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World War II vet who went on fitness kick at 96 dies at 105

Joseph Rosa was a World War II veteran, a self-made millionaire, a passionate gambler, an avid golfer and a ladies’ man, according to his family and friends. But he may be best remembered for his late-life transformation into a gym rat extraordinaire.

Rosa, who died at 105 on June 15 in Las Vegas, gained local celebrity for his recovery following a 2011 hit-and-run outside a Fresh and Easy grocery store in Sun City Summerlin. He was left with a broken back and left leg, and doctors warned him that he would likely never walk again.

Rosa, then 96, wasn’t buying that bleak outlook.

He joined a 24-Hour Fitness gym and within four months was back on his feet.

“Within six months, he was teaching me how to play golf,” Aaron Clay, Rosa’s friend and former personal trainer, recalled this week.

Though Clay became a Realtor and left the fitness club, he and Rosa continued to enjoy breakfast together for years. Rosa continued going to the gym three times a week for the next nine years and became a celebrity among the members who used the club each morning. The Summerlin gym celebrated his 103rd birthday in 2018.

The fitness kick was a departure from Rosa’s regular habits.

Born on Dec. 9, 1915, three days before Frank Sinatra, Rosa credited his longevity to two of the singer’s favorite cravings: “booze and broads.”

One of eight children from two Italian immigrants, Rosa grew up in the Watts neighborhood in south Los Angeles during the Great Depression, said nephew Tim Rosa. As a teen, he worked at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., stole pies from his mother to sell for a quarter and made paper kites from toilet paper and string to sell for 5 cents apiece.

“He was a character,” Tim Rosa said. “He could be ruthless and could be one of the nicest guys you’ve ever want to meet.”

The elder Rosa joined the Coast Guard shortly before World War II and was eventually commissioned into the Navy. His ship, the USS Serpens, was part of the Bougainville campaign during land and sea battles in the South Pacific between the Allied forces and Japan.

Rosa was promoted to chief petty officer and transferred from the Serpens in 1945, weeks before the freighter exploded while the crew was loading depth charges into the holds, killing 250 men. It remains the worst disaster in Coast Guard history.

After leaving the service, Rosa founded a roofing company with brothers Jimmie and Augie in Los Angeles. At its height, Rosa Bros. Roofing employed 58 workers and was the second-largest roofing company in the city.

Before selling the business in 1996, Rosa also invested in real estate and a shrimp farm in Ecuador, owned a travel agency and opened a mini-storage business, enabling him to comfortably retire in Las Vegas.

A self-proclaimed heavy drinker and smoker well into his 70s, Rosa regularly played golf at the Paiute Golf Resort until he was 99. Friends recall that Rosa was known for his generous tips to waitresses and friendly conversations with just about anyone he encountered.

“He was incredible and he was one tough, strong son of a b—-,” said Clay. “But he also had a softer side and really did truly care about people.”

Rosa is survived by younger brother, Jimmie, three children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Per his wishes, Rosa will be cremated. A private memorial service will be held at a time and date to be determined.

Contact Mathew Miranda at mmiranda@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mathewjmiranda on Twitter.

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