Having used the GI Bill to hone his skills at a Chicago meat-cutting school, Buddy Roche returned to Boston and got a job in a First National grocery store, but it was not enough.
He became a salesman for a spice company until a summer night in 1952 when he drove home through Roslindale Square and noticed that a Singer sewing machine store was moving out. He and his younger brother Pat each put $25 into a bank account and called themselves Roche Brothers. Their father and stepmother took out a second mortgage on the family’s three-decker in Roslindale to cover the cost of opening that first Roche Brothers grocery store.
“Twelve weeks later, we were in business,” Buddy Roche told the Globe in 2002, a few weeks before the chain of neighborhood supermarkets that grew from that first venture celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Mr. Roche, whose success allowed him to become a philanthropic patron of schools and various other nonprofits that touched his life, died Wednesday of complications of cancer in Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care in Cambridge. He was 85 and divided his time between Marco Island, Fla., and his longtime home in Needham, which he called his lucky town.
With his wife, Eileen, or with his brother Pat, Mr. Roche gave away millions of dollars to recipients that including Sacred Heart School and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Roslindale, the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, the Boston Irish Famine Memorial, scholarships for students at Stonehill College in Easton, the Charles River Center for people with developmental disabilities, and the community ice rink arena in West Roxbury, which the brothers named for their late brother, Jim.
Mr. Roche was more willing to allow the name of his late brother to adorn a building than to publicize his own name. He preferred to keep his philanthropy low key.
“If he gave away money, he was the kind of guy who’d say: ‘What’s it going to do? Tell me how you’re going to use this and what it’s going to accomplish,’ ” said his son Jay of Needham.
When the Blizzard of 1978 sent shivering Needham residents to shelters, Mr. Roche opened up a Roche Brothers supermarket to rescue workers. “Take what you need,” he told a firefighter. “Those people are scared and cold, and pretty soon they’re going to be starved.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Roche “would never boast, he would never give you a laundry list of what he did,” Jay added. “He was still the guy from Roslindale, still the meat cutter, still the guy on the corner. Every time I was with him, he’d say, ‘I’m so thankful. I’m so grateful I fell in love with a meat cleaver.’ ”
Mr. Roche’s style behind the meat counter contributed to the brothers making a go of their first store. To help ensure loyalty, he kept a list of customers handy so he could greet everyone by name.
His personal drive was also crucial to the success of the chain’s offshoots, such as Sudbury Farms and Hans Kissle salad products. Today, Roche Brothers, based in Wellesley, has 18 supermarkets and 4,600 workers.
“He had a sense of will that was so strong that he would say, ‘This is what we’re going do,’ ” his son said. “It could be family or it could be business; nothing was going to stop him.”
Daniel Francis Roche grew up in Roslindale, the second of four sons born to Patrick J. Roche and the former Cis Collins. An immigrant from County Cork in Ireland, Patrick was a crane operator in Boston’s railroad yards.
The family gave Daniel the nickname Buddy when he was young, for reasons that have faded from everyone’s memory.
He was 10 when his mother died. A few years later, his father married Elsie Nagel. “She was my best friend and most steadfast supporter,” Mr. Roche would tell his family. “She was a true blessing.’’
In 2002, Mr. Roche told the Globe he was “booted out” of Boston Latin School after two years and then went to English High School. He left English after a year to join the Marines and was a sergeant stationed in China when the school mailed him a diploma.
His brother Pat, who died in May 2012, told the Globe that opening the Roslindale store was Buddy’s idea.
Despite putting in 100-hour weeks, they had a little free time after closing in the afternoon Saturday and taking Sunday off. While visiting friends on Cape Cod, Buddy Roche met Eileen Patricia Sullivan of West Roxbury, whose family was also from County Kerry in Ireland. Once again, his determination charted the course.
“As my mother said, ‘Your father, when he wanted something, he went after it, and he wanted me,’” their son Jay said.
Mr. Roche married Eileen on June 16, 1957. They moved in 1966 to Needham, which also became a beneficiary of his philanthropy.
In 1987, Patty, the third of four children, died of brain cancer in her mid-20s. In her memory, the Roches raised about $1 million for brain tumor research and funded dozens of scholarships at Stonehill College, which Patty had attended.
“After losing his mother at 10 and then losing my sister, I don’t think he ever got over that,” Jay said. “He adored her. He loved her. That was a tragedy that always left a hole.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Roche leaves another son, Daniel Jr. of New York City; a daughter, Brenda of Dover; a brother, Jack, who is a Columban father in Bristol, R.I.; and three grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. Joseph Church in Needham. Burial with military honors will be in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
The Food Industry Hall of Fame’s webpage honoring Buddy and Pat Roche and the business said Roche Brothers “is like having several specialty stores within one store. The common denominators are freshness and quality products.”
Service also was a key factor. Mr. Roche officially retired in 1998, but he attended each opening as the chain grew, and he liked to walk through the aisles of stores, ensuring that everything was as close to perfect as possible.
“He always said, ‘No matter what you do, it’s always the customers. Don’t lose sight of the customers,’ ” his son Jay said. “He took so much pride in what he built. You could take him out of the store, but you couldn’t take the store out of him.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@ globe.com.