Hank Cisco has fit a lot into his 95 years.
He served in the U.S. Army. He boxed professionally, then refereed matches, meeting the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier along the way. He spent about three decades in law enforcement, first as a Norristown police officer and then as a Montgomery County detective. For 30 years, he has hosted The Hank Cisco Show, a local cable talk show filmed at Norristown Area High School.
He married Dolores Donofrio, the young woman he locked eyes with as he drank a Seven and Seven in a Norristown social club decades ago. He spent 60 years with her, raising four children together and caring for her at home as she battled Alzheimer’s at the end of her life.
After all that, Cisco never thought about putting his feet up and enjoying a quiet retirement. Full of pride in Norristown, he embraced an unpaid role as the Montgomery County borough’s good-will ambassador, cutting ceremonial ribbons for new buildings and parking garages, putting welcome-baskets together for area motel guests during the Pope’s 2015 visit to Philadelphia, and just being a friendly, familiar face to passerby around town.
“I wanted people to come who came to Norristown to enjoy their experience,” Cisco said. “I was always so proud to say. ‘I’m from Norristown.’”
For nearly a decade, Cisco happily filled this position, which the Pennsylvania General Assembly referred to in 2013 as “the only municipal ambassador in the entire nation.”
But then, before the new year, Cisco said he got word that Norristown Municipal Council would not reappoint him as ambassador, so he sent a letter announcing his resignation at the end of the year. After his letter was mailed, he said, he received council’s note indicating the borough was going in a different direction with the ambassador position.
The council said it harbored no ill will for Cisco and respected him greatly. It simply wanted to recognize others in the borough, too, perhaps rotating such a position on an annual basis.
“There’s no spitefulness,” said Council President Sonya Sanders. “This is all professional.”
Earlier this month, the council honored Cisco with a lifetime achievement award for his service as ambassador, but he declined the invitation to accept the award. It was too little, too late, he said.
Last week, even as Cisco awaited a medical procedure in his hospital room at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, Cisco was feisty and sharp, quick to recall old memories of Norristown and unafraid to speak his mind on controversial issues.
One of eight children, Cisco was born in Brooklyn but raised in Norristown, where he attended both public and parochial schools. He dropped out of high school to start a boxing career and later enlisted in the Army. Along the way, his given name, Frank Ciaccio, was changed to Hank Cisco, which a boxing manager said would be an easier stage name to pronounce.
He returned to Norristown, got his GED, and joined the Norristown Police Department, where his duties including serving as a safety officer in the schools. One of his proudest accomplishments was establishing a bicycle inspection program after a child died in a bike accident. He led fundraising efforts in the area, raising money for a Christopher Columbus monument at the Elmwood Park Zoo and for equipment at Montgomery Hospital.
He became such a recognized member of the community that in 2006 then-councilwoman Rochelle Culbreath decided to appoint him as the city’s ambassador.
“He’s literally a one-man band,” Culbreath said. “His energy is infectious. ... You can definitely tell Norristown is his life’s passion.”
Naturally, when she heard the current council was making changes to the position, Culbreath said she was beside herself.
“It’s just sad," she said. “It’s unnecessary not to just let him keep it.”
Councilman Derrick Perry said there was “no force out" of Cisco, pointing to his recent lifetime achievement honor.
“We just said an ambassador should be changed every year,” Perry said. “As far as we’re concerned, he’s always going to be the ambassador.”
Council president Sanders said the ambassador position was never documented, the responsibilities never specified. Going forward, the ambassador role may turn into a “Citizen of the Year” award that annually honors one or two residents for their community contributions, Sanders said, but council hasn’t discussed specifics or what the criteria would be for filling the position.
Did they have any negative feelings toward Cisco?
“Oh God, absolutely not,” Sanders said. “I actually have photos with Hank Cisco. This is nothing personal.”
“No, hell no,” Perry said. “Not even a little bit.”
But just talking about the ambassador position made Perry “uncomfortable,” he said. He didn’t know exactly how or why the role came about, he said, and the title came with no salary or clear responsibilities.
“It really has no purpose,” Perry said. “There isn’t anything that comes with it.”
To Cisco, though, the position provided him with purpose, reinforcement that his small, beloved town recognized and appreciated how much he cared.
“This man has just been emanating love for this community,” said friend and supporter MaryEllen DiGregorio, who hates to see the heartbreak the ambassador ordeal has caused Cisco . She’s one of his“Rock-ettes” as he calls them, a reference to his boxing nickname “Rock.”
DiGregorio stood by Cisco the last time his ambassador position, in its traditional sense, seemed to be in jeopardy. A year ago, Norristown Municipal Council tabled his reappointment at its first 2018 meeting, and an unnamed Cisco supporter told the Norristown Times Herald that Cisco had been given last-minute notice that he would in fact not be reappointed.
Later that month, he was reappointed, with council members agreeing that while they liked Cisco, they thought it might be time to turn the position over to someone else, perhaps a person who would better represent the diversity of the borough, according to the Herald.
Cisco said he recognizes the changing times but has always embraced the community’s diversity. Throughout his life, he said, he has surrounded himself with friendly, positive people regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or other such factors.
In fact, he said, that outlook has been one of his keys to living a long life.
What other wisdom would he impart to those who want to live to be a sharp, fulfilled 95-year-old?
“Be happy,” Cisco said. “Eat good. Eat the pasta, don’t worry about that.”
He laughed, pausing to recall one final piece of advice.
“Never lose a fight in the dressing room,” he added.
Once he said, he got a glance at a boxing opponent before a match. The guy looked strong and daunting, the type of opponent Cisco said he never thought he could beat. In the dressing room, he already wanted to give up, but was slowly talked out of it.