As a correspondent for CBS This Morning, Mo Rocca has interviewed celebrities ranging from Vanna White to Pope Francis. He’s filed reports on gerrymandering, the electoral college, and U.S. presidents.
Rocca is also genuinely intrigued by forgotten figures like Lois Weber, born in Allegheny City (now the North Side), who was a pioneering filmmaker, actress, and producer in the early 1900s; and Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician who, in 1843, wrote the first computer program.
“I’ve been so struck by how quickly people are forgotten, which is very sobering,” says Rocca, author of Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving (Simon & Schuster), a companion piece to his podcast of the same name.
Rocca’s book is a tribute to misunderstood or overshadowed people, trends, and ideas. There are sections on Farrah Fawcett, whose passing was eclipsed by Michael Jackson’s death on the same day, and Vaughan Meader, who became a sensation with his impersonation of John F. Kennedy, only to see his career crash when the 35th president was assassinated in 1963. Rocca also writes about the death of disco and medieval science (some facets of which were still in practice until the discovery of penicillin).
Most of Rocca’s subjects have one person — a historian, a writer, or just a devoted admirer — to whom he could turn to for more information.
“I first became interested in history by visiting the homes and graves and historic sites of obscure presidents,” he says, noting that he was incredibly moved by a woman who served 22 years as the caretaker for a site in Ohio devoted to Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president. “Without people like that, it’s much more likely that history would disappear. I find that on my book tours
as well, especially in cities that aren’t major metropolises ... how there are dedicated individuals who keep these things alive.”
As in his interviews, Rocca strikes a humorous tone throughout the book. But each entry is balanced by a certain gravitas and poignancy. The entry about Herbert Hoover, long considered a failure as a president, features a quote from his great-great-granddaughter, who laments that the 31st president’s legacy is seen through the prism of “four bad years.” Before his presidency, Hoover was a successful engineer who almost single-handedly rescued 120,000 Americans stranded in Europe at the outbreak of World War I, and helped feed war-torn sections of the continent when the conflict ended.
Stories like this, Rocca thinks, have a certain indefinable power.
“This process, this project, has emboldened me to trust that what moves me and compels me is going to move and compel a lot of people,” he says. “I feel like there’s this circuitry that may be dormant and needs to be activated among people. The story of [singer] Laura Branigan — suddenly a lot of people woke and said this is a story I care about. Maybe they’ve always cared about it and didn’t realize they cared about it, but I do think that’s the power of storytelling. It’s almost like, to find the right metaphor, you’re pumping life into them.”
Rocca’s appearance March 30 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures has been postponed. Ticket holders will be emailed directly when a new date is scheduled, with ticket options. Information: pittsburghlectures.org