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Norfolk/Wrentham - Local Town Pages

Remembering Bob Volpicelli

Bob Volpicelli and Mary Ellen Blue. Jason Collins Photography

By Grace Allen
There’s an adage that goes, “Behind every successful man is a strong woman.” But if instead you said, “Behind every successful woman is a strong man,” you’d be capturing the relationship between Mary Ellen Blue and Bob Volpicelli. 
Locals know Mary Ellen Blue as the owner of Cilla’s Coffeehouse in Norfolk. But what they might not know is that Bob Volpicelli was her behind-the-scenes partner in every sense of the word, instrumental in the coffeehouse’s build-out and day-to-day operations. Theirs was a love story that ended far too soon, when Bob was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.
Lewy body disease is a type of dementia that can initially present like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s because the symptoms often overlap. But along with a decline in mental abilities, people with Lewy body dementia suffer from hallucinations and paranoia, as well as movement disorders such as tremors. It’s an insidious disease but progresses rapidly in younger individuals. Bob Volpicelli survived barely two years after diagnosis, passing away on June 19, 2022 at age 66.
A Millis native, Bob was a firefighter for more than a decade before starting his own construction company. He also trained as an arborist, and eventually went back to school to become a civil engineer, graduating valedictorian from Wentworth Institute of Technology. 
“Bob loved construction,” said Mary Ellen. “Even throughout his illness, he would talk in construction terms. I’ve never met someone who loved what they did more than Bob.”
During the coffeehouse’s construction, Bob put in the two grease traps for the restaurant, digging the holes himself. He was, said Mary Ellen, her go-to guy around the restaurant, cleaning out vents, washing windows, shoveling the walkways, and sometimes even doing the dishes--even though he had his own business to run.
Once, the coffeehouse’s ice machine needed to be cleaned. Both Mary Ellen and Bob had watched a professional clean the machine before and decided they could do it themselves. They met at the coffeehouse after dinner and started the process, which took much longer than they planned. At 2 a.m., the sanitation cycle was still running so they stretched out on benches in the dining area and promptly fell asleep. When they woke up, the sun was coming up and customers were starting to arrive.
“People think owning a coffeehouse is a lot of fun but it’s a lot of work too,” said Mary Ellen. “Bob was just so supportive of every part of it, and we always kept our sense of humor. We’d look at each other and laugh and say no one has any idea how crazy our lives are.”
Because they both worked many hours and often seven days a week, Bob and Mary Ellen seized every opportunity to be together. Sometimes they took road trips, often out of state, to pick up furniture or equipment for the coffeehouse, making a day out of it.
Still, Bob made it to Cilla’s daily, no matter how busy he was with own work. He was the first customer of the day and often the last one, too, in addition to pitching in when needed. 
“He would call me every afternoon to see if I needed help,” said Mary Ellen. “I would always say, ‘I’m good, I got it,’ and about a half hour later, I’d see that black truck of his turn the corner, and out he’d come with his mop in hand. He’d come in, walk past me with that smile and a wink and say, ‘Two hands can get this job done faster than one.’ He loved Cilla’s as much as I did.”
Each Sunday, Bob picked up his 89-year-old mother, Pat, and brought her to Cilla’s for lunch. The regulars got to know both of them, although they may not have been aware how instrumental Bob was to the coffeehouse’s success. He never left the restaurant without saying goodbye to each staff member.
The restaurant’s most popular sandwich, the “Bobwich,” a bagel with cream cheese and bacon, was named for Bob. He also enjoyed Cilla’s French roast coffee and Chai tea, often with a scone.
Bob and Mary Ellen would often joke that they should write a book together because of the craziness of their lives—between them they had 6 children, two separate homes, and two businesses. In 2019, at the urging of their children, Bob and Mary Ellen sold their houses and bought their first home together, in Norfolk. They had been a couple for thirteen years.
Three months later, Bob was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. Facing an uncertain future, Bob asked Mary Ellen to try and keep the coffeehouse up and running, even if the time came when he couldn’t help her anymore.
“I served coffee with a broken heart for over a year and did not miss a day’s work. His request kept me going,” she said. 
Mary Ellen, with the support of Bob’s children and her own family, cared for Bob at home as long as she could before moving him to Avita of Needham, a memory care facility. She visited him almost daily, and even when his memory started failing, he’d ask Mary Ellen during her visits, “How were your numbers today?” Moments like that, when Bob would have a clear thought, sustained her. 
“One day he yelled after me, ‘I don’t know who you are but I know you’re somebody I love and trust. I’m just going to keep loving you until I can’t,’” Mary Ellen shared. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
Mary Ellen keeps a photo of Bob in her shop. While her brother was the primary investor for Cilla’s Coffeehouse, there would be no Cilla’s without Bob. 
“When he got sick, Bob said to me, ‘When you write that book will you make sure my death isn’t a sad ending? I don’t want our book to end in a sad way,’” said Mary Ellen. “And so even in my darkest days, I am really trying to take that sorrow and turn it around to gratitude because not everyone meets a Bob the second time around. That’s what I focus on, how lucky I was to have this man in my life. He helped me fulfill my dream of opening a coffeeshop and ended up loving it as much as I do.”
Bob Volpicelli left behind his two children, Corey and Marissa; Mary Ellen, and her children Ashleen, Mike, Ben, and Nattie, son-in-law Kyle, and a new grandson, who arrived two weeks before Bob passed away.