Retired Kinston city attorney 'Poo' Rochelle passes away at 81
A banner celebrating the induction of Vernon H. ‘Poo’ Rochelle into the Kinston/Lenoir County Sports Hall of Fame hangs at the Kinston Community Center on Vernon Avenue. The former Kinston city attorney died Thursday in Morehead City. Photo by Linda Whittington / Neuse News
One of the most important figures in Kinston’s history over the past century died Thursday when retired Kinston City Attorney Vernon H. “Poo” Rochelle passed away at the Crystal Coast Hospice House in Newport. He was 81.
Rochelle was born March 7, 1938, in Kinston. After graduating from Grainger High School in 1956, he earned his undergraduate degree from Duke University and his law degree from UNC before becoming a U.S. Navy officer.
Rochelle served as the Kinston city attorney from 1970 until his retirement in 2005. He was a key liaison for Kinston residents who had been impacted by the devastation of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and was also integral in bringing the Global TransPark to Lenoir County in the early 1990s.
Kinston City Councilman Joseph Tyson also served on the council during portions of Rochelle’s tenure. He said Rochelle was a true advocate for Kinston residents after the floods that followed Hurricane Floyd.
According to Tyson and former city councilman Van Braxton, Rochelle was responsible for getting Kinston homeowners whose homes had been flooded settlements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“As our city attorney, he was fair, he was thorough, he was detailed and he was transparent,” Tyson said. “I’ve never had an opportunity to meet or work with someone who was as knowledgeable as he was when it came to dealing with FEMA, the state and everyone else.
“He deserves credit for saving Kinston.”
Braxton said Rochelle was instrumental in helping Kinston residents prepare their paperwork for FEMA and then finding them places to relocate.
“When the federal government was willing — through FEMA — to buy out (Kinston homeowners), someone needed to administer the program,” Braxton said. “Poo worked very, very hard on that project. It would never have been as successful as it was without his hard work.”
Alice Tingle became a member of the Kinston City Council a couple months after Hurricane Floyd’s devastation.
“Listen — I’m not sure we would’ve made it through all that without Poo Rochelle,” she said. “He was the glue that held this city together. He knew what he was doing and he got the job done. … Poo gave his heart and soul to provide for the citizens of Kinston.”
Braxton, who served in the N.C. House of Representatives and as a deputy commissioner of the N.C. Department of Insurance following his tenure on the Kinston City Council, said Rochelle’s efforts in bringing the GTP to Kinston were substantial.
“A lot of Poo’s efforts were behind the scenes,” Braxton said. “The TransPark may have come here without Poo, but he was certainly important in doing all the paperwork and all the legwork to get it here.”
Former city councilman Gordon Vermillion said Rochelle was a true man of integrity.
“He was unique in the deals he made for the city,” Vermillion said. “He always put the interests of the city first. I’m not sure the people of Kinston realize just how important he was to the city because he was quiet about it and never made it about him.”
Rochelle was the city attorney for O.A. “Buddy” Ritch, who served four terms as mayor of Kinston (1985-97, 2005-09). Ritch lauded Rochelle’s service to his community.
“He was not only a great city attorney, he was a great person who truly loved the city of Kinston,” Ritch said. “His whole life was dedicated to making Kinston a better place to live and he helped Kinston achieve All-American status.”
Rochelle not only served Kinston as its attorney for three-and-a-half decades, he also volunteered his time throughout the city and county for many agencies. Rochelle, the 1993 Kinston/Lenoir County Citizen of the Year, served as president of the Kinston/Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, chairman of the Caswell District Boy Scouts and president of the East Carolina Council.
“Poo served on so many committees and always gave of his time to the community,” Tingle said. “He made time for everyone. He gave as much of himself to this city as anyone I’ve ever known.”
Rochelle was also a co-chair of the Lenoir-Greene United Way, was a member of the Lenoir Community College Board of Trustees and received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine from Gov. Jim Martin in 1992.
“He was a man of dignity and respect,” Tyson said. “He always had a smile for everyone. He truly cared for his city of Kinston. His love for this city gave him the passion and desire to make sure this city survived.”
Vermillion said Rochelle was never swayed by politics but by his motivation to help all Kinstonians.
“He always did the right thing for Kinston,” Vermillion said. “His philosophy was this: There was no right way to do the wrong thing.”
Before his public service, however, Rochelle was a star student-athlete for Grainger High School in the mid-1950s. He led the Red Devils to state titles in football as the team’s quarterback and co-captain in 1955 for Coach Frank Mock and as a forward on back-to-back basketball championship teams in 1955 and 1956 for Coach Amos Sexton.
George Whitfield, a legendary baseball coach who is in a dozen halls of fame himself, said Rochelle was a fun-loving person and an outstanding leader in his time at Grainger.
“He was a great athlete and had the rare distinction as being someone who played for state championship teams in football and basketball,” Whitfield said. “He was always at his best in the big games — he was a clutch performer.”
Rochelle was beloved by his former Grainger teammates and remained friends with them throughout his life.
“There were 20 seniors on (the 1955 football championship team) and we had played together for at least three years,” Rochelle told The Free Press in 2010. “You spend an awful lot of time together and the truth is we are still friends today.”
For his athletic accomplishments at Grainger High School, Rochelle was inducted into the Kinston/Lenoir County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2010. He was his characteristic humble self in an interview with The Free Press before his induction into the Hall.
“I’m obviously very pleased to be inducted,” Rochelle said. “But I also feel like, ‘Why me?’ … It’s sort of like, how do you pick one guy and not all the other guys? But I’m real pleased and honored that someone would think I’m worthy of such an honor.”
Funeral arrangements for Rochelle are being managed by Munden Funeral Home and Crematory in Morehead City; service details were incomplete as of Friday morning.
Publisher B.J. Murphy contributed to this report.