‘Wildcard’ Hank Cisco, Norristown’s very-own ambassador, dies at 96

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Hank Cisco puts on an appearance at a Norristown Bicentennial event in 2012. (Hank Cisco Facebook page)

Hank Cisco puts on an appearance at a Norristown Bicentennial event in 2012. (Hank Cisco Facebook page)

The longtime ambassador for the city of Norristown has died. Hank Cisco succumbed to pancreatic cancer early on Tuesday morning.

In his 96 years, Hank Cisco was a soldier, a boxer, a police officer, a TV personality, a tireless civic booster and — for many — the soul of Norristown.

Cisco was the first — and for a long time the only — person to be an ambassador for a U.S. town, a role he cherished. For the celebration of Norristown’s bicentennial in 2012, he shared the stage with the Montgomery County commissioners, wearing a red, white and blue top hat and telling one-liners from the stage.

“The thing about Norristown is it’s old,” said Cisco, hamming it up for the audience. “In fact, it’s so old we remember the Dead Sea when it was sick!”

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Before Cisco was the official ambassador for Norristown, he was its unofficial ambassador.  John Doyle, of the Iron Age Theatre Company, remembers first seeing Cisco as a police officer in the 1970s when he was visiting schools to talk to kids about safety.

“Hank was the guy who came to schools with a ventriloquist dummy and told kids not to cross the street when the light was red,” Doyle said. “He had a little song he would sing. And to be respectful, and general civic lessons for kids.”

Doyle grew up to be the producer of the Hank Cisco Show on public access TV. It broadcasted weekly from the Norristown School District’s channel for more than 30 years. It featured interviews with locals: from high school cheerleaders and extras from the movie “The Irishman,” to the chief of police and members of the chamber of commerce.

The star of the show was Cisco and his freewheeling interview style.

“Hank was so wildcard. He did what he wanted,” said Doyle. “I remember once he was talking to a banker about the financial crisis in 2008, and he sang a song about bed bugs at one point.”

To mark his passing, episodes of the Hank Cisco Show are running back-to-back, 24 hours a day, on the NASDtv channel.

Cisco was born Hank Ciaccio in 1923 in Brooklyn. According to his TV show, he dropped out of school after 8th grade. He later earned his GED and entered the police academy. He also served in the army during World War II.

He was a boxer, changing his name to Cisco and earning the nickname Rock, which stuck for the rest of his life. After his fighting career, he became a referee, for which he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame.

“He was old-school,” said Mary Ciaccio, Cisco’s daughter. “His father was a shoemaker. When he was a juvenile officer and kids would get into trouble – broke a window or damage something – the restitution was to give them a shoe-shine box. They would have to shine shoes to raise money to pay for whatever.

“If kids were fighting, he put a ring in City Hall and put boxing gloves on them,” she said. “‘Here, go in the ring and settle your differences there.’”

Over his life, Cisco was involved in countless civic groups related to his police work and his Italian heritage. He spearheaded an effort to erect a statue of Christopher Columbus in Elmwood Park, a monument that now bears a plaque honoring him.

His wife Dolores passed away in 2010. Cisco is survived by four children, along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A year ago, Cisco was let go from his unpaid position as city ambassador, around the same time he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a few months of treatment, he started hospice care in his Norristown house.

“This house became a museum,” Ciaccio said. “We filled the house with pictures and people would come. This is his life and his legacy.”

On the day of her father’s passing, while sitting on the steps of his home, Ciaccio looked at a photo of her father and former Philly Mayor Frank Rizzo.

“They were good friends later in Rizzo’s life,” she said. “He was actually one of Frank Rizzo’s pallbearers.”

Other photos in the home of her father show his relationship to the sports world: Cisco with heavyweight champ Joe Frazier and the voice of the 76ers Dave Zinkoff. Another frame shows him with boxer and “Rocky” movie namesake Rocky Marciano.

While in hospice, confined to his bed, Cisco kept an active schedule. He remained involved in booking guests for The Hank Cisco Show (they were interviewed by substitutes) and constantly received visitors.

“He was very lively. He loved singing. He loved music,” Ciaccio said. “He always encouraged me to have my friends over on Friday nights for a poker game in the dining room. He just wanted this house full of people.”

A funeral for Cisco is planned for Friday at the Volpe Funeral Home in Norristown. Mary Ciaccio is expecting it to be crowded.

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