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Wayne Mosley

Wayne Mosley, co-founder of the Rocky Rococo pizza chain, which has endured in Madison for 43 years, died Tuesday.

Pizza visionary Wayne Mosley, co-founder of Rocky Rococo pan-style pizza, which has endured in Madison for 43 years, died Tuesday.

Mosley, 70, died in his town of Middleton home, said Mosley’s daughter, Jessi Mosley, 30, who returned Tuesday from a monthlong backpacking trip in Thailand to find her father.

The cause of death was likely cardiac-related, she said.

“I’m an only child and I was very close to my dad,” Jessi Mosley said. “He’s my best friend and probably the person I’m closest to in the whole world. This has been a big shock.”

Mosley’s longtime business partner, Roger Brown, also expressed shock. “It’s quite unexpected,” he said.

Brown met Mosley in college at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, when Brown was an undergraduate and Mosley was in law school.

The idea for Rocky’s was formulated while Mosley was in law school. At the time, he was a regular customer of Garcia’s Pizza in a Pan, where Brown was working.

Mosley passed the Illinois bar and could have have gone into law, his partner said, but he wanted to pursue his dream of starting a pizza business. He knew Brown through a mutual friend and recruited him.

“I didn’t have anything better to do and he was so enthusiastic about his vision of what this could be, and I got caught up in it,” Brown said.

Mosley brought Brown in and made him an equal partner, for which Brown is “eternally grateful.” He credits Mosley for everything he has, especially since he met his wife through Rocky’s.

Pan-style pizza was just starting to emerge from Chicago, and Mosley saw its potential. “We grew up on it, but the rest of the country hadn’t really had it available,” Brown said.

A five-state Midwest area that included Wisconsin was really the strongest pizza market in the nation, “so a lot of stars really lined up,” he said.

Mosley realized that Rocky’s could be a sit-down restaurant and also sell grab-and-go slices like on the East Coast.

“It just needed someone to get it organized and do it well. That was his insight,” Brown said. “He was just a born restaurant guy, but his family wanted him to be a lawyer.”

Mosley’s legal background really helped the business, too, Brown added.

The two men wanted to open their pizza place on another Big Ten campus, borrowing what they liked about Garcia’s. The decision was between Madison and East Lansing, Michigan, and they settled on a Madison location on Gilman Street just off State Street.

Hashing out names on the drive between Chicago and Madison, they came up with Rocky Rococo — the name of a character on an album by the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe. They almost called it The Pizza Factory.

The partners also created a Rocky’s pizza character who became the public face of the business for 40 years — a tough-talking gangster who was in fact a pizza-loving softie. That figure in the white jacket, round-rimmed sunglasses and fedora became a Madison icon. And the man who played him, Jim Pederson, died last year at 68.

Mosley, Brown and Pederson had some fun with their early TV spots. One had Rocky dressed in medical garb, saying, “Nine out of 10 doctors recommend my pizza and the tenth ain’t recommending nothin’ no more.”

Gilman Street gradually took off, but the big development came in 1975 when the partners found a more visible State Street location near Lake Street. Franchising came later.

The company would eventually expand to more than 120 restaurants across the nation. In 1988, Mosley and Brown sold the rights to the company brand to their minority partners.

At the time of Mosley’s death, he and Brown owned seven Madison-area Rockys and three in La Crosse. An additional partner is involved in the La Crosse operations.

Jessi Mosley, a former Epic employee who is writing a book about finance for millennials, said her father was someone who cared about people. “The thing he loved most about Rocky's was just making people happy.”

Wayne Mosley and Jessi’s mother, Patricia Keller, divorced when Jessi was 7, but had effectively been back together since she was 13. They were in the process of remarrying, Jessi Mosley said.

Mosley is also survived by his brother, Brian Mosley, and sister Stefanie Darbyshire. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.