By Kathi Kresol
Sam Rotolo probably never knew what hit him. Sam was standing on the road with a flash light to warn people about an accident just as he had countless times before. Sam worked as a Deputy Sheriff for two years and was assigned to the traffic division. The newspapers are filled with the cases he investigated from 1935 and 1936.
Sam was a busy guy. He had been married for five years and had a small daughter. Sam also served as the Democratic Senatorial Committeeman for the tenth senatorial district. He was popular with the people of Rockford. Many remembered him from when he played football for the E-Rabs in 1926 and 1927. He earned respect from people from all different walks of life and was known for treating people fairly and courteously.
September 27, 1936 was a special day for Sam and his family. He and his wife celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. Sam was only 26 years old and must have felt that the future looked pretty good. He couldn’t know as he headed into work that evening that he only had a few hours to live.
Sam and his fellow Deputy Lee Conley were called to the scene of an accident at North Second Street and Highway 173. They were working to direct traffic around the wreck and assisting the wrecker driver to remove the car. Owen Bassett was the tow truck driver and had just hooked the damaged car to the wrecker while Lee and Sam were waving large red flashlights to warn oncoming drivers. They were assisted by Elmer Wilkins who also held a large warning lantern and was waving it back and forth about 200 feet from the crash. Later, Bassett would testify that they were trying to hurry because it was close to midnight and the roads were slick from the rain. The rain had stopped but there was a fine mist falling as they worked.
Bassett was standing next to Sam at the back of the car when he heard Wilkins shout. Bassett would state that he was lifted up in air and thrown into the nearby ditch. He got up quickly and looked for Sam. Bassett found him fifty feet away from where he last saw him. Sam was lying on his back, bleeding from his mouth, eyes open and staring. He still grasped the flashlight in his hand.
Bassett and Wilkins gently lifted Sam into the back of the Sheriff’s car and Conley rushed Sam to the nearest hospital. The autopsy would show that Sam died of a skull fracture.
Sam’s service was held at the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Rotolo on Loomis Street. Another service was held at St. Anthony’s Church where several thousand people showed to pay their respects to this young man. There were so many floral tributes sent that only half could be displayed.
The man who drove the car that hit Sam would later be tried for manslaughter. Kenneth Turrell was traveling from Rockford toward his home in Beloit with his wife and daughter. Turrell stated that he was only going forty five miles per hour and when he saw the warning light he slowed his speed to twenty five miles per hour. As Turrell approached the accident, he saw that the car being removed was still in the road and he slammed on his brakes, but the car swerved due to the wet pavement and he couldn’t stop in time. Wilkins testified that he thought that Turrell’s car was traveling at over fifty miles per hour and he didn’t slow down until the last moment. Turrell was acquitted of all charges.
The admiration for Sam didn’t stop after his death. On the first anniversary of his death, Sheriff Paul Johnson, Chief Deputy Carl Palmgren and State Representative Edward Hunter placed a wreath on his grave in recognition of the dedication Sam showed to his department and to this community.