Dr. Ralph M. Isola was a warm, compassionate man who connected easily with patients and celebrated his Italian heritage.
He grew up speaking Italian at home and with friends in a tight Italian American neighborhood in Roseville. During World War II, he served as an interpreter for Italian prisoners of war.
“He was just a kid, 18 or 19, and he spoke their language,” his wife, Concetta Jo, said about the Italian POWs. “They loved him. He even ate with them, because the Italian food was better.”
A longtime Sacramento ophthalmologist, Dr. Isola died June 12 of pneumonia, his wife said. He was 88.
He practiced medicine for almost four decades in east Sacramento, starting in 1963, and spent 25 years as an associate professor of surgery in ophthalmology at UC Davis School of Medicine. Fluent in Spanish, he joined a volunteer group of doctors and nurses who traveled to Mexico to perform eye surgery for poor residents in Campeche.
Before taking Spanish classes in college, he learned Italian from his immigrant parents, Angelo and Angelina Isola, a railroad worker and housewife who raised vegetables, chickens and rabbits to feed their two boys. Born April 17, 1926, in Sacramento, Dr. Isola worked as a boy during the Great Depression to support his family and sold rabbit skins to buy a bicycle.
He joined the Army after graduating from Roseville High School and was injured during maneuvers at the Battle of the Bulge. After working in a POW camp, he was in a joint Army-Navy group assigned to the United Nations in San Francisco.
He graduated from Sacramento City College and California State University, Sacramento, on the GI Bill and taught chemistry at McClellan Air Force Base. He graduated from Los Angeles College of Optometry, earned a medical degree from University of California, Irvine, and completed an ophthalmology residency at Los Angeles County Hospital.
Besides serving as president of the Dante Club, Dr. Isola was active in many Italian American groups, including the Tuscany Club and the Sons of Italy. He traveled many times to visit relatives in Italy and was honored with a gold medal from the city of Lucca for his accomplishments as a first-generation Italian American.
After retiring from medicine in 1999, he devoted himself to cooking osso buco, ravioli, tortellini and other favorite Italian dishes that he learned from his mother.
“He loved to read cook books,” his wife said. “I’d ask him, ‘Did you read your medical journals?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, but I really want to read recipes.’ ”
Dr. Isola’s son Joseph died in 1983. In addition to his wife of 58 years, he is survived by another son, Ralph; two daughters, Angela and Mariann; and eight grandchildren.
Services include a viewing from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday , a vigil service at 7 p.m., and a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Saturday, all at St. Mary Catholic Church, 1333 58th St., Sacramento. Donations may be made to Society for the Blind, 1238 S St., Sacramento; or Mercy Foundation, 3400 Data Drive, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.