Remembering Walt Melillo

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.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student, at Burr Farms School.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student in 1972, at Burr Farms School.

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).

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

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.”

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

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.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

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.

43 responses to “Remembering Walt Melillo

  1. I remember Mr. Melillo very well, and the other great teachers you named at Burr Farms (which I attended). Thank you for this great tribute.

  2. Nice piece Dan. I am most struck by Mr. Mellilo being a 2nd (3rd?) generation Westporter. It was common for out teachers, town staff, police and the like to live in Westport when we were growing up. Not so now. Capitalism is capitalism, and the free market is the free market, but I think Westport and other towns like it are poorer for the fact that the folks who make the town go can’t afford to live there.

  3. Dave Stalling

    He was a wonderful teacher and a remarkable man; I will never forgot him.

  4. Vicki Betts (McDonald)

    My parents went to school with Walt Melillo. I didn’t have him as a teacher, but my parents were excited to see “one of their own” teaching us kids at Burr Farms. He was a great guy.

  5. Mr. Melillo was a kind, inspiring, memorable teacher. I loved him and I loved his class and I remember third grade as possibly my happiest year in all my school years.
    When I was 20 and in the hospital for a long time, Mr. Melillo had his class write me get well cards. More than a decade after I’d been in his class! Seeing him in Westport over the years was always a joy. He was an unusual teacher, warm and smiling and with the authority that goes with someone who students know is on their side. There were a lot of male teachers at Burr Farms in those days, but the others you mention were not like Mr. Melillo. At all. He was the first teacher I revered, and I never stopped. The privilege was all Westport’s. And ours. I’m so sad. And grateful to have benefitted from his generous teaching and his generous personality.

  6. Terry Santella Anzalone

    I came from another old Saugatuck family and was lucky to have Mr Melillo at Saugatuck School. He was a wonderful man and it is sad to hear of his passing.

  7. what a lovely human being!

  8. Nancy Cardozo

    He was one of the best teachers I ever had. A lovely man, a truely gifted educator. I learned to square dance in his class. I saw him at the Memorial Day parade a few years ago and got the chance to tell him how much he had influenced me throughout my life, and how he set the standard when I was evaluating my kids’ teachers. We both got choked up. I’m so glad I got to tell him that. RIP Mr. Melillo, and thank you.

  9. Sharon Paulsen

    Wow, what a great tribute Dan!

    Much of this history was just before my “time” on this planet, but I did have the privilege of attending Beach School at Compo in the 1970’s, so it’s pretty darn cool to learn about one of its original founders!

    And I’m always blown away when I learn about what our war vets have been through, and how they have re-engaged themselves into our collective communities (if fortunate to survive the terror and mental anguish of serving during wartime, and perservere, as this man obviously did).

    Just a wonderful story Dan – thanks!

    Oh, and that Elementary school picture brings up a ton of memories for me, as this group of kids look just like my early grade school class pictures, taken at Kings Highway Elementary in the early 1970’s.

  10. Jill denowitz

    He was a wonderful teacher. I had him in third grade at burr farms and he taught us all about estimation. I was privileged to know him again during my time at internal medicine. His memory and true fondness for all of his former students was apparent. I will miss seeing his big smile.

  11. Frankie DeMaria

    Walt was a great teacher and a great guy. Myself and my family knew him well. We grew up in Saugatuck. My father Sam DeMaria was born and raised on Ketchum Street and then Hiawatha Lane Extension. Our sincere condolences to the family. R.I.P. Walt.

  12. Michael Calise

    The names, the memories and a truly great man. My heart goes out to his family. It was always good to see Walt. He will be missed by many.

  13. Matthew Evans

    Thanks Dan. I remember Mr. Melillo as a great teacher. I never knew he was involved with Beach School, which was a big part of my childhood.

  14. What an amazing guy. I so totally remember Mr. Mellilo from Burr Farms….circa 1960. And Mr. Rudd. And Coach Dorsey. And Mr. Mettelits, who, as it turned out, was a high school friend of my mom’s from Bassick High in Bridgeport.

  15. I choked up upon hearing of Walt Melillo’s passing. He was such a sweet, loving and supportive human being. As my 4th grade teacher he was incredibly caring as I struggled to deal with my mother’s long absence owing to a devastating nervous breakdown. Walt was at the center of so many extraordinarily wonderful softball field memories all through the beach school summers. And what does it say about a man, a teacher, who bumps into you on a walk along Compo Beach and recites to you, verbatim, what he wrote on your report card some 15 tears earlier? I have nothing but the utmost respect & love for this beautiful person. God bless you Mr. Melillo, you will be missed and your memory will be cherished.

    • Tom Allen '66

      Steve, even if you’d run into him during the past few years he still would have been able to quote those comments he wrote on your ’57/’58 report card. I don’t know how he and Irving Pike remembered each of us for so long, but they did. Walt was a remarkable man.

  16. Susan Z. Robins

    Mr. Melillo — what an inspiration! I learned to love school because of this man. He was one of a kind; loved by everyone he taught. Warmest regarded to his family. We will all miss him.

  17. 2416 oak park drive

  18. I was fortunate to have Mr Melillo as a neighbor. He kept a empty lot beside his house cut and clean so that all of us Hogan Trail kids and many of our friends could play football, baseball, softball, tetherball and in his driveway basketball. We used his fall leaf pile, which was monstrous to play in for hours on end. He coached and taught us life lessons right from his home. My appreciation has only grown for him over the years thinking how he worked so hard to give us a place to play and socialize. But most important a safe place to grow up. He is truly a man I have always looked up to. I love this man for the opportunities he gave me and so many others. R.I.P Mr Melillo.

  19. I am just one of the many who loved their 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Melillo. After reading so many tributes I can now understand why I remember so much of my 3rd grade year in school, as compared to other years. I also remember him at the Mitchell’s store when he helped my Dad find a suit. I was really confused as to why my teacher was there! Thanks Dan, for telling his story. We are truly blessed to have lived in this community with people like Mr. Melillo and the Mitchell’s, and so many other great folks.

  20. Nice job Dan. I will miss him.

  21. Did not know he was the founder of “Beach School”, a summer day camp where I was a student at age ten about 1973. My memory tells me he was a graceful, genial, loving, inspiring, motivational kind of guy, even if he was just handing you a selection of bats a few plastic bases, and a softball, so you could pass the next couple hours most productively and competitively. Plus, he was kind of stylish in the breezy, grassy damp heat of a long July summer day, sometimes after a rain squall storm and clouds cleared, often wearing blue shorts, sporting a natural tan, sometimes a shirtless physique, and something similar to Wayfarers. Always filled with joy and love, and completely selfless. Great role model.

  22. Loved Mr. Melillo – one of my favorite teachers!

    I am a wiz at doing math on the fly – thanks to Mr. Mellilo. I remember he’d have a game he’d call “horse race” (that’s the name I remember it being called). Your horse would advance if you answered the math equation first. The prize was usually a “sugary sweet” – so I was motivated to get it right – and did many times.

    Thanks Walt for being a wonderful caring, encouraging teacher!!!!!!!

  23. Eddie Stalling

    A lovely, amazing man with a heart of gold. Ten years ago he showed up at my father’s funeral and came to the gathering afterwards. My four siblings and I went through Burr Farms and he was that kind of man. He hugged me and we both cried. We talked about WWII as my father had a marine vet ceremony. How many elementary teachers do that 35 years later? I was able to tell him how much he meant to all of us, how his investment in us made our lives better. I’m grateful for that now. RIP Walt, and thanks.

  24. Dan, when and where is the funeral?

    • “The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m., meeting directly at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Ave. for a Mass of Christian 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 Ave., Westport, CT 06880. “

  25. Walt was the best. Even in fourth grade he not only taught you school subjects but he taught you about life. He became a friend of my family and I can remember him stopping at “our blanket” to talk with my parents on his walk along the beach. I don’t think he missed many days on the beach. Walt was one of the first people to come to my Dad’s wake. When discussions turn to teachers and education I always hold Walt up as a great example.

  26. Tom Allen '66

    Dan, I loved this piece when you wrote and it is even more poignant now. What a great guy Mr. Melillo was. I never had him as a teacher at Saugatuck but vividly recall him hitting softballs off the school’s back wall from the far blacktop field during recess and after school and throwing 50-yard passes to us. He was our Mickey Mantle, our Johnny Unitas. From ’60 on he was also my neighbor in Saugatuck, around the corner from Treadwell Ave. on the new Hogan Trail. He remembered me and my family for decades, seeing my parents often and always asking about my sisters and me. He was a a terrific teacher, superb athlete, great role model and neighbor–and one of the best salesmen Mitchell’s ever had. A Westport–and Saugatuck–gem. RIP, Mr. Melillo.

  27. Willy Waclaw Maliszewski

    I remember him from Saugatuck Elementary School. Phys. Ed. class. He was an extraordinary athlete, and to me, then a stuttering immigrant kid, so very kind.

  28. What a lovely post for a lovely man! I enjoyed reading everyone’s comments as much as the post itself. I, too, remember Walt Melillo with great fondness. At Burr Farms I didn’t have him as a teacher–I had the wonderful Mrs. Eisenberg, whose classroom was right next door to his–but I remember Mr. Melillo’s wonderful, warm presence and how he seemed to know everyone’s name, including mine. I also have fond memories of Mark Rudd, who inspired in me a lifelong love of reading.

    • THANKS, Prill – much appreciated. But you were thinking of Matt Rudd. Mark Rudd was the Columbia University radical from the 1960s!

  29. He was a really positive teacher but my fondest and strongest memory of Mr. Melillo was playing handball with him.

  30. Kurt Brockwell

    Dan your article brought back a lot of great memories of Mr. Melillo. I attended Burr Farms, Long Lots and Beach School he was a great influence.

  31. i ALWAYS LOOKED FORWARD TO A WARM, PERSONALL INTERACTION WITH WALT WHENEVER WE WOULD BY CHANCE MEET. HE WILL ALWAYS BE SPECIAL IN MY HEART AND MIND.

  32. Sandra Hernandez

    Carol,
    My deepest condolences during this time..
    Now your dad is another angel up in heaven and in the cmpany of his best “girl” your mom..
    My prayers are with you and your family ..
    Always ,
    Sandra Hernandez

  33. Carol,
    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
    Sincerley,
    Leslie Wagner

  34. My uncle was a modest man. He never bragged about himself, but get him started on talking “school” and the floodgates would open, pouring story after story about the successes of his students- what they grew up to be, the families they created, the vocations they chose, often because of his guidance and support.
    He was, however, very proud of his service in the Navy, and often recounted the harrowing events that day his ship was struck. He never tired of that story, and each time was as the first- he would choke up, often brought to tears. He told me the town wanted him to be Grand Marshall of many parades, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it- he didn’t like making speeches, he said, but I believe his modesty got the better of him. He loved his country.
    I loved my uncle beyond what words can convey. He ALWAYS made me feel special. ALWAYS. He was far and away my favorite. I miss him deeply.
    My heart embraces you, Carol, and Brett, Brian, and Bruce. I can only imagine the loss you feel.
    Barbara Gill

  35. Jennifer Hauhuth

    LOVELY man I remember him well. I have great memories of all of the teachers at Burr Farms. Thank you all.

  36. Chris Hillman

    What can you say about Walt that hasn’t already been said. He was one of a kind. The greatest of the greatest generation. He left a lasting impression on everyone he met, touching everyone in a positive way. Walt was much more that a friend. He and Annie were second parents to myself and to so many others, too many to count. I will miss Walt dearly. I know that right now he is up in heaven, already challenging the tennis greats to a match and playing baseball with the old timers from the NY Giants

  37. I entered Saugatuck Elementary in 1953 – everyone loved Mr. Mellilo and appreciated his power to be present to each student – whether you were in his class or not. Of course, I remember Beach School – with Diggie Digisi and her sister Carol. Made lots of lanyards… You mentioned Coach Dorsey – another wonderful guy who made a difference in lots of kids lives! A Life Well Lived! Saugatuck Elementary was the best & the best school lunch ever…bragging rights, my grandmother Kellogg was one of the pioneers of that school lunch program.

  38. Lydia Pribisco

    After reading this beautiful tribute to Walt Melillo, I wanted to share a word with his daughter and my good friend Carol Melillo. I did not have the priveledge of knowing Walt as so many did, however I work with Carol and she has become a good friend to me over the last few years. Carol has been truly blessed by wonderful parents and now I understand better where she gets the traits that make her such a good person. I’m sorry for your loss Carol, but I am happy that you had such a wonderful man for a dad.

  39. SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE:

    Yesterday, while procrastinating and going through an old box from my mother marked “Dave’s stuff,” to avoid work despite looming book deadlines, I found one of my report cards from Mr. W. Melillo dated June 19, 1970, when I was in 3rd grade at Burr Farms Elementary School.

    Remarks: “David is a capable child who has extended himself only when he thought it necessary to do so. His short attention span contributes to his inefficient work habitats as indicated.”

    Fortunately, I was still “promoted” to Mrs. Glazer’s 4th grade class.

    If Mr. Melillo were to grade me today, he would likely still (as he did then) justifiably mark “S -” (less than satisfactory) next to “Begins work promptly,” “Displays maximum effort,” Makes good use of time,” and “Completes assignments on time.” I hope I would at least retain my “S +” in “written expression” and reading “comprehension.”

    Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence: Maybe it’s Mr. Melillo’s way of giving me yet another sincere, honest, supportive nudge — He was that kind of teacher, and that kind of man.