A Life of Bread and Marshmallows

A Life of Bread and Marshmallows

By Therese Vaughn

“Give us this day our daily bread,” the Lord’s Prayer asks simply. As Holy Eucharist, as staff of life, as game-day meatball hoagie sandwiches, bread brings people together.

Louis Rotella III, BSBA’96, JD’00, understands the sacred substance and ordinary business of bread. An executive at Rotella’s Italian Bakery Inc., in Omaha, proud father of three and champion for children with disabilities, Rotella’s life profile is that of the family craftsman in the tradition of St. Joseph.

The Creighton graduate comes from five generations of master bakers. Back in 19th century Calabria, Italy, Rotella’s great-grandparents furnished villagers with hearty handcrafted loaves fresh from wood-fired ovens. Today, the family bakery provides 400 different varieties of bread to restaurants, stores and businesses across the nation.

Yet, while bread is called “the staff of life,” it is also said that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

God’s word became real the moment Rotella and his wife, Jill, saw the face of their firstborn child. Louis IV — “a name fit for a king,” as his dad says — was born with Down syndrome in 2000. It took little time for Rotella to learn that raising a child with special needs can bring more tenderness, wonder and joy than struggle.

To share this precious discovery with the world, Rotella wrote a children’s book about his “wise and funny sage (and son).” Published in 2010, The Little King and His Marshmallow Kingdom tells the delightful illustrated story of King Louis the IV, who reigns over a whimsical land where marshmallows are the daily bread, “normal” is overrated and everybody has different yet wondrous gifts to contribute.

Honoring difference in a society that values uniformity isn’t the easy thing, but far worth it, according to Rotella. Like many people with special needs, Louis IV’s worldview isn’t as clogged by the filters accumulated through language and cognitive patterning. His “beginner’s mind” opens to life more in the moment, which is the only place where life’s magic and mystery are possible.

For a culture afflicted by the pressures to compete and conform, “this book is my way of sending an alternative message, one that encourages children to be themselves with confidence, eccentricities and all,” Rotella said.

Earning gold in the Mom’s Choice Awards and Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, the book continues to draw exuberant praise from parents, educators, special needs organizations and kids worldwide.

At the end of Little King, Rotella presents a moving glimpse into his own personal journey. Like most fathers expecting his first son, he had dreamed of an all-star athlete on the field, but years later watching his son play soccer, running in the slowest possible motion on purpose, beaming happily in the sunshine, he imagines what advice he would offer to his younger self at the moment he first realized that his firstborn would have Down syndrome.

“I’d have told him that no, [his dreams] wouldn’t be exactly what he envisioned. But, in ways he couldn’t understand yet, they’d be better: Richer, more interesting. Often, they’d be hilarious,” he wrote.

Laughter in the Rotella household is just as much a mainstay as bread on the table. For example, when Louis IV first heard the congregation sing “Hallelujah” at Mass, he was convinced they were singing, “Hah-Ley-Louis.”

Besides being the star of his dad’s book, Louis IV is also a 2016 ambassador for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GDSF). He and his family helped to kick off the 2016 Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, held Nov. 12 in Denver, one of the largest and most successful fundraisers for the chromosomal condition, which affects one in every 800 babies annually.

From a century-old family bread business to a spontaneous marshmallow kingdom, Rotella’s story celebrates the sacredness possible in the everyday hours of life. This is what is meant by the Jesuit spirit of ad majorem Dei gloriam, or living for the greater glory of God.

Like the yeast that gives rise to bread, Rotella’s experience at Creighton quickened his values of faith and fortitude. “Not only did I receive a fantastic education, but I was prepared to find God in every circumstance and in all of creation,” he said.