By Karen Zautyk Observer Correspondent KEARNY– The three young men, pictured above in their Kearny High School yearbook photos, had their whole lives ahead of them. Who knew where the future would take them? No one would have guessed that, a bit more than a decade later, it […]
TRENTON – An accused serial robber has admitted to playing a role in 11 robberies, primarily of drug stores, in Harrison, Newark and Jersey City over a period of eight months, it was announced by U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman. On July 21, Christopher Mojica, 23, pleaded guilty to […]
By Ron Leir Observer Correspondent LYNDHURST – Talk about parallel life paths: Joseph White and Matthew Giunta went to pre-school (St. Michael’s) together, then to Franklin Elementary School, then Lyndhurst High. And, last Friday, they entered the Bergen County Law & Public Safety Institute in Mahwah to begin […]
By Ron Leir Observer Correspondent BELLEVILLE – It’s been a year and two months since Gov. Chris Christie presided at a ballyhooed groundbreaking for Franklin Manor, an age-restricted 137-unit apartment complex for those 55 and over – the first such senior development for Belleville in more than three decades. […]
By Ron Leir Observer Correspondent HARRISON – A property dispute between a longtime Harrison business and some neighbors that has been simmering for a few years now appears to be coming to a boil. Smack in the middle of the controversy are Bergen St. homeowners Victor and Eleanor Villalta […]
A customer tried to pass a counterfeit $10 bill to pay a tab at a local establishment, which wasn’t named by police. The bill was forwarded to the Secret Service for review and further investigation.
A Kingsland Ave. resident’s Honda was scratched along the side of the vehicle while it was parked in the resident’s driveway.
A Montclair Ave. resident told police they were being harassed by a phone scammer. The caller wanted the resident to wire funds via Western Union for a Mega Millions winning but the resident refused, only to receive more than 10 repeated calls. Police reminded residents to never transfer or wire money to anyone without proper authenticity.
A Gless Ave. resident reported that a group of juveniles rolled a car tire down a hill, crashing into, and damaging, their Toyota.
Police recovered a broken No Turn on Red sign at Chestnut St. and Hillside Ave.
An intruder reportedly tried to steal a Myrtle Ave. resident’s dog. The resident told police they saw a man described as African-American, wearing a black shirt and blue jeans, in her backyard holding her dog’s chain. Police said the man fled north on Myrtle and couldn’t be located.
Police are investigating five separate auto burglaries that happened overnight and early morning on Hay Ave. Items ranging from GPS systems to personal items including keys were reported taken from the unlocked vehicles.
Police responded to a Centre St. establishment on a report of a fight. Police said one patron reportedly threatened another with a utensil knife but dropped the knife after exchanging words with the other patron.
At 9:15 a.m., an officer separated two enraged motorists at Passaic Ave. and Centre St. and managed to calm them.
A Lafayette Ave. resident told police that someone claiming to be an IRS agent called their home to say that a warrant had been issued for their arrest regarding 2002-2013 taxes and that they were ordered to pay more than $2,000 via a voucher. Police determined the caller to be a scammer and noted that several residents have reported phone and internet scam attempts.
At a Lynn Road location, police arrested John Adkins, 27, of Union, who was wanted on various outstanding warrants from several communities. He was turned over to Roselle Park pending his posting the remaining $5,000 bail to other jurisdictions before being released.
Police recovered a Chevrolet, reported stolen from Lyndhurst several days previously, abandoned on Villa Place. The car’s back window was smashed out. Lyndhurst PD is investigating.
A Hancox Ave. resident called police to report a man was banging on their door and subsequently ran south on Union Ave. The man was described as white,, wearing a blue baseball cap, a fluorescent yellow T-shirt with blue stripes on the sleeves and white khaki pants.
Police are investigating a theft of services and fraud reported by a Franklin Ave. eatery. A restaurant representative told police a River Road resident ordered a large delivery and paid with a stolen credit card.
A Centre St. resident reported their home burglarized, with jewelry and other items taken. The intruder apparently gained entry through a lower floor window, police said.
A Bloomfield Ave. resident called police to report seeing two individuals walking around a neighbor’s house in the 500 block. Both were described as white males, possibly driving a black BMW.
Police responded to Nutley High School on a report that one female student made threats against another. Police turned the matter over to school officials.
Police are investigating a residential burglary of a Passaic Ave. apartment resulting in the removal of an undetermined amount of jewelry and cash.
– Ron Leir
Kearny native loved sharing music with others
By Kevin Canessa Jr.
Jeff Humphrey loved music. He loved it so much that all he ever wanted to do was share his love for music with everyone he knew.
Humphrey, a longtime Kearny resident, died Monday, June 9, in a crash along the New Jersey Turnpike in Carlstadt.
He was only 43.
Humphrey had an incredible love for rock ‘n’ roll at a very young age. When we first met in 1985, there were countless times when I’d come to his house to visit my friend and his brother, current Kearny Library Director Josh Humphrey, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to listen to Led Zeppelin. Read more »
St. Michael’s Medical Center (SMMC), Newark, and New York Medical College (NYMC), Valhalla, N.Y., have announced an academic affiliation designating SMMC as a teaching site for NYMC’s medical education program.
Officials said the affiliation provides SMMC with worldclass academic resources and additional medical expertise to support clinical programs and assist in the recruitment of physicians. NYMC, in turn, will have access to a clinical venue in Essex County, expanding the residency options for its students, as well as access to a large group of experienced physicians in a spectrum of specialties.
“This is an exciting time for St. Michael’s Medical Center,” said David A. Ricci, president and CEO, SMMC. “We are proud to collaborate with New York Medical College in an academic affiliation that will continue our long-standing tradition as an academic institution, and enable us to enhance and expand our medical education program, including the addition of an undergraduate program.”
The new agreement sets forth SMMC’s participation in NYMC’s programs of undergraduate and graduate medical education, defines its responsibilities as a site for clinical rotations by medical students and describes how it will support various research activities.
“This partnership, based upon shared values, will benefit patients, promote a pipeline of new doctors and other health care providers to serve Newark and the surrounding cities and contribute to the generation of new knowledge about the causes, prevention and treatment of human disease and disability,” said Dr. Edward C. Halperin, chancellor and chief executive officer, NYMC.
“Our new partnership with New York Medical College will fill a vital need for educational experiences and physician training, and will provide many opportunities regarding collaborative research projects,” added Ricci. “We look forward to growing our academic program for students in the greater New York/New Jersey area.”
By Kevin Canessa Jr.
Frank Pezzolla Sr. probably never thought that when he opened his business around 1930 with just a handful of employees, that decades later, what was once a mechanic’s garage would turn into one of the most successful GMC dealerships in America with in excess of 100 employees.
But that’s precisely what has happened — and now, some 84 years later — the Lyndhurst-based business continues to thrive, and people from all over the area have chosen Frank’s GMC as their dealership of choice when the time comes for a new vehicle.
For the first seven years of operation, Frank’s was just a garage. But everything changed when in 1937, Pezzolla was granted a GMC franchise. As the business grew, so did the need for space — and in 1978, the Pezzolla family moved the dealership from its original Ridge Road location to where it’s been ever since — on Orient Way.
But what separates Frank’s from many other GMC dealers is that Frank’s has a strong focus on trucks. You’ll notice that the moment you arrive at the showroom.
And while much has changed over the years, there are a few constants that very few businesses can claim: It’s still owned by the Pezzolla family and their commitment to customers is unparalleled.
General Manager Frank “Frankie” Pezzolla has been part of the family business for more than four decades. He started working there while he was in high school, sweeping floors and stocking parts. And now, as the general manager, he oversees a business that has thrived despite GM’s tough economic times that hit several years ago when the entire auto industry nearly collapsed.
“I’ve been in sales, at least part-time, since 1978,” Pezzolla said. “Back then I went to my uncle (current Observer General Manager) Bobby (Pezzolla) and told him I wanted to sell. And over that time, I’d like to think we’ve done it right. While much of the rest of the industry suffered, we were still doing well.”
Indeed they were. And still are.
But how did they do it?
It’s pretty simple, Pezzolla said.
“We treat everyone like family,” he said. “When you do that, you succeed. I’ve got a lot of employees who have been here with me for 40 years or more, including one of my sales managers, Chris (Koumoulis). I couldn’t do this without him or the rest of my family.”
There are quite a few other Pezzollas still working at Frank’s, including Frankie’s dad Frank Pezzolla Jr., the company’s president; and Frankie’s brothers Michael, who is in charge of the parts department, and Joseph, the service manager.
“And my dad is still involved almost every day,” Pezzolla said. “He’s comes in almost every day and still has a very active role in what we do here.”
More than what you see
If you’ve ever driven along Orient Way, and have seen Frank’s, chances are you’ve noticed the inventory of personal trucks and vehicles sitting out front or inside the newly remodeled showroom. But what you don’t readily see are the commercial trucks Frank’s also sells that are out back and away from the public eye.
“So in essence, we have two businesses — the vehicles people see, and a commercial side,” Pezzolla said. “People don’t see all the big trucks, like the ones you see going in and out of New York City. But we absolutely have a freight line. We sell Hinos and Isuzu trucks — and that’s known as Frank’s Truck Center.”
Pezzolla says the commercial end of the business played a huge role in the company staying afloat during the economic downturn.
“It kept us going,” he said. “They were really our bread and butter. And what is great is that often, the people who come in to buy our commercial trucks often buy from us for their personal vehicle needs. Everyone needs a personal vehicle, right? Sometimes, we see five GMCs sitting in their driveways — and we love that.”
Pezzolla credits his father, his brothers and his uncle Bobby for really giving him the impetus for success at Frank’s. And he hopes it continues for many years down the line.
“Bobby was probably the best salesman I’ve ever seen, and he taught me so much,” Pezzolla said. “And dad taught me so much too. We’ve been very fortunate. And I know I am grateful.”
Frank’s GMC and Frank’s Truck Center is located at 325 Orient Way, Lyndhurst. For additional information, call 201- 806-1466 for sales, 201-806-1464 for service or visit them online at www.FranksGMC.net.
Showroom hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays; and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays. Frank’s is closed on Sundays. Service hours are 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Thursday; and 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays. Parts are open 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays; and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturdays.
For more information about Frank’s Truck Center, call 877-469-6304.
Beech St., south of Oakwood Ave.
Chestnut St., south of Oakwood to Bergen Ave.
Devon St., Elm St. and Forest St., south of Oakwood.
Davis Ave. and Hickory St., south of Midland Ave.
Pine St., Spruce St.
Quincy Ave., King St. and Garfield Ave., east of Kearny Ave.
Kearny Ave., between Afton St. and Bergen Ave.
All streets east of Devon St. and south of Oakwood.
All streets west of Kearny Ave., south of New Lawn Ave., and north of Bergen.
Kearny Ave., south of New Lawn and north of Afton.
All streets west of Belgrove Drive and south of N. Midland Ave.
Passaic Ave., south of St. Anthony’s.
NOTE: All current grade 5 students at Garfield will stay at Garfield for grade 6 regardless of where their new boundaries may be st, unless parents ask to have their child move to the new school.
All streets south of Belleville Turnpike and west of, and including, Beech St. and north of Midland Ave.
New Lawn Ave. Kearny Ave., north of Oakwood. Passaic Ave., north of St. Anthony’s.
All streets south of Belleville Pike, east of, and including, Chestnut St. and north of, and including, Midland and E. Midland. Beech St., Chestnut St., Devon St., Elm St., and Forest St., north of, and including, Oakwood.
NOTE: All current grade 5 students in Lincoln School will be moved as a class to Schuyler School regardless of where their new boundaries may be set, unless parents ask to have their child move to the new school.
All streets west of, and including, Chestnut St., and south of, and including, Bergen Ave.
Devon St., between Woodland and Johnson Aves.
All students in grades 7 & 8 will attend Lincoln School.
Toddlers to sixth-graders are invited to participate in the “Fizz, Boom, Read” summer reading program sponsored by the Belleville Public Library and Information Center, 221 Washington Ave. To be eligible for prizes, children are invited to visit the library during the summer to read books for fun and/or read books from their school’s reading list. Children must keep a log of all books read to show their parents and teachers in September.
A Block Watch meeting will be held at the Belleville Senior Center, Franklin Ave. and Mill St., June 19, at 7 p.m. New members are welcome. For more information, call 973-759-0738.
Belleville UNICO sponsors a bus ride fundraiser to Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, Sunday, June 22. The cost is $30 pre-paid or $35 at the door. Those attending will receive a voucher for $35. A continental breakfast will be served at 8 a.m. at the Belleville Senior Citizens Center, Franklin Ave. and Mill St. The bus will leave from the center at 8:50 a.m. Call 973-759-9259 ASAP to reserve seats. (No last minute cancellations.) Mail checks, payable to Belleville UNICO, to: Gene Antonio, 436 Joralemon St., Belleville, N.J. 07109.
Bloomfield historian Rich Rockwell will display and talk about historic photos of houses, dating from the 1880s to the 1920s, Thursday, June 19, at 7 p.m. at the Parish House at the Church on the Green, 147 Broad St. The program, with then-and-now comparisons, will focus on styles of architecture, building trends, remodeling trends and preservation efforts in Bloomfield’s Historic District and nearby neighborhoods.
Bloomfield Cultural Commission presents traditional Polish singing, dancing and food, plus arts and crafts for children, Sunday, June 29, 1 to 5 p.m., at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 190 State St. Admission is free.
Oakeside Bloomfield Cultural Center, 240 Belleville Ave. offers a children’s summer art camp, beginning June 30. All classes are held Monday to Friday at the air-conditioned Oakeside. The cost for the first session is $250; sessions 2 through 5 cost $275. All materials are included in the cost. Participants may register by calling the Oakeside office at 973-429-0960. Registration forms and class schedules and descriptions are available on the Oakeside website www.oakeside.org.
Oakeside is offering a bus trip to Caesar’s Casino, Atlantic City, on Wednesday, Aug. 6. The bus will leave Oakeside at 9 a.m. and will return at 5:30 p.m. The $30 cost includes round-trip bus transportation and $25 in slot play at the casino.
Reservations are required and must be paid within five days of booking to ensure a place.
There are no refunds on paid reservations. Call Oakeside at 973-429-0960 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Harrison Public School district will participate in a summer food service program, open to children age 18 and under, from July 7 to Aug. 7, Monday to Thursday only, at Washington Middle School, 1 N. 5th St., 11:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. The Summer Food Service Program is a federal program of the Food and Nutrition Services, United States Department of Agriculture, providing children ages 18 and under with the same free meal in accordance with a menu provided by the state agency.
The Salvation Army of Greater Kearny, 443 Chestnut St., will hold a flea market/bazaar Saturday, June 21, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Proceeds go to Salvation Army World Services. Vendor tables are available for $20 each or two tables for $30.
Kearny Public Library, 318 Kearny Ave., offers a chess class for children, ages 8 to 15, beginning June 24. The class will run eight weeks on Tuesdays, 2 to 4 p.m., through Aug. 12. The class is limited to only 14 students. Call the library at 201-998-2666 to reserve your spot. Instructors from the Newark Chess Club will teach the classes. For more information, call the library or visit www.kearnylibrary.org.
Kearny High School 60th class reunion for the classes of June 1954 and January 1955 will be held Sept. 19, at noon, in Spring Lake Heights. Admission is $32. For more information or to make reservations, email email@example.com or call 732- 458-5162.
Vendors are invited to participate in St. Cecilia’s Church flea market June 21 and 28, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, at the school building, 114 Chestnut St. Proceeds benefit the parish. Donations will be accepted. For more information, call 201-991-1116.
Teen Drama, presented in collaboration with West Hudson Arts and Theater Company will begin its summer camp, open to ages 13 to 18, on June 23, ending on Aug. 2, from 5 to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday at the West Hudson Arts and Theater Company, 131 Midland Ave. This summer’s show will be the Addams Family. Performance dates are set for Aug. 1 and 2. Tuition is $175. To join Teen Drama, request an application by calling 973-498-TEEN (8336), email info@teendrama. org or register at Teen Drama’s website teendrama.org.
Lyndhurst Health Department’s free meditation course originally planned for Wednesday, June 18, has been rescheduled for Wednesday, July 2. Led by certified oneness trainer Lyndhurst resident Parbatie Singh, this class will resume regular hours Wednesday, July 9, at 6:30 p.m., in the recreation room at 601 Riverside Ave. Enter the doors facing the Passaic River.
The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission will close the Saw Mill Creek Trail in DeKorte Park indefinitely, beginning Friday, June 20, while PSE&G replaces the power line towers on the trail. The trail is expected to remain closed for at least one year.
NJMC’s William D. McDowell Observatory, 3 DeKorte Park Plaza, is open to the public every Monday and Wednesday night year-long, weather permitting, excluding holidays. Summer hours are 9 to 10:30 p.m. in June and July, and 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. in August. The observatory features a research-grade telescope. The observatory also hosts “Let’s Talk Astronomy” learning sessions on most Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. The sessions are $5; MEC members, free. Visitors must be able to climb 25 steps to reach the observatory.
A free Summer Solstice Celebration for seniors will be held at the NJMC Science Center, 3 DeKorte Park Plaza, Thursday, June 19, at 7 p.m. Celebrate the light with science by discussing why the Solstice is so long and enjoy sun tea, cookies and a surprise craft or two. Bring your grandchildren. Pre-registration required. Call 201-777-2431 to register.
NJMC hosts Saving the Delaware Bayshore June 23, at 6 p.m., at the Meadowlands Environment Center, 2 DeKorte Plaza, with a video screening and discussion on the efforts of a coalition of conservation groups and non-profit foundations to restore the ecologically important beaches of the Delaware Bay following Superstorm Sandy. Registration is recommended and appreciated. Call 201-777-2431 or 201-460- 8300 to register.
Lyndhurst Public Library, 355 Valley Brook Ave., hosts a Summer Mobile Craft, for grades 1 to 4, Wednesday, June 18, 3:30 to 4:15 p.m.
American Legion Post 139 sponsors veteran’s ward parties at extended care facilities, which include games of chance to allow veteran residents to win money to buy treats and personal items. Veterans in failing health in the nursing home section are also visited and given treats and personal items. The next ward party is set for Tuesday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m., at Chestnut Hill Extended Care Facility, Passaic, and is sponsored by Lyndhurst resident and Navy veteran Stanley Kaminski in memory of his wife Stella. To sponsor a ward party, call John Deveney, rehabilitation chairman, American Legion Post 139, at 201-438-2255.
The Senior Harmony Club has scheduled a trip to Resorts Casino, Atlantic City, for Wednesday, July 9, and a trip to Mt. Airy Casino in Pennsylvania for Wednesday, Aug. 20. Mt. Airy will give $25 in slot play and a free buffet. For reservations or information, call Florence at 201-991-3173.
North Arlington Senior Activity Center, 11 York Road, hosts a Fourth of July Bingo luncheon Friday, June 27. Bingo starts at 10:30 a.m. with lunch at noon and more Bingo games and prizes from 1:30 to 3 p.m. For more information or for reservations, call 201-998-5636.
North Arlington Public Library, 210 Ridge Rd., announces:
• Registration is open for the Summer Reading Kick-Off event. Youth Stages will present a special play shop for children ages 3 to 9. The event is set for Wednesday, June 25, at 4 p.m. To register, call 201-955-5640, ext. 126.
• Join local resident Anne Jenkins in a lecture about growing, canning, and preserving food at the library Tuesday, June 24, at 6 p.m.
• Conspiracy theories and mystery still surround the devastating assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Civil War expert Bill Gent will deliver a lecture about the national tragedy Wednesday, July 30, at 1 p.m.
Nutley Public Library, 93 Booth Drive, presents the following programs:
• Explore the founding of the Township of Nutley Monday, June 23, at 7 p.m. with Nutley Museum director John Simko. This program is free and open to the public; no registration is required.
• Eighteen important paintings, prints and reproductions of artworks from the late 19th and early 20th century from the Nutley Museum’s collection are on view through June 30.
• Science Tellers and Summer Reading Kick-Off Party: The Science Tellers will perform “Fizz,Boom, Read!” a 45-minute interactive storytelling show, featuring hands-on science experiments, Thursday June 26, at 11:30 p.m. Open to children in grades K to 5, this program is sponsored by Spencer Savings Bank. No registration is required.
Call the library at 973-667- 0405 for more information.
The Nutley Museum and Historical Society, 65 Church St., houses a collection of town artifacts and artworks by former Nutley artists. The museum is open for special events and by appointment. Admission is free. For information or to arrange a visit, call 973-667-1528.
Top Kearny scholar-athletes have been friends since Pre-K
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The friendship began innocently when Nicole Kelly and Steven Dyl were just four years old.
“I just remember always being in the same class with Nicole,” said Dyl, who will graduate from Kearny High School this week. “We just kind of always got along.”
“If I ever needed a good laugh, Steven is always there for me to make me laugh,” said Kelly, who will also be part of the school’s commencement exercises this week. “If I was having a bad day, I would go to Steven. We’ve been friends for so long.”
The friendship carried over from the classroom to the neighborhood courtyard, where the two would play sports.
“We were always together,” Kelly said. “We’ve always been in the same class. We would go to the courtyard to play. I was always with the boys, because none of the girls wanted to be athletic. I always went with the boys.”
Dyl didn’t mind having Kelly as a buddy, because he had an older sister, Allyson, who was an excellent athlete.
“I think it helped that I was always around that lifestyle,” Dyl said of his older sister, who was The Observer Female Athlete of the Year in 2008. “Being around my sister was a big motivation. Whenever I’d play basketball, I’d watch her. She would never go easy on me. She told me that it was the only way I was going to get better. I always liked that competition. Because, you know, you never want to get beat by your sister.”
The two longtime friends went to Kearny High together and sure enough, they found themselves in most of the same classes.
“We hang out together in school,” Kelly said. “Steven has always been a good student, the one getting the highest grades.”
As it turned out, Kelly and Dyl are both excellent students and were recently honored as the top student-athletes of the school.
“It felt good to get it with Steven because we’ve been friends for so long,” said Kelly, who played soccer and softball at the school, helping both teams win Hudson County championships this year. “I wouldn’t want it to be with someone else. We’re the top two student-athletes. It’s good that we’re both good in the classroom. I take a lot of pride in my schoolwork. It takes a lot of work and dedication to put the time in for both. It says a lot about us to be good in both.”
Dyl agreed about the importance of an education.
“It’s always been important to me,” said Dyl, who played hockey and baseball this season. “I’ve always been dedicated to my schoolwork. Since I’m not going to a school to play sports, it was very important for me to get a good education.”
Dyl is an A student who is ranked 16th in the Class of 2014. He will head to Richard Stockton College in the fall to major in engineering. He also plans on taking the Civil Service test in the future to become a firefighter, like his father, Kearny Fire Chief Steven Sr.
“It’s always an option,” the younger Dyl said. “I’ll take the test down the line, just in case. You never know.”
Dyl said that he knew Kelly would be the top female student-athlete in the school.
“I just kind of expected it, because she’s just as dedicated as I am in the classroom,” Dyl said.
Kelly will go to the University of Tampa to major in sports management. She will play soccer there.
Kelly said it’s going to be a lot different in the fall, not having Dyl in her classes.
“It’s going to be so different, the two of us being thousands of miles apart,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be weird without him in my classes.”
“It’s definitely going to be a little different,” Dyl said. “We’ve been in the same classroom together since we were 4 years old. She’s definitely not going to be in any of my classes now. But it’s been great to have Nicole as a friend. It’s fitting that we both got this award. She’s been a lot of fun. It’s pretty remarkable.”
“I can’t believe it’s all over,” Kelly said. “I’m glad I got to share this with Steven.”
Dyl said that he needs to remain friends with Kelly, even though they will be in separate places come late August.
“She’s a funny kid who makes me laugh,” Dyl said. “There aren’t too many people around who can remember what happened to us in third grade. That’s always good to have.”
As is having a good friend for a lifetime.
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
He wasn’t a very big man, but his stature was larger than life. He didn’t serve as a head coach in the sport of softball, but he was the premier coach when it came to the art of softball pitching. If you wanted to improve your pitching skills, you went to Jim MacDonald, affectionately known as “Coach Mac.”
The Lyndhurst resident was without question the foremost knowledgeable person when it came to pitching a softball. No one knows the origin of his brilliance, but everyone now knows that if you wanted to be a good softball pitcher, you took lessons from the genius.
“He knew so much about softball,” said former Lyndhurst High School standout hurler Casey Zdanek, currently pitching at Drew University. “I learned so much from him. I’ve been going to him since I was 10 years old.”
Jim MacDonald died last week after a brief illness that caught everyone who knew him totally by surprise. The obituary about Mac- Donald’s passing listed his age as 78, but no one could fathom that idea, because he had more fire in his belly and pep in his step than most men half his age.
The litany of successful high school and college pitchers who went to MacDonald for private pitching lessons would astound anyone. Over the last 30 years, it is believed that close to 1,000 prospective hurlers went to MacDonald for pitching advice.
MacDonald received a few pence for his private lessons, which were supposed to last just 30 minutes, but more than likely, were extended to an hour. He worked day and night with softball hurlers, teaching them how to mix up their pitches, how to locate pitches, how to dominate in the circle.
“Honestly, for me, it’s like losing my grandfather,” Zdanek said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned from him. Not just only about softball, but about life. He always had these little life tales. No matter what was going on in my life, I could go to him. He knew so much about softball. He also always had little stories. He had such a good sense of humor.”
Zdanek still uses what she learned from the pitching guru.
“The main thing is go after the batter,” Zdanek said. “You have to stay ahead. Show them early that you have a changeup. That’s important to have. He made my changeup so good and taught me how to use it. He taught me to use it as a weapon and to not let them know when it was coming. He told me to face the first batter and throw three changeups in a row, so the other team knows I had a good one. It keeps them off balance. Added Zdanek, “If someone is crowding the plate, throw the screwball, so you let them smell the seams of the ball.”
Lyndhurst High School viceprincipal Frank Venezia spent 16 years with MacDonald at St. Mary’s of Rutherford, where Venezia was the head softball coach and MacDonald a volunteer assistant.
“We were very close,” Venezia said. “We were close until the end. He’s going to be missed. People don’t realize the magnitude of how many people he touched in his lifetime.”
Venezia recalled how he became paired with MacDonald.
“A pitcher Mac worked with named Donna Recker was pitching at Wood-Ridge and later Seton Hall,” Venezia said. “Mac was working with Donna and she was a real nice young lady. Well, she was diagnosed with cancer while at Seton Hall and she had to stop playing. I asked her to see if she was interested in helping me out at St. Mary’s and she came on. Mac was very close with her, so he came aboard.”
Recker succumbed to the cancer soon after, but MacDonald and Venezia remained close.
“We were together with several different teams, like the New Jersey Shilohs and the Clifton Charmers,” Venezia said. “Mac was a phenomenal instructor. The biggest thing with him was to make sure mechanics were sound. He emphasized with kids that learning how to pitch wasn’t simply throwing hard. It was about analyzing batters, changing speeds. Whatever you could do to help a kid get better, that’s what he was all about.”
Venezia stopped coaching when he became an administrator in the Lyndhurst school district in 2004.
“There were a lot of games together, a lot of good memories,” Venezia said. “He touched so many kids. It’s going to be difficult for us to see someone who is like Mac, the way he dedicated himself to the game, to the kids, was exceptional.”
Bloomfield resident Rob Stern has been coaching softball for the last quarter century, including a long run as the head coach at Cedar Grove. Now helping to run the successful program at Mount St. Dominic, Stern also has fond memories of his relationship with Mac.
“I spent many a night taking my girls to get lessons from Mac in Lyndhurst,” Stern said. “I’d watch a few lessons, then a few more. Next thing you know, it’s 9:30 and Mac says, ‘Let’s get something to eat.’ And we’d hang out at the IHOP on Rt. 3 just talking softball.”
Stern also learned life lessons from “Coach Mac.”
“Mac was always about the kids,” Stern said. “It was all about teaching kids the right way. He just had a way about him that he would give a kid a lesson and always made that kid leave with a smile. He was able to get the best out of people. The knowledge he left me with, just being around him. So many little things, Mac things. He just had that Grandpa feel about him. Everyone loved him. I can’t find anyone who didn’t love him.”
MacDonald also coached kids no matter where they came from. For example, he worked with Zdanek pitching for Lyndhurst, knowing that Zdanek would eventually have to face his St. Mary’s team. The rivalry never mattered. It was all about the kid. “
He would stop by my house and sit with me and my parents on my porch,” Zdanek said. “He would drive back and forth to see if we were there. He’d then stop by and give me something to work on, some strategy. No matter what, he always came and talked to me. Even when I did good, he had a little critique to make me a better player.”
Zdanek was asked what she will remember most.
“His adorable smile and laugh,” Zdanek said. “It really was contagious. His smile would make anyone’s day. I’m very sad.” Stern was also asked what he’ll remember.
“He always looked the same,” Stern said. “He didn’t age. He was like Dick Clark. He always pitched and caught with kids. He was doing that three months ago. He was a great guy. He’s always going to be with us. His knowledge, teaching kids about doing the right thing. That’s what I’ll remember.”
One thing is for sure. No one will ever know more about softball and pitching like Jim MacDonald. Coach Mac’s legacy will live on with the many pitchers and coaches he worked with over the years. A one-of-a-kind gentleman, Jim MacDonald, a.k.a. “Coach Mac,” will be missed but never forgotten.
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After a successful career playing soccer, first at Belleville High School, then later St. Peter’s College and then the Kearny Scots-American Club on the semipro level and the New Jersey Stallions of the United States Interregional Soccer League, the forerunner to today’s MLS, Jim Damiano experimented with life in the business world.
“I was a partner in a recruiting firm,” said Damiano, now age 45. “But I wasn’t happy doing it. I always wanted to be a teacher and be with the kids.”
And with that dream came the hope of also being a head soccer coach.
Last year, Damiano returned to his alma mater as a coach and teacher. Damiano coached the freshmen and was an assistant with the varsity under Mike Gaccione.
When Gaccione decided to move on to take an administrative position at another school, Belleville Athletic Director Tom D’Elia recommended Damiano to move into the slot.
“Tom approached me and basically told me that the job was mine if I wanted it,” said Damiano, who ranks as one of the all-time leading scorers at both Belleville and St. Peter’s. “How could I say no? It’s a no-brainer for me to give back to where I was from and where I played.”
Damiano has become a special education teacher in the Belleville school system.
Damiano, whose wife, the former Nadine Gaitka, was the former girls’ soccer coach at Harrison High, before stepping down to concentrate on raising the couple’s two sons, knows that he’s inheriting a program that is on the rise.
The Buccaneers won the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division championship last season and were competitive in the Essex County Tournament and NJSIAA state playoffs.
“Of course, this should be my honeymoon year, because we only lost two seniors,” Damiano said. “There are usually big expectations when you win the conference like we did.”
Not only has Damiano improved the Buccaneers’ independent schedule, taking on teams like Kearny and Ridgewood in non-league matches, but the Bucs will also face a tougher SEC schedule against teams like Millburn, Glen Ridge, Verona and Seton Hall Prep.
“We’re going to be tested right from the beginning,” Damiano said. “We should have a good team.”
One thing that will change will be the Buccaneers’ approach.
“We’ve made a few changes in style and we’re going with a 4-5-1 lineup,” Damiano said.
The move was to accentuate the talents of returning senior midfielder Max Correa, easily one of the best returning players in Essex County, never mind the state.
“He’s extremely good with the ball,” Damiano said. “He’s exciting to watch.”
The Bucs also have talented sweeper Marlon Rodriguez, who will be a senior. Rodriguez made all the defensive moves, leaving the offense to players like Correa..
“When you have a player like Max, you have to do something to get the most of his talent,” Damiano said.
The Bucs also returned speed striker Luis Lopez, who scored 28 goals last season.
“The talent is there,” Damiano said. “I knew when Mike was leaving that this was going to be a good returning team. The kids knew that when Mike was leaving, they wanted me to take the job. They didn’t want anyone else.”
The Buccaneers began their official offseason workout regimen last Saturday, so the players got a sense of what Damiano is looking at as a head coach.
“Every day,” Damiano said. “Every single day, we’re looking toward this season. The kids are very responsive to the changes we’ve made.”
Damiano said that he has been ready for the challenge ahead. Playing soccer all the time with his two sons, James (age 9) and Nicholas (age 7) has kept Damiano on his toes. It’s safe to say that the Damiano family is definitely a soccer family, with two coaches and two active sons.
“It’s all the time,” Damiano said. “We’re constantly playing soccer on the front lawn. It’s non-stop.”
But the former Buccaneer great is ready to take over the program he once played for.
“It’s really a dream come true,” Damiano said. “I thought I might have a chance to coach in three to five years. It’s a real treat for me to be able to coach where I played. I’m excited.”
It appears as if the rest of Belleville is equally excited.
The southeast corner of Ridge Road and Noel Drive in North Arlington has long been a commercial site, occupied now by a brand-new 7-Eleven. But back in the 1970s, when the ‘Then’ photo was taken, it featured a Dairy Queen, which apparently had a restaurant attached to it. What do you serve in a Dairy Queen restaurant? Cheeseburger a la mode? Later, the property was the longtime home of Jim Dandy’s restaurant, which operated until fairly recently. Locals will recognize that Jim Dandy’s had used the cozy-looking barnlike structure built by DQ, but it was, alas, demolished by 7-Eleven. We don’t know the make and model of that block-long sedan parked at the DQ, but it calls to mind the days when members of a classic car club would gather in Jim Dandy’s parking lot for an impromptu auto show. And, of course, ever present then and now: those electrical power lines.
– Karen Zautyk