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Column: A selfless young man gone far too soon

Mark Rolle couldn’t help but laugh when a somber moment took an unexpected turn.

He stood in front of mourners gathered inside Our Lady of Good Counsel R.C. Church in Mattituck Tuesday morning to share memories of his son, Matthew, who died Jan. 4 after a three-year battle with cancer. Matt was 36

Mr. Rolle had just begun a brief tribute following Mass, speaking about the kindness shown by Matt’s co-workers in the Riverhead Central School District, when a loud beeping noise echoed throughout the church.

It was the fire alarm.

“Well, this is fitting for Matt,” he said before laughing. “We’ll remember this.”

A woman approached the microphone and asked if there were a firefighter present who could shut off the alarm.

As it turned out, there were plenty. 

Matt had joined the Cutchogue Fire Department in 2008 to serve the community where he grew up. He quickly became a valued member of the department, contributing in many ways, from the Panthers drill team that competes in firematic tournaments to playing bass drum in the marching band.

He was a selfless man who always tried to help others, and those traits were exemplified in a fire department where in 2011 he was honored as Probationary Firefighter in the Year.

He joined the department not far removed from his days at Mattituck High School, where he was well known for his athletic prowess, earning The Suffolk Times’ Athlete of the Year award in 2002. (In a cruel twist of fate, Greenport great Gerald Crenshaw of the Porters, who died four months ago, was also an Athlete of the Year recipient that year.)

“When I talk to [Matt’s children] as they get older, I will tell them stories about how good an athlete their father was and how he hoped they too would enjoy playing sports,” Mr. Rolle said. “I will tell them how important family and friends were to him and how he would like them to stay close to and cherish their family, especially Pa. That would be me.”

Mr. Rolle spoke about the overwhelming generosity the community has shown their family ever since his son received that fateful diagnosis of stage 4 colon and liver cancer in 2018. Matt had asked his friends not to go out of their way for him. But that was one direction they could not follow.

Friends soon organized a “Go to Bat for Matt” softball tournament. Kait’s Angels started its own fundraiser soon after. The Mattituck Lions Club stepped up to help. Friends got together for a cornhole competition to raise funds. There were bake sales, raffles and meal trains. Others contributed directly through a GoFundMe. Matt worked most recently in the buildings and grounds department in Riverhead schools, where his co-workers donated their own time off so Matt could maintain his income while recovering. In December, fire departments from Cutchogue to Riverhead organized a parade of lights past Matt’s home to spread holiday cheer.

“From the moment Matt started one and a half years of chemo treatments to over 100 days of surgeries, procedures and radiation treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, we knew that the only way we could get through this was the help and support of family and friends,” Mr. Rolle said. “And, boy, did we get support from you.”

Through all the challenges, pain and heartache came a miracle for the Rolle family, who now live in Aquebogue, when Matt’s wife, Haley, gave birth to their second child, Lylah Sloan, on Jan. 6, 2020. Their son, Clayton Matthew, just turned 4 in December. 

Mr. Rolle said he will tell his grandchildren about their father’s “infectious laugh and a kind spirit that touched a lot of people in his short life.”

It didn’t need to be a burning building for Matt to come to someone’s assistance. There were the smaller moments that can often go unnoticed. He began working as a bartender at aMano in Mattituck around 2011 and transitioned during the summer months to work at A Lure in Southold. Adam Lovett, who owns both restaurants, said customers gravitated to Matt’s outgoing personality. Matt became friends with one couple and volunteered to drive them to the airport so they didn’t have to use a car service. It became a yearly tradition that he continued even after his diagnosis when he was healthy enough to still drive.

“He was just a really honest, nice, kind person,” said Mr. Lovett, who donated food for the family after Tuesday’s services. “He was like a big Teddy bear.”

Matt approached his diagnosis with an unwavering positive attitude and a confidence that he could beat it.

But by early December, Ms. Rolle shared an unfortunate update on social media: that despite how well he had been doing in recent months, a recent scan had shown the cancer returned to his liver, lung, some lymph nodes and his adrenal gland. The outlook was grim. The cancer was progressing at too great a rate for the treatment to fight it back. Matt’s time, they knew, was limited. At that point, the goal became to cherish each remaining moment and try to get through the holidays and the upcoming kids’ birthdays together as a family. 

On Dec. 19, they celebrated Clayton’s birthday with a dinosaur-themed cake. And with time so precious, they opted to jump ahead and celebrate Lylah with her cake smash, the first-birthday tradition.

“Over the last three years I have struggled to find any good in Matt’s struggle,” Mr. Rolle said, fighting back tears. “As I spent hours trying to find that good, I was always amazed at the support, kindness and generosity of everyone. I expected that from my family and Haley’s family, but the support we got from close friends to strangers has been overwhelming. 

“Looking back at the past three years, I was always amazed at the strength Matt and Haley showed us.”

That strength will be a defining legacy for a man gone far too soon.