Today’s kids will likely remember Tom Valente for the organized mayhem of his kickball games on the blacktop at Forest Avenue School. There aren’t too many principals who do that.
But the children–now adults–of Valente’s first class in Verona 39 years ago remember him for a very different activity: He moved their desks out of the rigid rows that were the norm back then.
“He had us sit in a big U,” recalls Patti DeNicola Rollo, who was in that fourth grade class. “We were amazed. But that was just the beginning. He was so cool that he made us want to come to school every day.”
Tonight, at the Villa at Mountain Lakes, many of the kids that Tom Valente inspired to come to Verona schools every day will mark the end of his long career here, together with parents and colleagues. Some know Valente from the 23 years he spent as a fourth-grade teacher at F.N. Brown Elementary School, others from his four years at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School, his five years Verona High School, or his final seven at Forest. Many others knew him as “the hippie” who was an unofficial part of Verona’s music program, and the performer and vocalist who inspired more than a few Verona music careers.
“Tom gave me my first gig at 13,” says Bobby Lynch, a keyboard player whose band Bobby & The Jets will kick off Verona’s summer concert series next week. “Now he plays with my band. How cool is that?” And all throughout his teaching career, Valente performed with his own group, The Sunrise Band, often at weddings with former students in attendance.
Many of Valente’s colleagues will also be celebrating his accomplishments tonight. “The second most important thing we do in education is building children’s self esteem,” says Laning Avenue Principal Frank Albano, who worked with Valente at HBW. “Tommy is the master of that. He knows how to make people feel good about themselves without being disingenuous. Tommy is the Mount Rushmore of the Verona School district–beard and all.”
The academic and musical sides of Valente’s career will come together in at least one of the tributes tonight. Music teachers Howard Freund and Max Morden; Joni Jasterzbski, the art teacher at F.N. Brown and Brookdale Avenue schools; and Rich Rampolla, Brookdale’s principal, will perform “Teach Your Children Well”. We got this video from their rehearsal two weeks ago at Skyler Fortgang’s benefit concert for epilepsy.
Tom Valente taught Verona’s children very well indeed.