A father. A husband. A son. A brother.
Belleville native Roger Crowell was all of the above. And if you ask anyone who knew him, he was a really good guy.
And hopefully, after reading this, you’ll remember Roger Crowell as an American hero.
A 1965 graduate of Belleville High, Roger was remembered by his dear childhood friend, Joe Cervasio, as a phenomenal athlete.
“I’m telling you, when we were kids, there wasn’t a better athlete in town than Roger Crowell,” Cervasio recalled last week. “He was as good as there was in football, basketball and baseball. As friendly as I was with him, he and Lenny Luongo went to grammar school at number 5 together. Those two were really close.”
Luongo recalls a spirited rivalry, as well as a close friendship with Roger.
“He was always a nice kid,” Luongo recalled. “We were both pretty good athletes growing up, and man did we have some rivalries in anything we played. We used to be some of the last guys standing in dodge ball games during gym class. He and I both won our share of games. It was like that growing up in Belleville back then. But again, most importantly, Roger was a special friend.”
Crowell, Cervasio and Luongo were part of the first graduating class at the building now commonly known as Belleville High School, on Passaic Avenue. Prior to ’65, the high school was located at the facility on Washington Avenue known to most of us today as the Middle School. It was also around 1965 that Mike Marotti constructed the now legendary Little League field located on Mill St, off Franklin Avenue.
“Roger was a tremendous baseball player,” said Luongo, a standout athlete at Belleville High who later gained Hall of Fame accolades. “I played on the Cubs back in those days while Roger was on the Giants. We’d end up playing in some big games back then. Those were great times.”
Cervasio recalled Crowell’s versatility as an athlete.
“He could do anything on a field,” said Cervasio, himself a Hall of Fame Belleville athlete who went on to play football at Cornell University. “He was so fast on the football field and that speed made him a great basketball and baseball player, too. Only problem with Roger was, by the time we got to high school, he stopped growing.”
Crowell remained friends with Cervasio and Luongo throughout high school. After graduation, Joe and Lenny went on to college. Roger later married his high school sweetheart, the former Gail Corino, a 1966 BHS grad, and joined the Army.
The son of Mellville and Grace Crowell, he served in the 1st Platoon, C Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division and was deployed to Vietnam.
On Jan. 31, 1968, Roger was Killed in Action when an armored personnel carrier he was driving was hit by rockets. He was 20 years old and left behind his wife and infant son, Roger.
Roger Crowell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
His name, of course, appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, as well as the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial to New Jersey’s fallen heroes, in Holmdel. You can also see Roger’s name on a memorial plaque at the Marotti Little League field, located behind the centerfield fence.
“When I stop by the field, I always look for Roger’s name,” Cervasio said. “It gets very emotional for me. I was away at school when word came that Roger was killed in Vietnam. I remember my father reading about it in the Belleville Times. I don’t think Roger ever met his son, because I think his wife was pregnant when Roger left for Vietnam. I did have the honor of meeting Roger Jr. a while back. It was quite a moment for me and he’s such a nice man today.”
Cervasio, a highly succesful author, recalled when writing his first book, ‘Bad News On The Doorstep’, he created a character named Roger Bush, which was, in part, due to Crowell.
“I have a composite character in my first book. His name is Roger Bush. He is really a combination of two of my Belleville friends, Roger Crowell and Billy Rush. Both left us too soon. Roger on the battlefields of Vietnam, Billy on the battle fields of life. What else did they have in common besides their basketball prowess? Vietnam took its toll. You can read about Roger Bush in the book, but on pages 404-405 the epilogue, tells the rest of the story, and not far from the truth. We miss them both.
“He was my nemesis,” Luongo said with a wistful laugh. “He was quicker and faster than me. What a great athlete, but more importantly, a great guy.”
Roger Crowell’s yearbook photo had a simple caption underneath. It read ‘one cannot help but like him.’
Forty five years after his final mission, I’d like to say thank you, Specialist (SP4) Roger Crowell for your service and sacrifice for our nation’s freedom.