Remembering Nick Zeoli

One of Westport’s most legendary figures has died.

Nicholas Zeoli — known for decades here, in Wilton and far beyond as “Nick” — died on Wednesday at Norwalk Hospital. The coach, educator and proud World War II veteran was 98 years old.

Nick was born on July 1, 1923 in Saugatuck to parents Dominick and Lillian Valiante Zeoli. He was the oldest of 5 children: brothers John and Eugene, and sisters Helen and Jeanette.

Nick had fond memories of growing up in Saugatuck, playing football and baseball on the local fields and for Staples High School.

Nick Zeoli

He gave up a college scholarship to enlist in the Navy at the start of World War II, and served 4 years in the Pacific aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Boston.

After the war Nick resumed his education, getting a degree in physical education from Arnold College (later merged into the University of Bridgeport). He met Jody Scott while serving as lifeguard at Compo Beach. They married in 1952.

Nick had a long and notable career as a physical education teacher, coach and athletic director in Wilton. He earned a master’s degree from Columbia University where he took an anthropology class taught by Margaret Mead.

Nick was very proud of his Italian heritage. He enjoyed telling stories of the trips he and Jody made to Italy.

During his long career Nick received many honors, including national recognition as Athletic Director of the Year. When he retired, Wilton High School named its athletic facility the Nicholas T. Zeoli Fieldhouse.

But Nick was most proud of the students’ lives he impacted over his 41 professional years. Even in the months before he died, former students would visit.

Nick retired with Jody to a log home in Hubbardton, Vermont, where he spent the last quarter century of his life.

Nick is survived by Jody and their children, sons Stephen and Christopher and daughter Nikki; 3 grandchildren, in whom he took great joy, and his sister Jeanette.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Special Olympics, a cause to which Nick devoted much of his time and energy. Services will be announced at a later date. Condolences for the Zeoli family may be left online here.

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In 2019, Nick Zeoli was named grand marshal of Westport’s Memorial Day parade. Here’s the “06880” story about that honor:

The ranks of World War II veterans are rapidly thinning.

One of these years, no one will remain from that world-changing conflict to honor at Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

But it seems like Nick Zeoli has been — and will be — around forever.

The 2019 grand marshal is a proud Saugatuck native. He was born in 1923 to Dominick (a firefighter), and Olympia Zeoli. On July 1, he will be 96 years young.

Zeoli was a star football, basketball and baseball player at Staples High School, on Riverside Avenue just down the street from his home.

Young Nick Zeoli.

He was offered a football scholarship to Gettysburg College. But with war raging, he enlisted in the Navy.

He was assigned to the USS Boston, a heavy cruiser. Zeoli spent 3 years in the Pacific Theater. His ship engaged in 13 major battles, including Okinawa.

He was promoted to Radarman 3rd Class, and received a commendation from legendary Admiral William Halsey Jr.

After discharge in December 1945, Zeoli enrolled at Arnold College (later absorbed into the University of Bridgeport). He earned a BA in physical education, then went on to receive master’s degrees from both Bridgeport and Columbia.

Zeoli spent his summers during college as head lifeguard at Compo Beach. That’s where he met 1949 Staples grad Joanne Scott.

They married in 1952. On June 13, they’ll celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary. Their children Steve, Chris and Nikki are all Staples alumni.

Nick’s grandchildren — Jennifer, Charlotte and Nicholas — attend Westport schools. All are on track to be 3rd-generation Staples graduates.

Nick Zeoli, physical education teacher.

Zeoli began his career as a substitute teacher in Westport. But Wilton — newly opened as a high school — offered him a full-time job as phys. ed. teacher and head football coach.

He soon became Wilton’s first athletic director, and won national awards for his work.

He spearheaded the development of the high school field house — the first in New England. When he retired in 1994, it was named the Nicholas T. Zeoli Fieldhouse.

In Westport — where he always lived — Zeoli directed the Special Olympics program. He trained Special Olympics coaches in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Nick Zeoli, a few years ago.

For many years, Zeoli emceed the Sportsmen of Westport awards ceremony. In 1985, the organization presented him with its Sportsmen Award.

Last June, Zeoli was honored by the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference for his lifetime contribution.

There’s still plenty of life left in Nick Zeoli. He and his wife live now on a lake in Vermont.

He looks forward to making the trip south, and talking about nearly a century of life in Westport, and in war.

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Three years before that, Nick — then 92 years old — wrote down some thoughts about his time in Westport. His daughter Nikki sent them to “06880. Nick said:

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.

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

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.

7 responses to “Remembering Nick Zeoli

  1. Quite a guy.. Like many other townies of my/our era I knew him and participated against his teams over the years. I can still see him (and hear) him holding court in Mario’s. RIP Nick..

  2. Maureen Driscoll

    RIP Nick. My father, Robert Driscoll also was part of Westport Sportsman Association and received their award. Our family was present when Nick presented and MC’d, he was hysterical (a real gift). Westport was a wonderful small town with loads of great people, like Nick. Our condolences to the entire Zeoli family. 🙏🏻 The Driscoll’s

  3. I remember him quite well. From fifth grade through my senior year of high school (all in Wilton), he was my phys ed teacher most of those years. In one of my earliest memories, we boys in Mr. Burke’s fifth grade class were waiting outside for him to arrive, as he had been delayed. Then one of the other boys said, “Here comes Zeoli!” Mr. Zeoli heard that. He right away asked who said it, then lectured the boy that he should always refer to him as “Mr. Zeoli,” not as “Zeoli.”
    As long as you behaved, you got along well with Mr. Zeoli.

  4. Great guy! I was on the freshman football team in Willon (1968) the last year he coached varsity. So, I saw (and heard) him on the practice field but never officially had him as my coach. I got to know him well as my sister Jill and brother Tim were also involved in athletics and I went on to play varsity football and lacrosse. I would see articles about him over the years and was always impressed with his honesty, consistency and leadership. A really good life! Thanks Nick!

  5. There was a Zeoli that lived on Old Orchard Rd. off North Maple Ave. I can’t remember his first name, but I remember him from the 1950s. My condolences to the family!

  6. Chip Stephens SHS 73

    Truly a great man, selfless and giving to so many in his classic Italian way. His laugh, his shout on the football field or at his sons’ wrestling meets in the 70s was impressive. He gave service to our country, direction and success to his teams, and his love to his family and many Westport/Wilton persons whose lives he touched over the years. A life well lived thank you Nick.

  7. Susan Z. Robins

    My thoughts go out to Nikki and the family. Beautiful story of your dad’s life growing up in Westport. Thank you for sharing. Warmly — Susan Z. Robins (Staples Class of 1980)

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