

For the mother who one year ago lost her only son, Rocky Espinoza, to an inoperable brain tumor, it is still hard to come to Calvary Cemetery. “I don’t go to the cemetery very often,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything for me at all. It’s a very empty feeling.”

Rocky died of cancer after a seven-year fight with the slow-growing tumor that expanded at the base of his brain.

An optimistic 12-year-old Racine native, Rocky lived a dream of one day becoming a police officer. He wore a police shirt, hat and holster every day at home. His bicycle was proudly outfitted with a siren. Even while at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, he wore a badge on his green gown.

But despite his strong dreams, the cancer proved to be stronger, claiming his life on Oct. 11, 1987.

Racine County’s law enforcement community was touched by Rocky’s respect for the badge. At the visitation service, dozens of Racine police officers filed past the boy’s casket during shift change.

And 13 officers gave him a police escort to the cemetery and a full honor guard – the kind of respect usually reserved for fallen colleagues.

Rocky was buried in his favorite police uniform.

Exner said she saw her son’s death coming, but was not prepared for the pain that would rack her existence and lead her to question the worth of her own life.

“I don’t think I really believed it was going to happen,” she said. “I felt, ‘It can’t happen to us – we’ve succeeded too many times.’ “

Those successes included Rocky’s recovery from numerous operations to relieve pressure from the tumor.

Exner recalled one day after Rocky was home from the hospital, he fought with determination to push his “police” bicycle up a steep hill in order to keep riding. Dreams of being an officer “motivated his whole life,” she said.

But trips to the hospital got more frequent. The tumor began exerting a heavy toll. One day, Exner told doctors enough was enough. She told her son it was OK to die.

Grieving process
Nearly one month after Rocky died in his sleep, that decision sparked doubts and guilt in Exner’s mind and began a tumultuous grieving process.

“I really felt like I was selfish,” Exner said. “I should have kept on doing everything I possibly could.

“Sometimes I even felt like he cheated me,” she said. “He shouldn’t have went, he should have fought harder “

After seven years of caring for a terminally ill child, the death left Exner without direction.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life, and I still don’t,” she said. “He was all I knew.”

In November 1987, Exner hit rock bottom. All the calm she experienced directly after Rocky’s death gave way to painful emotions and thoughts of suicide.

“I felt there was nothing left in this world for me,” she said. “Everything I fought for and lived for was gone.”

Guilt continued to plague her.

“Did I do the right thing?” she asked rhetorically. “I felt like I had been selfish, because I wanted it to be over. I felt it was time to just stop and let God take over.”

Period of escape
There was a period she didn’t want to think about Rocky or be near children or hospitals.

She sought to have her fallopian tubes tied, but her doctor asked her to wait. She backed away from the idea and now says she might someday adopt children.

It took months to realize there was no blame to be laid for the cancer, Exner said. She became comfortable that she made the right decisions.

“The doubt is still there at moments,” she said. “But Rocky and I had this understanding about the whole thing. He trusted me and I trusted him.”

The healing has come slowly, but Exner said the grief is starting to ebb. She’s now able to remember the good times and can read news articles about Rocky without crying.

On his birthday last month, she bought toys and gifts – the kind Rocky liked – and gave them to sick children at a hospital in Monroe, where she now lives.

She cleaned out his room and donated much of his belongings to charity. She saved some favorite mementos, however.

‘Not really gone’
“Whenever I still feel real, real low, I’ll go in and open the trunk and look through that stuff,” she said. “I realize he’s not really gone, he’s inside of me.

“I think, ‘If I could have one more hug, or say, I love you, one more time,’ ” she said.

While it was Rocky’s illness and death that led to the pain Exner continues to endure, he may well be the key to healing.

Sense of pride
“The main thing that keeps me above water is that his life was for the good,” Exner said. “It makes me proud, he was such an understanding and caring child. It makes me feel I did my job as a mother. I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like him in my life.”

Asked whether she was starting to heal, Exner looked away in careful thought, seeming for a long moment to be somewhere else. “I feel more stable. I don’t think Rocky would have wanted me to quit,” she said. “He was always proud of me – it always made me feel good. I still have to go on.”

The future might well hold opportunities for working with the terminally ill and their families, she said. But for now, Exner is trying to remember.

She wants to someday write a book about her son and what they went through together. But first there are questions and conflicts to be resolved.

“I’m still searching for the reason all this happened to me,” she said. “I couldn’t see it being for nothing.” ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 16, 1988 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s