By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun
7:00 PM EDT, May 14, 2012
John Joseph Scocca, a retired Johns Hopkins biochemistry professor recalled for his keen critical eye, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease May 10 at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. He was 72 and lived in Aberdeen.
Born in South Philadelphia, he came to Baltimore in 1958 as a Johns Hopkins University undergraduate and went on to spend his entire career at the school. He earned a bachelor's degree in three years and received a doctorate in biochemistry. He then became a professor at what is now the Bloomberg School of Hygiene and Public Health, where he retired four years ago.
Family members said that in his third year of graduate school, he taught laboratory technique to a group of students that included his future wife, Jane Ruble.
They moved to a home on Monterey Road in Ednor Gardens north of the old Memorial Stadium. He, his wife and children were Orioles fans and enjoyed attending games. In 1977, the family moved to Aberdeen.
Colleagues said that as a professor at the School of Public Health, he taught biochemistry to graduate students from outside the biochemistry department. He called his course "baby biochemistry," but friends said he was a thorough and demanding scientist-teacher. He also valued concise speaking and brevity.
"Perhaps John's most significant contributions involved his 30-year tenure as chief organizer of the laboratory rotations for first-year doctoral students," said a Hopkins colleague, Roger McMacken, who lives near Lake Roland. "John operated a dreaded alarm clock that so loudly, rudely and famously halted student rotation talks precisely 10 minutes after the start of any still-continuing research presentation."
Mr. McMacken said this was an "immensely effective training strategy." By the time the students returned for more oral presentations, they "were virtually all completed before the sound of the jarring alarm clock."
He recalled his favorite "Scocca moment," which involved the annual opening day meeting of the department faculty with an incoming class of doctoral students.
"John, because of his wit, keen sense of humor, candor, and unparalleled scientific integrity, routinely had the honor of describing the department's academic program for first-year students," said Mr. McMacken. "What followed was an impassioned exhortation about the do's and don'ts of laboratory research and academic life. No one, including John, knew precisely what he was going to say. But you could certainly count on 45 minutes of a hilarious, off-the-cuff soliloquy that perpetually was a highlight of academic life for us."
Family members said that his personal research work involved the study of the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae and its interactions.
Mr. Scocca served two terms as president of the Hopkins faculty senate.
"He wasn't shy about taking someone apart verbally, even chairs or deans, if he or she wasn't making sense," Mr. McMacken said. "But John was a beloved mentor of doctoral students and was the thesis adviser for 14 doctoral students."
Sharon Krag, a retired Hopkins colleague and dean, recalled him as an "extremely loyal and good friend. His approach to living life and doing science was spectacular."
She said she sought him for his critical eye. "He was insightful and straightforward, never malicious."
Mr. Scocca was a Boy Scout leader in Aberdeen. He received Scouting's distinguished service award, the Silver Beaver. In the 1970s, he was a Mount Calvary Episcopal Church vestry member.
Family members said he was an accomplished cook who had an inventory of recipes from South Philadelphia. He kept detailed notes, similar to a lab book, about his cooking. They said that after an academic visit to Pakistan, where his group dined with the dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-haq, he began creating Indian and Pakistani dishes. He also became a fan of the Bombay Grill.
He was in charge of Thanksgiving meals and baked breads.
A dog fancier, he bred and showed Rottweilers. Mr. Scocca read widely and was a fan of H.L. Mencken.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 2929 Level Road in Churchville.
In addition to his wife of nearly 46 years, survivors include two sons, David Scocca of Durham, N.C., and Tom Scocca of New York City; a sister, Patricia Danz of Philadelphia; and two grandsons.
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