Nick Zeoli’s Saugatuck

Nick Zeoli was a longtime Westport resident. He was a star athlete at Staples High School in the early 1940s, and a legendary athletic director at Wilton High School.

Zeoli is now 92 years old, in excellent health, and living in Vermont with his wife. He wrote down some thoughts on his life, which his daughter Nikki thought would be of interest to “06880” readers. 

I was born July 1, 1923 on the kitchen table in our home on Saugatuck Avenue. I was the oldest of 5 kids.

Saugatuck was called Little Italy, Railroad Place, and a few other names I won’t repeat. Italians had replaced Irish immigrants. The Italians could afford land there, and got mortgages from the Westport Bank. People from the same area in Italy came, because they had paisans and felt secure.

Our neighborhood was clustered around Saugatuck Avenue, Franklin Street, Charles Street, Davenport Avenue, Ketchum Street and Indian Hill Road. Families were close knit, sharing the same background and so many immigration experiences (often in steerage).

In the 1920s, Esposito's gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it's Tarry Lodge.

In the 1920s, Esposito’s gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge.

These brave people brought so many traditions from their hometowns in the old country. Grandpa Valiante took a grapevine, which he planted in Saugatuck. He made wine from the fruit.

The Feast of St. Anthony honored the patron saint of these immigrants. Every June, Franklin Street was transformed with colored lights and tents. We ate sausage and peppers and pasta fagioli. We played all sorts of games over 4 days, while bands played Neapolitan songs and opera arias were sung.

Kids like me, dressed in blue knickers and white shirts, followed the band up Riverside, to Assumption Church. After mass we marched back to Franklin Street. Fireworks were viewed by crowds up to 20,000, who came from across Connecticut for the show.

The former St. Anthony Hall on Franklin Street. (Photos/Google Maps)

The former St. Anthony Hall on Franklin Street, seen today. (Photos/Google Maps)

In the fall, trucks came from Norwalk with crates of blue and white grapes. They were pressed into wine. Grandpa drew bottles for guests, but reused the bottle.

The wine cellar also served as a cool place to store bottles of fruits and vegetables, canned by my grandmother, mother and aunt. Each winter we enjoyed those treats.

Grandpa’s garden provided potatoes, corn, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage. We ate family meals at a large oak table in my grandparents’ big cellar kitchen. After dinner, my grandfather gave each child a small glass of red wine with a peach slice. He said it was good for our blood. An old Victrola played arias and Italian folk songs.

Behind our house on Saugatuck Avenue, Grandpa Zeoli built a large storage barn. Inside was an oven for baking bread. Every Thursday morning neighbors brought their own dough. The large round loaves lasted each family for a week. The kids ate our slices with homemade jams and jellies.

Milazzo's Market, another Saugatuck mainstay.

A matchbook from Milazzo’s Market, another Saugatuck mainstay.

I passed Mrs. Benneti’s house on my way to and from the park on Franklin Street. If I forgot to say ciao, Grandma Valianate grabbed me by the ear and lectured me for not being neighborly.

Our neighbors held us accountable for our actions. We were part of a tight-knit group, and grew up to be better adults because of this.

Though we had little money and no cars, we felt like we had it all. We were surrounded by practical, loving people. We roamed the streets safely, and never locked our homes. If we were thirsty from our continual games, we walked into a neighbor’s house for water.

There were no buses, so we all walked to Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street. It was a great school, with outstanding teachers ready to help at any time. Miss Dorothy Adams was the principal.

Dorothy Adams' alumni card.

Dorothy Adams was herself a Staples graduate. Here’s her alumni card.

When I returned from the Navy in 1946, I called my 4th grade teacher, Miss McNerney. We had dinner, and danced in the best restaurant in Stamford. She was a great influence on my life.

At Bedford Junior High, we had more wonderful teachers. Roland Wachob, my phys. ed. teacher and coach, inspired me to get my degree in physical education.

Many of my classmates did not go on to Staples High School, then located on Riverside Avenue, because they worked to support their families. I was fortunate to continue my education. I was an average student, and played football, basketball and baseball.

I graduated in 1942. Our class had 94 students.

I planned to go to college, but with America entering  World War II 6 months earlier, I joined the Navy. I was in 12 major battles, including Saipan, Iwo Jima, Eniwetok and the Philippines.

One day, on R&R at the Gilbert Islands, I heard someone say “Hey Zee!” It was John Vento, my best friend from home. We hugged, cried and reminisced about football games we’d played together.

Nick Zeoli, not long ago.

Nick Zeoli, not long ago.

After my discharge in 1946 I received my BA in physical education from Arnold College (now part of the University of Bridgeport). I got a master’s at Columbia University, where one of my professors was Margaret Mead. I got a 2nd master’s at Bridgeport.

In 1952 I married Jody Scott, also a Staples grad. We have 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

Besides having 40,000 students pass through during my 41 years in the Wilton school system, I am proud of my association with Special Olympics. In 1991 I went to Pakistan to teach teachers of handicapped teachers to coach soccer and track. I returned 2 years later, and also did the same work in Bangladesh.

Westport was my home all those years, until 1998 when Jody and I retired to our log home in Vermont. I taught a course on coaching at Castleton State College for several years.

I play over 100 rounds of golf a year. Twice I shot better than my age.

While I miss Westport very much, I don’t miss the traffic or the sprawling shopping malls. Our town in Vermont doesn’t even have any businesses.

46 responses to “Nick Zeoli’s Saugatuck

  1. Really great.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. Happy to hear Nick and Jody are still doing well and a great reminder of the way things used to be.

  3. catherine hermann

    I went to Wilton High in 1970’s and my sisters did in the 60’s. Mr Z will always be a positive memory. It was so nice to read his story! Thank you

  4. Thank you Nikki for posting this. What a wonderful father you have!

  5. Clark Ruff '68

    I remember hearing Nick Zeoli speak at a Pal Football banquet at Longshore around 1962 when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was very impressed with what he had to say. I always associated him with Wilton, not Westport. He grew up in a great neighborhood and how fortunate it was that he was such a positive influence for so many students.

  6. Went to school with Nicks kids Steve and peripherally his brother Chris(?)and got to meet Nick upon occasion when he would pick them up after practices. The apple truly doesn’t fall far from the tree. Great man, great sons. What an accomplished veteran. Less and less of them around everyday. Hear what they have to say while you can…

  7. What a great remembrance, although we never lived in Saugatuck our family life was much the same and this article brought back many wonderful memories. Glad to hear that Nick and his family are doing well, he is a great man.
    Kathy Calise

  8. Nikki and Nick–thanks for sharing memories of this time and place in Westport history.

  9. Terry Santella Anzalone

    What a great article! What an interesting life Mr Zeoli has had.
    We need to have more stories of the great families that lived (and still do) in Saugatuck. I keep asking my 90 year old neighbor, Julia Polizzio, to write down her memories. Love hearing the old stories!

    Thank-you Nick for all you have done for Westport and your country.

  10. Sherri Wolfgang-Peyser

    This was terrific to read. Thank you!

  11. I was born and raised in Saugatuck and remember much of what Nick describes. It was a wonderful family time when you could walk up and down the streets without fear. The one thing that stands true is the Saugatuck park except for the locked box which contained toys, balls and games etc. for us to enjoy all summer long. Behind the gas station was Mrs Espositos garden. Her daughter Donna and I would often be caught picking and eating what we shouldn’t. It was a warm and friendly neighborhood. Thank you Nick and family for sharing your special thoughts.

  12. Karen Gilbertie Roche

    Hi Nick!! We miss you – Mom and Dad, Dominick and Ceil . . Nice to hear you are doing well – come down for the GIlbertie Family Reunion – lots of people for Saugatuck should be there. Love, Karen and Debbie

  13. Great article and love the picture of my grandfather’s gas station.

  14. Frances Milazzo Ireland

    Nice to see post. My father owned Milazzo Market . I recently bought the match book cover.Many memories .

  15. I remember my dad Joe Nazzaro, Sr.(who was actually born in a house which is still standing, on Franklin St), telling us how he supported the “boys” in the service through The Wanders Club, which stood on the corner of Franklin and Charles Street (where TD bank was). He spoke highly of all the men who went off to war and Nick, who was one of his good friends.
    Nick described how Saugatuck was and stayed, as I grew up also though may years later.
    I 95 destroyed Saugatuck in the 50 and it has never been the same. The other day I took a walk through Saugatuck, because I still live there, and counted 4 remaining grapevines. I have one, my neighbor, and two on Franklin Street, the last bit of the old Saugatuck.
    As Nick and Wanda mentioned, it was a safe and comfortable place to grow up, and it was. I am grateful for my grandparents for making that long trip, at a young age, from Italy to settle in Saugatuck, build a house, and raised their children (which my husband and I live in and raised .our children there also).
    Thanks Nick for the memories!

  16. Courtney Caldwell

    This is Nikki’s dad. She must be in her mid to late 50’s if her parents got married in the early 1950’s and her dad is 93yrs. Very cool story.

    Courtney
    Courtney Caldwell Designs LLC
    http://www.CourtneyCaldwellDesigns.com

    >

  17. Thanks for sharing both the Zeoli & Gilbertie story – their children were my classmates starting at Saugetuck Elementary thru Staples. Nick would have been a classmate of my Uncle, Bill Kellogg. My introduction to Italian Food was lovingly made by the Saugetuck ladies who ran the Kitchen at Saugetuck School. My grandmother, Edythe Kellogg, started the public school lunch program.

  18. Great article! Nick inspired me as a young athlete with a dream of playing pro baseball. Even though I never had the opportunity to play for Nick he always had time to talk to me about how to approach the game. Nick touched many lives. I am proud to have been raised in Saugatuck. My Valiante/Calise roots are some of the strongest one could be blessed to have in their blood. Thanks for sharing Nikki and Dan.

  19. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    I always looked forward to the meatball grinders and spaghetti in the school cafeteria. They were delicious and right up there with what was served in restaurants. Never connected the dots before that these could have been local family recipes. My grandmother was also involved in getting the school lunch program off the ground. It may have been a depression-era thing. Westport owes a lot to the families of Saugatuck.

  20. Thank you both for sharing these wonderful memories. reading them has been the highlight of my morning. They also sparked a memory of Mrs. Zeoli, our neighbor on Rockland Place, who looked after me when I was very young. A wonderful, warm woman. Was she a relative of yours?

  21. Michael Calise

    No Doubt Nick is one of the best!

  22. Thank you for this great post. Saugatuck has quite a history in Westport. How many ways can I say I love my memories of living on Bridge Street and being in Saugatuck every day for some years. I remember the wonderful women in the cafeteria at the elementary school serving us lunch every day. I remember Jenny who always asked me, “Hi sweetheart — you want some gravy on your grinder?” LOVED her. Wonder if she was someone’s mom or grandmother. Very good food and I never forgot Jenny.

  23. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Nick Zeoli was a very good friend of my father’s, George “Nook” Powers. They were in Staples together although my father was maybe three years older than Nick. My father grew up on Cross Street off of Riverside and hung out in Saugatuck with all the italian locals as friends. Nick and my dad used to referee FCIAC basketball games and, I know for my father, he especially liked doing Staples games. Nikki please tell your father hello for me, Nook’s youngest daughter. It touched my heart to ready your father’s memories.

  24. Joyce Barnhart

    Terry Anzalone – It’s a lot to ask of your 90 year old neighbor to write down her memories. You could help by asking her questions and recording her answers. Maybe the Historical Society could guide you on how to do such an interview.

  25. David Anastasia

    And would those three sons be John, Domonic, and Mike? I lived at 9 Franklin St. My dad was Anthony “Rocky” Anastasia, a fireman. We lived next door to the Franklin Market. My Uncle Sam Anastasia lived on Saugatuck Ave.

  26. awesome story on zeee thanks for sharing

    • Jennifer Zeoli Curley

      Nick’s kids are Steve, Chris and Nikki. His brother John had John, Dominick, Mike (my dad), Jeanmarie and Tommy. Nick is an amazing guy. We love to hear his stories of the old days. Love this history of Westport. Great article!

  27. Melissa Williams Robinson

    Remember Mr. Zeoli quite well. He was at wrestling matches yelling like crazy when my brothers, John and Scott wrestled!!

  28. Priceless,,, what a great man Mr Zeoli is I could listen to his story’s forever. Someone should record some of those story’s they are classic’s. Ed Cribari family from those days in Saugatuck

  29. Hey Nick, thanks for attending my parents and brother Dave’s funeral in Vermont. It was good to see somebody from Wilton. You still sking? I took up snowboarding at age 40. Lots of fun. I’ll stop by one of these days.

  30. Tammy Guarente

    I grew up on Franklin Street. Mrs Bennette that Mr Zeoli speaks of is my Great Grandmother. Saugatuck was a great place to grow up. Everyone was related in one way or another. I remember the ladies of the St Anthony Society making pizza on Friday, playing at the park, everyone running home when the 5 o’clock whistle blew. Too many good memories to mention. The families of Franklin St that I remember are Arciola, Bellucci, Cacchio, Van/Vena, Bennette, Appolucci, Romano, Fratino, Demattio, Robling, Anastasia, Capassi, Zona, Cyr. I know I’m missing more. Saugatuck avenue I remember Valiante, Cofelice, Dorcey, Saponare, Ciambriello. Thank you Mr Zeoli for sharing your story.

  31. Barbara Gardner Orell

    I graduated in 81. Absolutely loved Mr. Z.

  32. What a wonderful story, and memories. Of course I remember Mr. Z. I graduated from Wilton High School in 1964. Sounds like he is now not too far from my home in New Hampshire. Thank you for sharing, RAY

  33. As one of his former students, I remember Mr. Zeoli quite well. It is good to hear that he is still alive and getting around. I am in North Carolina now; my daughter lives in Maine, two states away from him. Mr. Zeoli was one of my favorite teachers.

  34. William H. Farrell

    I graduated from Wilton in 1963 and Nick was my football and track coach. I went to live in Vermont for 35 years and dropped in on Nick and his wife at his home on Lake Hortonia about 25 years ago. Glad to hear he is still going strong. I am now living in OK.

  35. I hope Mr. Z reads this and knows how many people he has helped live better lives. I for one would like to personally thank him and Tom Fugitani for all they did for me. My love of sports is because of those two.

  36. Carolyn Converse Cooper

    I graduated from Wilton HS in 1960 and remember Mr Zeoli well. I remember the day he substituted for our history teacher and gave an interesting history class – it turned out his expertise extended well beyond sports! Please wish him all the best (I now live in Glasgow, Scotland).

  37. Coach “Z” raced and beat all the soccer players on the WHS Team in 1967! The next year he coached us during WHS Wrestling’s inaugural Season, starting future state champions… Heart of Gold!

  38. Wonderful to read this flavorful history and to know Mr Z is “thriving well” in Vermont. Funny how paths criss-cross over time. I too took a Columbia course with Margaret Mead and I also spent a summer at Castleton State working with a campus based cross cultural camp. I laud your international initiatives and am prompted to raise a glass of wine toast. “with a slice of peach in it” to you, Mr Z, for your ever positive energy and a life well lived.

    Tricia Sohl, Wilton Class of 1960

  39. Dan — I love stories like this one. Please do more.

    I have a question about the Saugatuck neighborhood. Did Joe Arcudi’s father own market across from the Esposito gas station, where the large office building stands today?

  40. Dirk "Duke" Vavroch

    I vividly remember Mr. Zeoli flying up into the bleachers in the Wilton High School field house to “correct” a Wilton fan who was belligerently disrespectful towards a basketball ref. A referee himself, Mr. Z had zero tolerance for disrespect towards his brethren, no matter whose team they were supporting. More than once he chased me and a few other “scungils” (sp?) out of the gym. I can hear the rafters ringing with, “GET OUTTA HERE, YOU SCUNGILS!!” We knew he loved us, and we loved him. After reading this memoir, I remember Mr. Zeoli more fondly than ever. Hey, here’s an idea…Why not name that field house after him?

    • That would be a great idea!
      My earliest memory of Mr. Zeoli is from fifth grade gym class. We were standing around outside; he was a little late in getting to class, probably because of coming from a class at Wilton High School. Seeing him approaching, one of the other boys said, “Here comes Zeoli!” He heard that. He made it clear to all of us that we had better refer to him at all times as MISTER Zeoli.
      Mr. Zeoli made sure we all learned to show the same kind of respect for our elders that he had been taught when he was growing up.

  41. It was a great experience working with an expert, and will never forget the one tackle I made that was caught on camera. Thank you for the memories.

  42. As a young Bedford Elementary School kid I remember after WWII going to a Westport Advertisers vs Norwalk game at the old Staples. Nick tore up the field came back bloody and went right back at it.. I was amazed at his energy.. He was sooo fast.. Glad he had a great career, I always wondered where he landed.