From showing compassion for faculty and students who had just lost their principal to disciplining and setting teenagers straight, Patrick Pizzarelli has mixed faith and tough love in an educational career that spanned 39 years, 23½ of which were in the Lawrence School District.
Pizzarelli, 60, the Lawrence director of health, physical education and athletics since 1992 and an assistant superintendent for student and community affairs for the past three years, is retiring on July 31.
Starting out as a substitute teacher in Connecticut, Pizzarelli built a resume that included coaching football at both the high school and college levels, establishing lacrosse programs in the Lawrence and Plainedge districts and being recognized nationally — as a finalist for Athletic Director of the Year in 2009 — and statewide — by winning a State Award of Merit in 2010 — as one of the best in his field.
“I guess I have a pretty calming way,” Pizzarelli said as he kicked back in his office, which is cluttered with years’ worth of memorabilia, and recalled how he helped grieving administrators, teachers and students deal with the death of beloved Number Two School Principal Joe Miller in 1995. “I got a call from [then Lawrence Superintendent] Stu Weinberger on a Sunday, and he said Joe Miller died. I was only here a few years. I went to the school on Monday; everyone was in a daze. I hugged teachers. I hugged students.”
“Pat helped the school heal during this time of loss,” said current Superintendent Gary Schall. A year later, Pizzarelli became principal of the Number Five School under less dramatic circumstances, after the retirement of Sab Caponi.
In his role as assistant superintendent, Pizzarelli conducts the hearings when students who have broken school rules need to be disciplined. “I talk to the kids,” he said. “All kids make mistakes, and some are serious, but I see the good in most people, and see what they’re going through. It was how I was brought up. My dad was tough, but there was love there.”
Impact of a role model
Patrick’s uncle Pete Pizzarelli, a phys. ed. teacher and football coach at Copiague High School, made an impression on his young nephew. “I was 7 or 8, [and] my dad took us to his games,” he recalled. “My brother John and I started tagging around with him. When I was older, I got to know Uncle Pete as an adult.”
Pizzarelli played youth football for the Massapequa Mustangs and in high school, splitting his four years between St. John the Baptist, in West Islip, and Massapequa High. He also played football and lacrosse at Southern Connecticut State College, now Southern Connecticut State University, where he earned a degreein phys. ed. and driver education.
He coached football at Plainedge, Wagner College and Daniel Had High School in Connecticut. “Athletics teaches kids about life lessons, setting goals, the common good and being a good citizen,” Pizzarelli said in stressing the importance of such programs. “We’ve been successful here,” he added, referring to the Lawrence football program’s three recent Long Island championships.
“But as a whole,” he said, “people would say we’ve got great kids.” He pointed with pride to the 2009-10 county sportsmanship award, won by the district’s varsity sports teams. That was the last year it was given out, he said.
A calming influence
Patrick is the younger brother of the Rev. Francis Pizzarelli, and his Christian values have not only shaped his view of the world, but came in handy as Lawrence underwent a shift from a mainly secular Jewish Board of Education to one dominated by Orthodox Jews. “I couldn’t understand it — Jew versus Jew,” Pizzarelli said. He also couldn’t believe the vitriol from a trustee and a district resident who opposed the changing face of the board more than a decade ago.
“Through some very rough times, you were the glue that held us together,” Trustee Dr. David Sussman, the lone secular Jew on the current seven-member board, told Pizzarelli at the July 7 board meeting.
“He is never reluctant to get actively involved,” said Section VIII Executive Director Nina Van Erk, who has worked with Pizzarelli for the past 15 years. Section VIII is the governing body of school sports in Nassau County. “He is a visionary, thoughtful, and is always guided by doing what is right,” Van Erk said.
Nearly 20 years ago, Inwood native Kathleen Martilotti told Pizzarelli that her son, Joe, was having difficulty adjusting to college and thinking of coming home. “I told her have him come see me,” Pizzarelli recounted. Not only did he straighten Joe out, but he promised him that if he got a degree, Pizzarelli would hire him.
Martilotti served as an assistant coach before replacing Lou Andre as head coach in 2010. Now the 1995 Lawrence High School graduate, who has led the Golden Tornadoes to three consecutive Long Island Class III crowns will more than likely be tapped to fill the shoes of his current boss.
“We are prepared to offer the job as coordinator of health, physical education and athletics to Joe Martilotti,” Schall said. “Everyone is excited. The secret to Joe’s success is he is a kids person first, as is Pat Pizzarelli.” Martilotti is expected to continue as the head football coach.
As he shifts into retirement, Pizzarelli said he would be available to help Martilotti, and would remain involved in Section VIII football. He is also playing a major role in the recently established Nassau Sports Hall of Fame. “I’ll be available for advice and do what’s best for the kids,” he said.