Tag Archives: Wilton High School

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!)

Saluting The Great Class Of ’58

“06880” does not usually cover high school reunions.

Each one is special to the people in that class.

And no one else.

Today though, we make an exception today for the Staples Class of 1958.

For one thing, they celebrated a milestone this weekend: their 60th reunion.

Over 60 alums traveled from around the country to enjoy dinner at Rizzuto’s, a party on Owenoke and a breakfast at Compo Beach. The heat did not deter anyone.

For another, theirs was the last class at the old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary).

For a third, it was the last that included Wilton students. Wilton High School opened in 1959.

So yes, the Class of 1958 is special. Congratulations to all. See you at your 65th!

The Staples High School Class of 1958 continued its reunion today at Compo Beach.

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.