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Despite rocky journey through life, Paul Pierce touched many

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Despite rocky journey through life, Paul Pierce touched many
Despite rocky journey through life, Paul Pierce touched many

Paul Pierce's nickname was Rocky, and it perfectly described the road he traveled through life.

He was charismatic and funny, smart and athletic. He had three passions in life: his son and the ocean were two of them.

Alcohol was the other.

Pierce died Sept. 11 of a methadone overdose. He was 46.

His obituary, which ran Sept. 17, didn't mention the overdose, but didn't hide the truth, either. Pierce died at his home, it said, "after many years of a fierce battle with alcoholism and addictions."

"Many years" turns out to be 30 - Pierce started drinking at age 16 - and Loryn Zerr decided to include the information as a wakeup call to others in similar situations.

"That's my hope," says Zerr, mother of Pierce's 11-year-old son. "And I really think Rocky would want that, too."

"He had all the promise in the world," says his stepfather, Russ White of Billings. "He was charismatic, he was handsome, he was intelligent, he got along great with people."

But he started drinking as a teenager.

"He had the genes for it," White says. "His dad was an alcoholic. Alcohol got him going in bad directions."

Pierce dropped out of high school and took a job as a roofer. His sense of adventure took him all over the map, and his love of the ocean often landed him near the water, in Florida, California, Hawaii or the Virgin Islands, where he ran a small fishing and sailboat rental company at St. John.

He and Zerr, who met in Colorado in 1978, moved to Missoula in 1994, where Zerr had a sister.

"He was this big, strong, macho guy, but he had no fear of saying 'I love you' to friends, to family," White says. "He was quite disarming that way."

But he couldn't control the boozing, which made him much more difficult to deal with. Zerr ended their 16-year relationship shortly after Jack was born. She has since married.

The birth of his son changed Pierce's life dramatically.

But not completely.

"Jack made him realize he needed to settle down and be more responsible," White says. "But he never could shake the drinking. He'd be sober for a while, but he always went back to it."

During his sober stretches, Pierce actually ran marathons and worked out with weights.

"He stayed in amazing shape for someone who abused his body the way he did," White says. "He was a complex person. It was amazing he lasted as long as he did. He had near-death experiences many times, both in doing dangerous things while he was drinking, and just in the amount he drank."

"Jack gave him new hope for living, a reason to keep fighting the battle," Zerr says. "He tried so much harder. But I don't know if you could say he was more successful. I think alcoholism is a progressive disease, and it gets harder to beat every time you get back into it."

She was 18 when they met, a couple of years younger than Pierce, and partied by his side in those days, she says.

"But the rest of us grew out of it," Zerr says. "Rocky never did."

After Jack's birth, Pierce tried.

"When he wasn't drinking, he was the most enjoyable, fun guy to be around," says White, who married Rocky's mother 26 years ago. "He was hilarious. He could do all these accents and voices, he could make anyone laugh."

"He was strong, very charismatic, a great storyteller," Zerr says. "He was a good person. He meant well. He cared about the underdog."

Asked to tell a positive story, White starts out, "Rocky was in jail for about six months - I know that doesn't make this sound positive, but it is - in California back when he was around 25."

One day Pierce entered the bathroom of the minimum-security prison, and found a gang about to attack another inmate.

"Rocky got in between them and told the gang, 'You want to beat him up you're going to have to deal with me first,' " White says. "He had no fear. He'd stand right up for anybody who was being victimized. He was the kind of guy you wanted as your friend when you were a kid, because if Rocky was your friend, you knew he wouldn't let anybody pick on you."

Pierce wandered in and out of his son's life in rhythm with his drinking spells, and Zerr and Jack's stepfather would join Rocky and Jack for a day at a park, or a dinner in a restaurant, when he was sober.

No matter what, Pierce always called his son twice a day.

"He really loved him," Zerr says.

Rocky's body was cremated. Last weekend Zerr, her husband and Jack drove to Billings, where they and Rocky's family spread his ashes on the Yellowstone River.

"So he can make it back to the ocean," Zerr says.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 523-5260 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com

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