When Antonio Diaz entered Sal Loverde’s seventh-grade special education class at Riverhead Middle School roughly 20 years ago, he was lost.
Coming from a broken home, Mr. Diaz said he struggled academically and socially, had been on probation twice and was battling substance abuse issues. But he was eager to fix himself and get into regular classes.
Mr. Loverde, of West Islip, guided Mr. Diaz — and a host of other Riverhead students — to success inside and outside the classroom.
This year, Mr. Loverde plans to retire after 38 years as a teacher and coach with the Riverhead Central School District and the school board approved his resignation at a Dec. 10 meeting. To honor his commitment to students throughout his career, the Riverhead News-Review has selected Mr. Loverde as Educator of the Year.
“A lot of former students have reached out to him to thank him,” said his wife, Ildy. “Antonio is such a great example; he came from a tough background.”
Mr. Diaz said Mr. Loverde had had his older brother as a student a few years earlier, so he knew of his family issues.
“He told me one day, ‘You have the option: You can either be like your brother or you can make your own path,’ ” Mr. Diaz recalled. “He was always instilling the benefits of life, and knowing I could really become who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be a product of my environment.”
Mr. Loverde quickly evolved into a father figure for Mr. Diaz and helped him “develop the skills to become a man.”
“He was able to not give up on me and made an investment in me,” Mr. Diaz said. “He really taught me to be a better person.”
After encouraging the then-student to join his football team in ninth grade and the track team in 11th grade, Mr. Diaz received a track scholarship to Syracuse University. Mr. Diaz graduated from Syracuse in 2012, earned his master’s in leadership in 2018 and is currently working on his Ph.D., he said.
Early in his career, Mr. Loverde was offered a position in Manhattan with a higher salary. However, he heeded advice from his father and turned it down to remain a teacher.
“He absolutely loves it,” Ms. Loverde said. “Why would you leave someplace you love?”
She said her husband’s passion for education has inspired his daughter Stefanie to enter the field; she just completed her third year as a teacher at Pulaski Street School.
Mr. Loverde began coaching middle-school football in 1982, his first year in the district. School board president Greg Meyer said he first met Mr. Loverde in 2003 when his son joined the middle school football team. Soon after, he bonded with Mr. Loverde and started as a volunteer coach.
“I was having withdrawals from coaching [as a PAL coach] and I just wanted to watch,” Mr. Meyer said. “I was going every day, and he told me, ‘If you’re going to be here every day, then get out there and start coaching and we’ll work to make you a volunteer coach.’ ”
For years, West Islip and Riverhead were football rivals. But Mr. Loverde’s current hometown never diminished his love for the Blue Waves, Mr. Meyer said, and he would unabashedly walk down Main Street in West Islip sporting his Riverhead uniform.
Earlier this year, Mr. Loverde was a key player in organizing “Young Men on the Rise,” a luncheon series that featured notable men speaking with male students from Pulaski Street, the middle school and the high school. At the first event, in April, Mr. Loverde and Mr. Diaz shared stories about overcoming challenges in their lives.
Mr. Meyer, who jokingly credits Mr. Loverde for his interest in serving on the school board, said he realized early on that the teacher is a genuine person and has a “special gift.”
“It doesn’t matter what you look like; he sees the heart in everybody,” Mr. Meyer said. “He was able to share that gift with a lot of people. Many kids were put on the right track solely because of him.”
2018: Ed Meier
2017: Felicia Scocozza
2016: Melissa Haupt
2015: Robert Shilling
2014: Greg Wallace
2013: Keri Stromski
2012: Jeff Doroski
2011: Jim Schaefer
2010: Stacy Tuohy
2009: Laura Grable
2008: Vincent Nasta
2007: Marion Dorman
2006: Theresa Drozd
2005: Frank Rotenberg
2004: Kevin McAllister
2003: Leif Shay
2002: Bob Jester
2001: Jean Lapinski
2000: Pat Rose
1999: Pat Snyder
1998: Carol Masin
1997: L. Custer, J. Greenberger
1996: Terri Peters
1995: Jim Roth
1994: Tim Hubbard
1993: Dot Moran
1992: Dorothy Lipsky
1991: Willie Patterson
1990: Audrey Stupke
1989: Ray McKieghan
1988: Stanley Krouse