East Rockaway remembers legacy of ‘Mr. Rock Rivalry’

Former students celebrate beloved teacher Martin Severino

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Longtime teacher Martin Severino had no children of his own, but he was a father figure to many of his “adopted” students at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. Many of them kept in touch with him long after their school days, and some even took care of him after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in January.

Severino died on March 30, at age 81, of a heart attack brought on by the cancer. He is indelibly etched in the memories of many of his former students, they say.

“He’s basically a part of my extended family,” said Chris Brande, a 1979 East Rockaway High graduate who had Severino as an English teacher in 1973. “So the introduction came when he was a teacher, but it blossomed into so much more.”

Severino, affectionately nicknamed “Sev” by his students, taught English at East Rockaway for more than 30 years until he retired in 1992. As a teacher, he encouraged his students to expand their vocabulary, regularly using words such as loquacious and erudite, and he worked to ensure that they succeeded in their studies.

His efforts paid off, as John Morano, who was in Severino’s class in 1978, became a film critic, a published author and eventually a journalism professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey. One of his books, a textbook for aspiring film critics entitled “Don’t Tell Me the Ending,” is dedicated to Severino.

“All of this was directly due to him,” Morano said. “He was one of the most giving people that I’ve known, and when I say what he’s done for me, he’s done it for countless other people as well.”

Severino also served as the honor society and drama club adviser. In that role, he took many students to see their first Broadway shows. “He brought theater into all our lives,” said Peter Rapanaro, a class of 1981 alumnus who is now a professional singer. “Marty put so many of us on the road to our careers.” Rapanaro said that over time he became best friends with Severino.

Those who did not have Severino as an English teacher knew him as Mr. Rock Rivalry, because he served for many years as the adviser for the annual event, which pits grade levels against one another each March in a friendly competition for which they perform skits and songs. The Silver Cup that the winning class receives each year was named in his honor. “He didn’t miss a Rock Rivalry ever until this year, when he got sick,” Rapanaro said.

Severino even helped a number of students prepare for the competition. “He helped my class with his attention to detail with his writing and performing our class play,” said Rich Cirillo, who graduated in 1985. “It helped our class win the contest two years in a row in our junior and senior year.”

In honor of Severino’s dedication, the school’s Alumni Association announced on March 31 that it would establish a scholarship in his name. A GoFundMe page was also set up by Rapanaro to help defray funeral expenses, and donations are still being accepted at gofundme.com/sevs-assistance-fund.

After he retired in 1992, Severino moved to New York City, where he taught at La Scuola d’Italia Guglielmo Marconi, a private school for those who speak Italian. He returned to Long Island in 1998, and Michaelene Abbott-Cooper, a student of his in 1986, said she helped him find an apartment near the train station and the high school so he could continue to substitute-teach there, as well as at Lynbrook, Lawrence and Oceanside high schools.

Abbott-Cooper said that Severino spent most days of his retirement lazing on the steps of St. Raymond’s Church, where she would see him on her daily walks around the neighborhood. She recounted that she would stop and reminisce or share a few books with him. Severino also frequented the Malverne Cinema two or three times a week, according to Rapanaro.

A funeral was held for Severino on April 7, during which Rapanaro sang and Morano delivered the eulogy, detailing the influence Severino had on his career.

Morano also shared a story about how Severino met one of Morano’s journalism students at an airport in London. Severino called Morano afterward.

“’You changed that young man’s life,’” Morano recalled Severino saying.

“‘I didn’t give him any of that — you did,’” Morano replied, “’because you gave that all to me.’”