Tag Archives: Nick Zeoli

We Remember: Memorial Day 2019, Part 2

The sun is still shining. The grills are still smoking. The holiday spirit lingers in Westport — especially after months of rain and cool weather.

As always, Memorial Day was a time of mixed emotions: a celebration of the country our military has always protected so well, and honors for those who gave their lives so we could have this celebration.

Here’s one more look at Memorial Day in Westport.

The Bedford and Coleytown Middle School bands combined this year. Hundreds of young musicians sounded great — and very together! (Photo/Sarah Tamm)

Bill Vornkahl directed the parade — as he has for the past 48 years. It’s not a Westport Memorial Day without him. (Photo/Carmine Picarello)

The reviewing stand. Grand Marshal Nick Zeoli is at far right. (Photo/Dan Woog)

World War II veteran and Grand Marshal Nick Zeoli — 96 years young — delivers the Memorial Day address. (Photo/Carmine Picarello)

Today’s theme was “Thank a Veteran.” These vets posed proudly … (Photo/Dan Woog)

… as did these 2 Navy veterans: from France (left) and the US. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Memorial Day fashion. (Photo/Carmine Picarello)

Staples High School senior Nick Rossi sings “America the Beautiful.” At the end of the ceremony, he played a mournful “Taps” on his trumpet. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Meet Nick Zeoli: Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal

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.

(This year’s Memorial Day parade kicks off on Monday at 9 a.m., at Saugatuck Elementary School. It heads down Riverside Avenue to the Post Road, goes over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Memorial Bridge, and takes a left on Myrtle Avenue before ending up at Town Hall. A ceremony — including grand marshal Nick Zeoli’s address — follows immediately, approximately 10:30 at Veterans Green. The parade and ceremony are two wonderful Westport traditions. Don’t miss them!)

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.

The Lou Nistico Fieldhouse

Athletic fields around Westport bear the names of men and women who contributed greatly to the youth of this town:  Albie Loeffler.  Jinny Parker.  Doc Doubleday.

Without knowing it, every time we mention those sites, we honor an important part of Westport’s past.

So why have we forgotten the “Lou Nistico” part of Lou Nistico Athletic Complex?

The reflection of lights, and an exercise machine placed in front, don't detract from this portrait of Lou Nistico near the fieldhouse.

Staples’ enormous fieldhouse — where people of all ages run, pole vault, long jump, wrestle, play basketball, hit baseballs, kick soccer balls, toss lacrosse balls (sometimes all simultaneously), and swelter during graduation ceremonies each June — is named for a man as gargantuan as the indoor space itself.

Lou Nistico was a co-owner of the Arrow Restaurant.  It was a family place that defined Saugatuck — all of Westport, really — for generations.  But calling him a restaurateur is like saying da Vinci “liked to draw.”

Lou loved this town — particularly its young people.  He would do anything for them — and often did.  He gave them jobs.  He invited teams to drop by after games, and fed them for free.  He bought clothes  so athletes and musicians could look good at banquets and concerts.  He paid for college educations.

And he did it all quietly, unobtrusively — no mean feat for a man who tipped the scales at 400 pounds.  (He was weighed once at Gault — true story.)

Lou Nistico did many other things for Westport.  He was the kind of guy who — through force of personality and physical presence — cut through crap red tape, and got highway departments and police officers to do what was good for the town, back in the days when such things were possible (or at least not likely to be videotaped or blogged about).

Though Italian through and through, Lou would’ve been proud to be called a mensch.

When the Staples fieldhouse was built 30 years ago, it was named for Lou Nistico.  A larger-than-life portrait by Ralph Ruta was hung in the hallway, by the pool.  “Lou Nistico Athletic Complex” was written in large letters above the outside entrance.  Almost immediately, everyone forgot.

In 3 decades, I have never heard the fieldhouse called by its proper name.  Newspapers, Channel 12, Staples broadcasters — all refer to it simply as “the fieldhouse.”

It’s hard to overlook a man as big — or as big-hearted — as Lou Nistico.  But Westport has managed to do just that.

(Thanks to Red Izzo and Paul Lane for suggesting this post.  They note that the Wilton High School fieldhouse — named for longtime Westporter and former Wilton athletic director/coach Nick Zeoli — has suffered a similar fate.  But that’s a story for an “06897” blog.)

The sign at the entrance to the Lou Nistico Fieldhouse shows its age.