To generations of Westporters, Walt Melillo was a beloved elementary school teacher.
I’m one of his former pupils — from 3rd grade, in Burr Farms School. Ever since those long-ago days, he remembered me. And I’ve remembered him.
Walt Melillo died yesterday, at 91. Today I’d like his many friends to remember him, through a 2010 “Woog’s World” column I wrote for the Westport News. If you did not know him, please read about the life of a proud native Westporter — and a wonderful man.
Born in 1924, Walt Melillo grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house – which stills stands — was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras – all lived and grew up together.
They grew vegetables in a backyard garden; baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig. Every family got a part.
Walt attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street – where his parents had gone – and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).
Staples was small. “We knew everyone,” he recalled. “There weren’t a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school.”
He was influenced by legendary teachers like Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).
Right after graduation in 1942, Walt joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.
A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.
The dropping of 2 atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.
“I was a lucky sailor,” Melillo said. He appreciates his chance to serve – and to see the world. “I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven.”
The GI Bill sent Walt to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a 6th-year from Bridgeport.
In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year — $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Melillo noted. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School – his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.
After 7 years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents – even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian. The number of male teachers was extraordinary.
“The parents were just fantastic,” Walt said. “They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone.”
After nearly 2 decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green’s Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.
He kept busy, attending Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups).
But teaching and athletics were only part of Walt’s story. In 1947 he organized Westport’s 1st summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Walt soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.
“It gave me another chance to meet great parents,” he said. “And the entire staff was teachers.”
Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men’s clothing store. Walt was the first non-family member they hired.
Walt stayed there — working Friday nights and Saturdays – for 13 years.
Walt’s life was full. He and Ann – his wife of 60 years – had 4 children. When they moved to Hogan Trial in 1960, it was the 1st house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Walt hunted there.
“This is my town,” he noted. “As Paul Newman said, ‘Living in Westport is a privilege.’ I love it here.”
The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4-7 pm at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Avenue. Burial with full military honors immediately following mass. Interment will be private. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, 21 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.