The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education recently honored several teachers and faculty members who will be retiring at the end of this school year. Current and former co-workers lauded the retirees in remarks to the audience.
Judith Cohen attended Columbia High School before her career as a student assistance counselor there. Scott White, who has been working with her for the past year or so but feels as if he “knew her a lifetime,” spoke about how she made him feel incredibly and immediately welcome at CHS. “Judy Cohen is not a name…It is an adjective,” said White. “It is a lifestyle. It is who you are and what you do. To him, she exemplifies responsibility and taking care of people. “I’ve come across a number of professionals, but none ever like Judy” who is said is “instantly compassionate and caring, and treats every child she comes across as her own.”
Ken Mullen considered himself “the luckiest presenter” to be able to speak about Viola DeLuca, a retiring Phys. Ed. And Health teacher at Columbia who he said carries a true “passion for her profession.” DeLuca’s career at CHS spanned over 30 years, during which she was instrumental in implementing the Project Adventure program, and was among the only women to be trained in its induction. DeLuca also served as a trainer and a coach. Mullen said DeLuca is guided by several “F words: family, faith, friends, focus on future,” firmness and fairness. “May your retirement be as prosperous as your career was.” DeLuca told the audience that signing her contract at CHS was “probably the best decision I ever made.”
Beth Giladi, a Maplewood Middle School guidance counselor, was honored by assistant principal Louis Brown. “Too many of our students, it’s a miracle that they get to school every day,” Brown explained. “And for those students, Beth is a source of safety and support, that helps them not only get there but deal with school for the whole day.” Many students wrote Giladi letters and drew her pictures upon leaving MMS. She has also been a source of safety for the staff. “If I knew someone who’s having a hard time,” said Mr. Brown, “I’d say [to her], go check out so-and-so…She would reach out to the people, and people would flock to her for advice.” Giladi praised MMS, saying that “the staff is bottomless” and expressing her love for Maplewood’s families. “I just feel very blessed,” she said. “So thank you all.”
The presentation for John Gregory, a South Orange Middle School teacher, was both impromptu and heartfelt, and was given by Board of Education member Johanna Wright. Wright spoke of Gregory’s walk, and the way he “brought excellence to South Orange Middle School.” “He is a diamond in a sea of glass,” Wright waxed, “he is a motivator, an innovator. He may be imitated, but never duplicated…We are going to sorely miss [him] in the hallowed halls of South Orange Middle School.” She lauded him as a role model for students, especially African-American males, and thanked him for his work. “You are truly welcome,” Gregory responded. “It has been an honor and a privilege to work for the South Orange-Maplewood school district, and I will miss it dearly.”
Dr. John Jeffries could not be present at the meeting, but was praised by Mr. Terry Wollard as “brilliant…he could do anything.” Wollard said Dr. Jeffries truly loved Columbia, and despite his intellect, was also humble: “It was a wonderful experience just learning from him.”
Marie “Toni” Martinez taught Phys. Ed. in the district for many years, finishing her career up at Seth Boyden Elementary. Her colleague, Sheila Murphy, sang Martinez’s praises, describing her as a “loving, principled force of nature” and “unstoppable” in her belief “that you can, and you will.” As an elementary school gym teacher, Martinez brought a new spark to Phys. Ed. classes and field days. But perhaps most inspiring was her impact on Murphy’s own son Nate, who has cerebral palsy. When he was a student at Columbia, Nate took golf with Martinez as an instructor. But “far more important than the golf,” Murphy explained, “was the way [she] eased his anxiety, and helped him fit in,” a gift that Martinez continued to give to her elementary school students each day with her joyful manner.
Though Lori Simandl has been in the district for some time, she only taught at Jefferson Elementary for a short while. Nevertheless, Jefferson principal Kim Hutchinson asserted that Simandl “never skipped a beat.” Simandl was always well-planned and prepared, but Hutchinson believed the best example of these qualities came in unusual circumstances. The elementary school principal described an “incident” this school year in which a bat was flying around Simandl’s classroom. She had clustered with most of her class in the hallway, but upon counting her students and realizing some had run into the coatroom instead, Simandl asked Hutchinson to keep an eye on her fourth graders. The teacher then ran into the classroom to get the remaining students, leaving no child behind. It was “such an intangible moment,” Hutchinson recanted, to see a teacher do everything right amidst chaos and was indicitive of Simandl’s character. “She has led, protected, and cared,” Hutchinson said. “Lori was born to do this work.”
Cynthia Vengraitis, a first-grade teacher at Tuscan Elementary, was praised by Tuscan principal Malikah Majeed for the ways in which she has cultivated a passion for her subjects. Vengraitis has also fostered her students’ personal power, allowing them to tap into their own strengths and providing individualized instruction. She showed first graders how to get people to talk, played classical music during independent writing, and taught in a way that Majeed found singular. “You have inspired your students to become prolific writers and listeners,” the principal told Vengraitis, lauding the way she personalized the learning experience. Majeed also commented on Vengraitis’s leadership among the staff, calling her a “true professional.”
The final honoree, CHS coach and teacher Jerry Paradiso, could not be present at Monday’s meeting. Board member Wright, a former CHS basketball coach, spoke of how, her co-coach had once prepped their basketball players for the SAT. He ensured struggling kids had help, and eventually returned to school to earn a master’s degree in special education, where he spent the last 15 years of his CHS career. “You only had to know Mr. P. to love Mr. P.,” Wright said.
Wright asked people to continue to pray for Paradiso, who is battling thyroid cancer, and his family.
Wright finished by addressing all of the soon-to-be retirees: “All of you, welcome to the new world. This is the fourth quarter.” BOE President Annemarie Maini also expressed well-wishes to the honorees. “May the blessings of better health, the joy of good friends, a loving family, and the contentment of a job well done fill your life with happiness,” Maini said.