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Joe Battista: Remembering “Momma” Fatur

by on July 19, 2012 6:25 AM

We all have people in our lives that hold a special place in our heart.

I lost such a friend last week after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The “Long Goodbye” as it is accurately called by caregivers, took the life of Rhoma “Momma” Fatur, a grand lady from a bygone era when people trusted each other and neighbors were like family.

My wife Heidi’s mother, Nellie Smith, battled Alzheimer’s for over four years and it was a heart-wrenching process for our family, especially our kids, to have to witness. Her passing, like that of Rhoma’s, was in reality, a blessing. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, and hopefully we will be able to find a cure soon.

I was very lucky to have visited with my good friend and former PSU Hockey Booster Club President Paul Fatur, Rhoma’s husband, and their son, Ken, a former Jr. Penguin and PSU Icer, over the Christmas holiday this past December at a nursing home where Rhoma lived.

It was there that I shared one last special moment with Momma Fatur. She had really begun to deteriorate, according to Paul, but when I showed up and gave her a PSU hockey puck, she became alert and smiled and Paul was amazed at how responsive she was. If I was able to give her one of her few good days then it was well worth it for all she had given to me and my family.

Rhoma was like a second mom to many of us in the hockey world. But it wasn’t until I attended her viewing that I found out just how many friends and neighbors felt the same way.  This was a woman who knew how to bring a smile to anyone and was willing to help anyone in need. 

Rhoma had such a positive impact on my life, my family's, the Icer family and the thousands of youth hockey players from the Westmoreland Hockey Association, Hempfield High School, Greensburg Central Catholic HS, the Amateur Pens, Team Pittsburgh and the Keystone Games.

And that's just her hockey "family" impact.

If there was a kinder, sweeter, hockey mom (with a certain mean streak in her when needed), I don't know of one. Her enthusiasm and passion for the game, for the kids and for family was infectious, and I will never let that spirit perish as long as I am able to pass along my many amazing memories of her.

When our first born, Brianna, was colicky and wouldn't go to sleep, it was Momma Fatur who came to our rescue and helped us in our time of need.  She convinced her husband that they needed to take a trip to State College to provide relief for Heidi and me so we could get some much needed rest. 

I used to have to put our daughter in her car seat and drive her around town in the wee hours to get her to fall asleep.  That got old real quick, and Rhoma literally came to our rescue so Heidi and I could get away on a date and catch up on uninterrupted sleep. Now that is a true friend.

To understand Rhoma’s place in our hearts, there is a photo of her and my wife on top of a clothes dresser in our bedroom.  It is from Ken's wedding and it has a place of honor among our photos of our family. 

The Fatur’s have always called me their "third son" and I was always welcome at their home. Paul was friends with my Godfather, Tony Stillitano, and worked with Tony’s brother, Carl.  I played hockey with and against their oldest son Jim (a very successful businessman who works in the computer industry for Hewlett-Packard in Michigan). Their daughter, Karen (Fatur) Peters, lives and works in New Jersey at the Borgota Casino.  All of them made me feel special over the years.

But it was my relationship with her son Ken, an executive at JP Morgan Chase in Chicago, that really brought me closer to the Fatur family.  I had coached Ken on the Pittsburgh Jr. Penguins travel team for two years, spending just about every weekend with them during that time. 

In one of my favorite memories as a coach, we had tied the Fort Wayne Jr. Comets in the USA Hockey Regional Championship game held in Dayton, Ohio.  The winner would advance to the national tournament.  Part way through the second overtime, I pointed to Ken’s line to be ready next. For some reason I can’t explain, I yelled to Ken just as he was about to go on the ice and I reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder pads and looked him in the eye and said, “End this thing right now!”  Well, as you could guess, Ken scored the winning goal on that shift and an emotional celebration pursued.

I also coached Ken on Team Pittsburgh that competed in the National High School All-Star showcase tournament in Chicago (we finished third one year which surprised a lot in the hockey world at that time).  We won several gold medals together for the Western Pa. Team in the PA Keystone Games and I was the graduate assistant coach at Kent State during Ken’s freshman year of college.  Ken transferred to PSU, and I became the head coach in 1987, just in time for his final two seasons.

It was in his senior year that we captured our first ever ICHL league title. Ken, who suffered a separated shoulder in the second period of what was his final college game, delivered one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever heard to his teammates before the start of the third period.  We rallied from a two-goal deficit twice in that game to earn an 8-6 championship game victory in what I still believe to be one of the most exciting hockey games ever played at PSU.

The Fatur’s were close knit as a family and supported Ken throughout his hockey career.  When the Fatur’s visited Happy Valley, they stayed at the Autoport Motel and always requested room 9, the number worn by son “Kenneth,” as Rhoma called him. When I approached Paul and Rhoma about taking an active part in the booster club, they responded enthusiastically and they made a significant impact early in my career as the coach of the Icers.

I don't have the words to express my sorrow about the loss of Rhoma, yet I am happy that she is finally at rest.  She will always be "Momma Fatur" and none of us will ever forget all the special memories we have all shared with her. 

She was an angel on earth and she is now an angel looking over us all from above. We will miss her but will never, ever forget her.

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From ice hockey to Intercollegiate Athletics and Smeal, JoeBa has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities. Battista was an influential player in the effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley. He is now Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Buffalo Sabres.
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