Elegy for a Mentor

There will never be another like Rocky Rokoszynski

I was roused from sleep early one bright Saturday morning last month by the unmistakable grumble of my iPhone trembling on my nightstand telling me I had received a text. It was early enough that I considered rolling over and ignoring it, but then thought better of it for fear that it might have been one of my daughters.

Bleary-eyed, I was surprised to see it was a from a friend who rarely texts. The message was equal parts unexpected and unbearable.

Anthony I have some sad news, our good friend Rocky has passed away.

I put my glasses on to read it again. It wasn’t the sort of news one wants to misinterpret. Sadly, my spectacles didn’t change my first reading. Jurek “Rocky” Rokoszynski, the legendary Scotland Yard detective sergeant, was gone.

I took my glasses off and rubbed my eyes. Again, my thoughts shifted to my daughters. This time, I pictured them at ages 9 and 5, running at full-tilt towards this giant of a man, calling his name and beaming the smiles they usually reserved for Christmas morning. Rocky would lift the older of the two high into the sky, put her down, and catch her exuberant younger sister as she leaped into his arms. This rough-and-tumble detective, always clad in black and sometimes called “The Monster” by his former colleagues because of his enormous stature and flashes of temper, softened from the off when he saw them.

That is the sort of vision that sticks with you: your most loved ones embraced by your mentor. But then the reality of Rocky’s passing sunk in, and it hit me that I would no longer be able to seek out his advice or his approval. I also had to tell my kids.

When I made the switch over from working to protect the homeland to trying to recover art—a mission that haunts me to this day—Rocky was my guide. He was fresh off the remarkable recovery of two Turner paintings that had belonged to the Tate Gallery and had been stolen while on loan in Frankfurt. It was the stuff of legend, and resulted in a book by Sandy Nairne, the former director of the Tate and then the National Portrait Gallery.

The story is endlessly fascinating, not only because Rocky and his partner Mick Lawrence were successful in getting the works back from a dangerous gang, but because there was a two-year wait between getting the first one back and finally getting the second. He told me about the patience required, the absolute commitment to your word when dealing with serious criminals, and this key advice: “If you want to get the paintings back,” he said with his mixed Polish and British accent that only I could seem to understand in Boston, “you have to be willing to speak with the Devil.”

Over the span of my 15 years with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I called upon Rocky for advice countless times. That advice was just as often about life as it was about investigations. His wit and wisdom never failed me once. But now he’s gone, and his passing has brought the opportunity for me to remember all of the masterpieces he gave me, and, in true Gardner fashion, they will stay with me for my education and enjoyment forever.