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Beloved Pascack principal dies at 63
Friday, March 7, 2008
Last Updated Friday March 7, 2008, EST 10:48 AM
BY JAY LEVIN
STAFF WRITER
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Knee pain was making it hard for Barbara Sapienza to negotiate the halls of the building she adored, her professional home for nearly 40 years, Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale.

"She was having a very difficult time walking and, as you know, a principal has to be able to walk around her building," said Benedict Tantillo, superintendent of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District.

On Jan. 23, the 63-year-old principal had double knee replacement surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center. But there were post-surgical complications that, according to an e-mail to parents from the superintendent's office, put Sapienza into a "deep coma."

The Pascack Valley High School community -- Sapienza called it "family" -- is mourning the popular principal. She died Wednesday at the hospital.

"Barbara was Pascack Valley, 24/7," said her friend Susan Dunn, who has taught Spanish at the high school for 30 years.

"Her devotion, her love, her dedication to this school is unprecedented."

Sapienza, a native of Park Ridge and a resident of Saddle River, was the regional school district's employee of longest standing. She started as a typing teacher at Pascack Valley High School in April 1968. She rose to administration and, in 1993, to principal.

"This was her career home," Tantillo said. "She didn't have children of her own, but she had thousands of children in her students. She loved being in the middle of the kids."

Sapienza took an active role in the school's $23 million renovation, which was finished last summer.

"She made sure everything was Pascack Valley green and often said her blood ran green, and I truly believe that," the superintendent said. "She had tremendous pride in her school and was detailed about how she envisioned the renovations, down to the last carpet tile."

Sheila Ottino of River Vale, co-president of the Pascack Valley High School Parent-Faculty Organization, said the always impeccably dressed Sapienza was a quiet and reserved woman, "but once you got to know her, you knew the heart of gold she had."

"She always made a point of saying, 'You are my family,' " said Ottino, whose son is a senior at the high school and whose daughter graduated in 2000.

Jared Dubin of River Vale, the student council president, said it was obvious to students their principal was having trouble getting around the school.

"But it never seemed like she didn't want to be here," said Dubin, bound for the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. "She didn't let [the pain] get in her way."

Dubin and his friends have Sapienza to thank for an end-of-year tradition at Pascack Valley High: senior cut day. She endorsed the idea some years ago, when the student council suggested having a day for seniors to cut classes with impunity.

"Anything for the students, she embraced," Dubin said.

On Thursday, 11th-graders took standardized tests as scheduled and counselors were made available for students. The consolation was mutual: Teachers were there for the students just as much as students were there for the principal's longtime colleagues, Dubin said.

Citing patient confidentiality, Hackensack University Medical Center declined Thursday to discuss Sapienza's case.

Aside from knee problems, Sapienza had been in "perfect health," said her mother and only survivor, Sally Leone of Glen Rock.

Barbara Sapienza was predeceased by her husband, Charles Sapienza.

Visiting will be tonight from 6 to 9 at Vander Plaat-Vermeulen Memorial Home, Franklin Lakes. The funeral will be at noon Saturday at Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Franklin Lakes. Interment will be private.

E-mail: levin@northjersey.com

Knee pain was making it hard for Barbara Sapienza to negotiate the halls of the building she adored, her professional home for nearly 40 years, Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale.

The Pascack Valley High community Barbara Sapienza called family is mourning the popular principal's sudden death.

"She was having a very difficult time walking and, as you know, a principal has to be able to walk around her building," said Benedict Tantillo, superintendent of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District.

On Jan. 23, the 63-year-old principal had double knee replacement surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center. But there were post-surgical complications that, according to an e-mail to parents from the superintendent's office, put Sapienza into a "deep coma."

The Pascack Valley High School community -- Sapienza called it "family" -- is mourning the popular principal. She died Wednesday at the hospital.

"Barbara was Pascack Valley, 24/7," said her friend Susan Dunn, who has taught Spanish at the high school for 30 years.

"Her devotion, her love, her dedication to this school is unprecedented."

Sapienza, a native of Park Ridge and a resident of Saddle River, was the regional school district's employee of longest standing. She started as a typing teacher at Pascack Valley High School in April 1968. She rose to administration and, in 1993, to principal.

"This was her career home," Tantillo said. "She didn't have children of her own, but she had thousands of children in her students. She loved being in the middle of the kids."

Sapienza took an active role in the school's $23 million renovation, which was finished last summer.

"She made sure everything was Pascack Valley green and often said her blood ran green, and I truly believe that," the superintendent said. "She had tremendous pride in her school and was detailed about how she envisioned the renovations, down to the last carpet tile."

Sheila Ottino of River Vale, co-president of the Pascack Valley High School Parent-Faculty Organization, said the always impeccably dressed Sapienza was a quiet and reserved woman, "but once you got to know her, you knew the heart of gold she had."

"She always made a point of saying, 'You are my family,' " said Ottino, whose son is a senior at the high school and whose daughter graduated in 2000.

Jared Dubin of River Vale, the student council president, said it was obvious to students their principal was having trouble getting around the school.

"But it never seemed like she didn't want to be here," said Dubin, bound for the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. "She didn't let [the pain] get in her way."

Dubin and his friends have Sapienza to thank for an end-of-year tradition at Pascack Valley High: senior cut day. She endorsed the idea some years ago, when the student council suggested having a day for seniors to cut classes with impunity.

"Anything for the students, she embraced," Dubin said.

On Thursday, 11th-graders took standardized tests as scheduled and counselors were made available for students. The consolation was mutual: Teachers were there for the students just as much as students were there for the principal's longtime colleagues, Dubin said.

Citing patient confidentiality, Hackensack University Medical Center declined Thursday to discuss Sapienza's case.

Aside from knee problems, Sapienza had been in "perfect health," said her mother and only survivor, Sally Leone of Glen Rock.

Barbara Sapienza was predeceased by her husband, Charles Sapienza.

Visiting will be tonight from 6 to 9 at Vander Plaat-Vermeulen Memorial Home, Franklin Lakes. The funeral will be at noon Saturday at Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Franklin Lakes. Interment will be private.

E-mail: levin@northjersey.com


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