Maritime Exchange President Dennis Rochford dies at 73
WILMINGTON — Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay and prominent political operator, died on July 31 at age 73, according to colleagues.
As head of the top trade association for ports in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Rochford was celebrated as a man that was able to work with federal and state leaders to see the Delaware River port industry succeed.
“Dennis’ passing marks the end of an era for the Maritime Exchange, as he provided the vision and direction for our nonprofit for the past three decades. His reach was tremendous, and it is felt not only in Delaware but across the country. We will miss him greatly,” Maritime Executive Vice President Lisa Himber told the Delaware Business Times. Himber is serving as acting president of the Maritime Exchange.
Among his friends in the First State, Rochford was well known for his contemplative attitude about the world, his enthusiasm for politics and his ability to talk philosophically with anyone who crossed his path.
“He was a gentleman in a rough-and-tumble business,” said Joe Farley, a former Democratic State Party chairman and longtime friend of Rochford. “He was a person you could easily talk about public policy and big issues with, and he had respect for everyone and their opinion. He was a gentle soul.”
Rochford was a native of Delaware County, Pa., and graduated from LaSalle College through the ROTC program. After serving as a captain in command and general staff positions in the U.S. Army in Germany and Vietnam, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Temple University.
After receiving his master’s degree, Rochford started his career with the chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas Company. He eventually worked his way up to manager positions.
But at the same time, Rochford worked to hone his political skills which served him well in the First State. He was elected to the Delaware County Council (formerly the county commissioners) in 1977, and later launched a bid for Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district. He won the 1980 primary but ultimately lost to incumbent Rep. Robert Edgar.
Eventually, Rochford parlayed his political acumen to Delaware and served as the chief of staff for then-New Castle County Executive Rita Justice in 1984. His talents did not go unnoticed, as state GOP leaders tapped him to run Gov. Pete du Pont’s presidential campaign in the 1988 Iowa Caucus.
“That tells you all you needed to know about Denny. He had such considerable skills, and was a terrific political operator. When he was asked to go to Iowa, he said he needed a minute, but then called back and was quick to say yes,” said Bob Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable, a former du Pont chief of staff and longtime friend of Rochford. “When he believed strongly in something, he was all in.”
That same year, Rochford joined the Maritime Exchange and was charged with developing what became the TRACS cargo manifesting and release system – a port-wide IT system designed to work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection cargo and inventory system. The tool is used by nearly 400 maritime industry professionals throughout the Delaware River region and the world.
Rochford worked to meet that mandate in a way that echoed his relationships built in the political arena and would set the tone of his leadership in the maritime sector: he brought key players to the table to find the best path forward.
“He was so connected, he was always in a meeting or having dinner with someone but he was also able to solve problems on its merits,” Perkins said. “He would need to get involved with governors and elected officials, no matter what party, from all three states. It was about getting things done, and he was able to approach that work with honesty and integrity.”
The Maritime Exchange Board of Directors selected Rochford as its next president in 1994 after previous president William Harrison retired. In the 27 years since, he led the not-for-profit association through challenges and successes. Among his many professional achievements was his persistent efforts to see the Delaware River’s main channel deepened to 45 feet, successfully fighting for funding for the project.
Through his trademark approachability, Rochford kept open the lines of communication between members of Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers and port stakeholders to get the job done. The $400 million project was finally completed in 2020 after 10 contracts and multiple rounds of dredging and rock removal.
“He was a champion for the maritime and trade community along the Delaware River, and was a good friend to the Port of Wilmington,” CEO of GT USA Wilmington Eric Casey said in a statement. “He was a kind and thoughtful man who would go out of his way to help with any issue, business or community and we will miss his counsel. We extend our condolences to his family and all the people and businesses that Dennis influenced with his understated, yet powerful way of being.”
The Maritime Exchange team will also remember him for his “raise-each-other-up” mentality for his staff. Himber first crossed paths with Rochford as they both worked for the du Pont campaign, and when that office closed, he tapped her for a position.
“He was an amazing mentor and he was supportive to all his staff, in times of success and times of failure. He gave them what they needed to succeed, and when there were failures, he helped understand what went wrong and how to correct them,” Himber said. “Working with him in the 1990s, when there weren’t a lot of women in leadership positions, he was phenomenal to work with.”
Rochford’s passion for politics also helped him and the Maritime Exchange reach new heights. At the beginning of each Congressional session, he could be seen walking the halls of the Capitol Hill with paper in hand, stopping to meet with staff members to lobby for the association. He ran for Delaware lieutenant governor in 2000, but lost to now-Gov. John Carney. He leveraged his political insight and business savvy as a regular panelist for PBS show “Delaware Tonight” for 11 years.
“He was quite a humble person. He’d chat with anyone about anything, and he’d learn something from you and you’d learn something from him. I think he just really loved talking with everyone,” Perkins said. “He was the kind of person you wanted in office.”
In his spare time, Rochford enjoyed reading biographies, traveling, and serving on the board of directors of the World Trade Center Delaware, where he volunteered as a speaker. He also served on the Delaware Health Care Commission, and on the board of directors for the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce; the World Trade Association of Philadelphia; the Delaware Public Media and several others during his time. He was also a founding member and past president of the National Association of Maritime Organizations. He also donated to the Saint Patrick’s Society on a regular basis.
“He was extremely generous with his time and loaned his expertise when he could, and you always learned something from him,” World Trade Center Delaware President Carla Stone said. “He was always volunteering his time and he was a man of many gifts.”
A funeral will be held for Rochford on Aug. 9 at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Springfield, Pa.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to show that Rochford served on the board of directors of the World Trade Center of Delaware.