Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pete Sr.

My dad was an ardent supporter of the World Wildlife Fund - a memorial page has been set up in his honor. In lieu of flowers, if you are so inclined, please donate here.

Hi everyone,

As many of you already know, on September 12, 2015, my dad passed away after a brief fight with cancer.  He died peacefully and surrounded by his family.  He was 74 years old.

He is survived by his loving wife, his two children and their families, including his two young grandsons: Charles Peter and Sabas Pietro, both named after him and both of whom he loved very much.

Charlie and Sabas never got to know my dad, which is a shame because my dad was a good man and a great dad and he was on his way to being an awesome grandpa.

Early Years

My dad & His Mom.  1942
My dad was born January 21, 1941 in Astoria queens.  This is the earliest picture of him I can find – it’s a picture of him and his mom from 1942, and on the back it says “Happy Birthday Dad”, obviously referring to his father.  It’s an adorable photo, and he really does kind of resemble my son, Charlie in this picture, with his long blonde, wavy hair.  Speaking of 1941, I was the one to drive him to the hospital on Wednesday Sept 9th.  He was in good spirits, and we were chatting, and I realized I wasn’t sure what year he was born.  He told me, and I said, “Oh, like 10 months before Pearl Harbor”, and he said, and I am not making this up – “About 320 days.  You know how they say that Pearl Harbor was a major defeat for the U.S. naval forces?  Not true.”  At this point I thought he was going to tell me about how the carriers were all out at sea, which I know, because he’s told me this before ad infinitum.  Instead he said – “For example, the USS Arizona was one of the only ships that couldn’t be salvaged, but they still managed to salvage the guns from her!  Can you believe that?  They sank the ship, it’s sitting in the dock all blown to hell, so what do we do?  Go get the guns, fix ‘em, and start shooting back!  No one ever stood a chance against the U.S.”  This is the kind of stuff my dad will tell you – minute crazy tidbits about some obscure fact that he knows.  He has one of these for literally every topic you can think of.  At least in my whole life he always had one.

My dad & his dad.  1950.
The view was not as pretty as it
looks, he wants you to know.  
The next picture of my dad, I absolutely love – it’s a picture of him and his father looking out over the mountains of Italy in 1950, making my dad 8 or so.  The back of this picture informs us that it was taken on Monte Camino (an important location in WWII, so I later learned, again, from my dad) and it also tells us that my dad’s sneakers were blue not black as they are represented here – the photo was touched up by an artist.   Also, the mountains, he wants you to know, were devoid of vegetation, despite being nice and green in the artist’s renditions.  I think this is hilarious because my dad obviously wrote this note much, much later in his life, and it shows his dedication to detail, his impeccable memory, and fastidiousness – he wants to inform us that the view was not as pretty as it looks in this picture.  Which is just a very “my dad” thing to do.

The trip to Italy was my dad’s first trip outside the U.S., and it kicked off his very long love-affair with world travel that he and my Mom (and now my sister) share.  I didn’t get that love.  At all.  Really, my dad had three loves science, travel, and family.  I’ll touch on all three in a bit.  But first, I find this picture of my dad on the left hilarious – for some reason he was evidently rocking a crew cut sometime in the 50’s.  It’s so odd.  I’ve never seen a picture of him with any haircut other than the wave he had my whole life. I’m glad this phase passed.

Science & Tinkering

My dad's garage.  Not a single video game.
Before we get to travel, I want to touch on my dad’s love of science, which is best summarized in one word: basement.  Growing up, I always assumed everyone’s dad had the most bizarre stuff you could imagine in their basement – when I learned that other kids had ping-pong tables and video games in their basements, I admit I felt a little cheated.  For example, this is the view of my dad's basement today (it has changed little in 30 years).

Yes.  That’s a pressurized air hose for cleaning cuttings off the tables that he built himself.  Why do you ask?  Look- 1, 2, 3 lathes!  3!  I’m still not 100% sure what a lathe is, and my dad had 3!

3 lathes.  What's a lathe?  I am not sure.
What did he do with all this stuff?  He made things.  Which I still think is so cool.  He’d just go down there, tinker, and make stuff.  The first thing he made when he got his first lathe was… a hammer.  It took him two weeks and probably $50 in raw material, but he made a little hammer.  In retrospect, that seems like a lot of time and money to make something he already had 6 of, and is basically a rock on a stick.  But he made it!  Then he became really into making pens and mechanical pencils.  For a while everyone got a pen or a pencil for Christmas and birthdays.  Or a salt and pepper shaker.  If you didn’t want one of those things, well… tough, you were getting one.  Then he got out of that pen/pencil mode for a while, and started making little decoy ducks.  There were wooden ducks everywhere.  Every time you’d go downstairs you’d find another duck.  And then just like that, one day he stopped making ducks, and moved onto something else.  
The white box in the background
is the seismograph (cover).  The
386 in the front is the replacement for
4 Vic-20's.

He was like that – he’d get so into some technology or idea, get really good at it, and drop it once the challenge was gone.  Lasers.  Home made steam engines.  Crossword puzzles (NYT, diagram-less!).  Programming.  Microwave communications.  HAM radio.  His longest scientific interest was actually in seismology – here’s his and, again, I am not kidding, home-made seismograph.  Check out the new fancy 386 computer on the right.  That was his idea of “serious computing power”.

Of all his creations, this one really held his interest for a long time, and he really enjoyed working on it and talking seismology.  Remember, he was an electrical engineer – but by the end, he knew more about seismology than most of the seismologists he’d interact with.  That little thing records pretty much every significant geological event on planet earth.  No joke.  It used to be hooked up to 3 or 4 Vic-20’s (the pre-cursor to the Commodore 64).  He managed to do cluster computing with 3 Vic-20’s back in the late 80’s, all written in BASIC, and writing data to tape.  Not fancy computer reels – tape, like audio tape!  I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was weird.  

Diapers for me.  Very funny.
Back in high-school my friends and I used to go downstairs and look at all this crazy stuff and wonder “what the hell is going on down here”.  Here’s his whiteboard with a shopping list, and some unfinished project ideas.  Sometime in a late high school or early college party my friends decided to have some fun with it and write that they loved him, and that he needed to buy diapers for me.  Very funny.  Except my dad never erased those parts of the whiteboard!  That was over 15 years ago, and those jokes are still on that stupid whiteboard.  Jokes on me, eh dad?

Here’s a picture of a calculator, a book of definite integrals, and a bunch of math. 
Just some light reading.
I have no idea what he was doing here, but when I say my dad was a math wizard, I mean it – I’ve been around Ph.D.’s for most of my adult life, and I’ve never seen someone as good at math as him.  This is unbelievable, but one of our last conversations – he was all hooked up to machines and in pain, and generally not doing great – and he just wants to talk about Heron’s theorem.  What is Heron’s theorem?  It’s a theorem about calculating the area of a triangle.  Here’s the thing – you probably never heard of it because… it’s a completely useless theorem.  The area of a triangle is ½ base*height.  Done.  We got that one solved.  But Heron’s theorem handles what happens when you don’t know the height, but just the length of the sides.  Well, at that point, a normal person would just go measure the height.  But not Heron.  So my dad is telling me about this super obscure mathematical theorem, and he starts reciting these equations – long ones – from memory.  And he says – “You gotta go home, tonight, and read this book I have, called “Journey Through Genius” and go to page 100 or so, and start reading – it’s incredible”.  So, I agree, reluctantly.  I go home, I find this book, and sure enough, page 119, there’s Heron’s theorem.  Here’s the thing – my dad, who at this point is dying from Stage 4 cancer, recited every equation in that chapter correctly from memory.  He walked me through most of the derivation before he got too tired, and it’s all right there.  Who memorizes the proofs of obscure theorems no one could conceivably every need, then recites them on his death bed?  My dad, that’s who.

My dad managed to get published a few times in his retirement – each time he had the resulting article and check framed and they are hanging around my house.  One is an article on his somewhat long-lived hobby of night-time telescopic photography for Make Magazine – here’s a picture of his framed article from Make.

His night time photos showing a comet,
and his personal hero - Dr. Einstein.
Some of his nighttime photographs are really pretty good.  The one in the Make Magazine article is particularly nice.  None of my pictures of them turned out OK, but on the left there’s a picture of some of his pictures of what I assume is a comet, next to his personal hero – Albert Einstein.  He really loved Einstein.  In fact, when we were going to the hospital he asked me to stop at home and pick up some magazines for him, I gave in, because he seemed to be doing fine and was rather insistent.  He specifically wanted a particular issue of Scientific American because it had an article on Einstein he was eager to finish.  I found it and brought it with us, but he never did finish the article. He never even opened the magazines at the hospital – he was always too tired.  Eventually he asked me to take the magazines home.  He knew he’d never get to them, and I think they made him depressed.  It makes me cry if I think about it too much.

One of the coolest things I found digging around down there yesterday was this – these are blue prints for a homemade motorized sloth for my nephew!  (My sister is oddly obsessed with sloths).  Here’s the blue-prints.  All designed by hand.  No matter how you grew up, I guarantee that when you go home one of the last things you expect to find in your basement is hand-drawn blueprints for a mechanical sloth.  This is as far as he got with this project.  If he had only had a few more months, maybe....


At least his fascination with science and tinkering never seriously inconvenienced anyone else.  Travel, on the other hand… My dad had his first trip overseas in 1950, and everything was fine.  He kept traveling until 1977, when I was born, and suddenly this love of travel became my problem too.  We traveled everywhere.  Costa Rica, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Morocco, etc.  He went even crazier places without me – Easter Island, for example.  Ever seen someone’s travel photos from Easter Island?  It’s an exercise in repeating “Oh.  A giant stone head.” 300 times.  My dad loved photography, but across all those trips, it’s hard to find pictures of the four of us all together, or even pictures of anyone with my dad, since he was always holding the camera.  But I found a few.
Here’s the four of us in Papua New Guinea – we thought it would be hilarious to line up in height order with these statues.  I’m not sure whose idea that was.

Below, left: the four of us outside the Nairobi Hilton.  I was looking at this picture and laughing at my sister’s jumpsuit until I noticed my own shorts.  Jesus. Below, center: doing my dad’s other favorite thing – eating. Below, right: better times in a pool.  All of these are from Kenya, circa 1986, I think.

Left: look at those shorts.  Center: we've always been adventurous eaters.  Right: Good times in a pool.

Melville, my mom, and... well, read on.
Science and travel, science and travel, that’s pretty much all my dad ever wanted to talk about.  Well, that, and books – here’s his collection of Melville books. You may know Melville as that guy who wrote Moby Dick.  Well, to my dad he’s that guy who wrote all these OTHER books, too, all of which he read, and marked with a pencil.  Many of Melville’s books deal with the sea.  My dad loved Melville so much, he decided to learn to sail.  That’s probably the craziest thing I ever heard.  It’s the equivalent of loving Harry Potter so deciding to learn Potions.  But here he is – sailing!  I actually love this picture of him.  I like to think maybe Melville would have, too.

Oh, go back up and look at that picture of the Melville books again.  Two things – that’s my mom looking very pretty on the right.  (Hi Mom!) But more importantly – I’ll give you a high five if you know what that thing in the middle, blocking the bottom of the books is.  Go look.  Give up?  It’s a ceremonial penis shield from Papua New Guinea.  It’s like the weirdest thing in my parents’ house by at least a factor of two.  

My mom got my dad a “places visited” map for my Dad for his birthday or Christmas a few years ago.  Here it is with the places he/we visited, and his favorite place is marked with a yellow flag – Kenya.  You’re supposed to mark your next planned trip with a blue flag, but he must have lost the blue one.  Instead the next planned trip is denoted by the yellow flag all the way in the bottom of the picture – Antarctica.  He always wanted to visit all 7 continents, and Antarctica was last on the list.  My mom claims they got close enough when they went around Patagonia tagging penguins a few years ago, but dad wasn’t convinced.  He started planning the trip about 6 or 7 months ago – it was all he could talk about for a while.  When he first got sick that was his major concern – what about Antarctica?  He had to cancel the trip a few weeks ago once he was diagnosed.  He thought maybe he’d get better enough to travel again for a while, but it quickly became clear that wouldn’t happen.  There was just no time.

Unfinished Business

I guess that’s it about my dad, really.  I could go on for hundreds of pages about the stuff we’ve done as a family.  His favorite comedians (Monty Python & Peter Sellers), favorite movies (007 – Sean Connery, obviously), other books, the weird stuff we’ve seen and done together (tripping on beetlenut in New Guinea, sleeping on roaches in Ecuador), etc. 

But no matter how much we did, it wasn’t enough.  Everything feels unfinished.  Like the trip to Antarctica, or the article on Einstein, or the sloth blueprints.

A few days ago I came back to New Jersey to see my dad and maybe help out around the house, but when I went to pick him up from the Doctor she said I had to take him to the hospital.  I never got to see him in the house or in his basement again.

I got to hold his hand when he passed, and I told him it was OK, that he could go, but that wasn’t really true – it was too early.  It was too sudden.  It was too fast.   It seems like one minute we were swimming in a pool in Nairobi, and the next day he was in Palliative care. 

So, on September 12, 2015, Pete Torrione Sr. passed away after a brief fight with cancer.  He died peacefully and surrounded by his family.  He was 74 years old.  

My nephew Sabas is only 5 months old.  My son Charlie isn’t quite 2.  They’ll never know their grandpa Pete.  Not really.  Not like we did.  Maybe this document will help them know him a little one day.  I hope so.

In a slightly different world my dad would be planning that trip to Antarctica, and we'd be dreading looking at 300 pictures of... snow.  And his grand-kids would get to hear all about it (probably ad infinitum).  There would be a mechanical sloth slowly crawling around in Sabas' room, and a refurbished rocking horse in Charlie's.  I told my dad I loved him all the time, and he always said it back.  But I could have said a lot more.  I kind of wish I had.  Because now that he’s gone, there’s a lot of raising of Charlie and Sabas left to do, and I really wish he’d be here to see a little more of it. We could really use his help.

Dad & Charlie.  About a year ago.
Dad & Sabas.  A few weeks ago.

Better times.  Montauk, NY (?)

My dad was an ardent supporter of the World Wildlife Fund - a memorial page has been set up in his honor.  In lieu of flowers, if you are so inclined, please donate here.


  1. Ah, Petey. This made me cry. Thanks for this. I think that it wasn't that everything was unfinished; instead, it was that he achieve mastery over the craft to his own personal satisfaction, then moved to the next challenge. Your father was a brilliant man. Again, thanks for this. Be good, as I've heard you say before. Be good.

    Also, you should finish the motorized sloth in tribute to his memory.

  2. Hey Pete,
    So very sorry to hear about your loss. You and your family have my deepest condolences. Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, from your beautiful, heartfelt, rememberance here he was obviously an interesting guy. Glad you have so many great memories of him, and that you were able to spend time with him at the end. Take care.
    p.s. Knowing a little bit about woodworking (and actually having moments of being lathe-curious), lathes are like any typical male collecting pursuit. You buy one, it works alright but if only you had the next bigger one...until you find yourself doing this. https://s3.amazonaws.com/lumberjocks.com/lv6bk29.jpg

  3. I love you so much Petey. This is beautiful and perfect for Daddy. - Kriss (on dad's computer)

  4. Oh Petie what a heartfelt tribute about your dad. I'm writing this with tears pouring out of me. Yes, he was a great man but I feel his biggest contributions are you and Kriss. The admiration that you shared for your father shows that. Ev, my heartfelt condolences to you as well. Charlie and Sabas will know your father though you and Kriss and that is a beautiful thing. We love you!

  5. From Grandma Cookie and Poppy. We thought this was a very touching tribute to your father, Petie. Our son Dave read the tribute to us and it touched him also. Petie you should consider finishing the projects for the grandsons. Our love to the whole family.

  6. What an extraordinary tribute. How much you teach us about your dad. Thank you. And I'm so sorry. I was lucky to have known your dad. (Karen Markoe's daughter.)

  7. From Grandmother Barbara What a wonderful tribute to your Father. Really wish I had met him, sounds like a wonderful family man and a most interesting person. A great legacy to leave for the family, especially the grandchildren. Wouldn't it be a great world if more people were like him? A curious mind is a wonderful trait and it looks like it's in the genes for Pete and Charlie. I only mention them because I don't know the rest of your family.Well done Pete, our memories are not only comforting but make us who we are. A tribute that I'm sure would make your Father proud.Thanks for sharing your memories and thoughts.

  8. Peter/Kristin - this is Jennie Park (from Windsor Court in Norwood). Sung-Hee shared the news with me last week, and I meant to comment then. This tribute was so beautiful. I was moved to tears as I remembered what your dad would always say to us if/when he dropped the 3 of us (Kris, Sung-Hee, and me) off at school: "Achieve! Achieve! Achieve!" I hope your family is doing as well as you can today. XOXO

    1. You are so sweet Jennie, thank you for thinking of us! I hope you are well!

  9. Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories about your dad- his interests and hobbies, travels with your family, his fervent curiosity.

    Your dad always talked about you and Kriss with unmistakeable love and pride. He was eager to ask my sister and I about our lives and to fill us in about you and Kriss and later, about both of your families and about becoming a grandpa.

    Pete's intelligence was matched by his warmth- a disarming sweetness that put people at ease. We are grateful for the long and strong friendship between our parents. I know Pete will be missed by many and remembered with admiration. Please accept our deepest condolences. Love to you, your mom, Kriss and your families.

    Nancy and Brendan

    (Nancy, daughter of Karen and Arnie)

  10. Sorry to hear that your Dad passed away. I knew him well from his days as Director of Systems Engineering at ITT Defense. He was a great guy and a true professional.

    One anecdote that you probably didn't know was that he was the local expert on ITT's retirement plan. It was also one of his favorite topics of conversation at work. If anyone ever had a question about retirement, we'd tell them to go see Pete. I even still have a copy of an elaborate hand-written table that he prepared many years ago that simply described the many retirement options. He was equally conversant in other financial planning matters.

    My sympathies to the entire Torrione family. Pete will be missed!

    1. I was just reading through these posts and I wanted to mention that after going through my Dad's paperwork we did indeed find his hand-written ITT retirement plans! He loved is graph paper!

  11. Just a tad older than Steve Kalish, I worked with Pete while he actually engineered systems without the headache of directing engineers. He oversaw top-level design of several of my projects at ITT, and over two decades we shared dozens of meals and trips. No comments necessary concerning his scientific acumen, but so much more than that, he was a wonderful person – what members of my tribe call a mensch. Outside the office, no black hole of technical jargon; he would discourse on any number of diverse topics – his globe-trotting, his kids, food, photography... Discussing my own travel bores me, but he could make a walk around the block sound compelling. He took me to some strange places to eat weird foods I couldn't pronounce (nor in some cases swallow). Am watching the Mets win as I type this, but despite Tom Hanks' admonition, tears cascade – just as they did when I heard the sad news, when I read Pete Jr's tribute, and when I told my wife Vivian. A tribute made more impressive by its lack of mention of ITT; Pete’s life was as all should be: about family – not work. He was one of the truly unforgettable characters I’ve met in my life; and I’ll miss his remarkable smile.