YORKTOWN, N.Y. – An educator of 43 years, Dr. Ralph Napolitano’s 11 years as Yorktown’s superintendent was just a small portion of his career; however, his decision to retire at the end of this school year was a big one.
“The job of superintendent is a very challenging one. Schools are complex businesses that have the most valuable products—people’s children,” Napolitano said. “I am up early, out late and work weekends to ensure that the children are safe, supported and secure. I have worked tirelessly to support the administrators, teachers and staff members who have come to mean so much to me.”
Over the years, Napolitano has demonstrated his dedication to his students in many ways, often prioritizing them over himself. He’s missed his own surprise party to be the guest of honor at a student’s dance performance and carried a student who had a broken leg up the ancient stairs of a Bronx high school just so she wouldn’t have to miss class.
“If memory serves me, I think I remember carrying her,” he said. “She didn’t weigh a lot by any means, but oh my God that cast was heavy.”
This is just one of many “vignettes” (a term his former students affectionately coined) that Napolitano has been reminded of since he announced his retirement last week.
Any sadness he feels is assuaged by the flood of supportive calls and emails he’s received from former students and parents, telling him fond memories of him or the impact his guidance left on themselves or their children.
“I just got one this morning that actually made me cry,” he admitted.
It’s been an emotional few weeks for the district. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room at the March 6 Board of Education meeting after Jackie Carbone, school board president, read a special resolution to accept his resignation.
“We will be forever grateful to Dr. Napolitano for all he has done for our Yorktown community,” Carbone said. “He is a person of tremendous integrity and honesty, he has strengthened and enhanced our educational programs, with a focus towards developing students who will be caring, compassionate, contributing world citizens. As he has often said, he is a teacher whose classroom has gotten larger as his role increased, he has taught us all so many invaluable lessons. We are all truly better people for having had him as our leader for the past 11 years.”
Napolitano said he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife of 42 years, Joann, and possibly more time on hobbies such as dancing and reading. However, talking about the end of his career has been hard. Napolitano said those who know him well wouldn’t believe it, but there was once a time where being at a loss of words wasn’t out of the ordinary for him.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “However, as a child, I was painfully shy and knew that quality would not work in the classroom.”
Napolitano was born in East Harlem and spent his early years in an Italian enclave on 116th Street. The rest of his childhood was spent living in a project on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Though he said his parents owned little of value, he considered them to be the richest people in the world.
“They were rich in family, friends, faith, food in abundance (my mother was an excellent cook) and fun,” he said. “They loved music, loved company and loved life.”
Though neither were formally educated, Napolitano said, they were his original teachers and inspired him “tremendously.”
“They were very kind, compassionate and generous people who believed that helping others was the most important thing that one can do with his or her life,” he said.
They loved children, he said, and valued education. He said they instilled in him their belief that one’s education should be used for the betterment of others. When he landed his first teaching job at St. Theresa’s in the Bronx, a place where the number of students he was to be responsible for wasn’t much less than the salary he was being paid to do so, they were overjoyed.
“They thought it was the greatest opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “And you know, it was. It really was.”
After 43 years, several schools and thousands of students, Napolitano has looked up from his work and realized that somewhere in between teaching science to sixth graders, ditching his Burt Reynolds moustache and crafting plans for capital project reserve funds, he accomplished what he set out to do. He has also inspired many of his students, including two of his own three children, to become educators.
“Educators have an opportunity to make the world a better place every single day by influencing and challenging their students to think empathetically, compassionately and courageously about how they can make a difference in their schools and communities and change the world,” he said.
Prior to coming to Yorktown, Napolitano was the assistant superintendent of the Irvington School District. Before that, he was principal at St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx for eight years and principal of Pleasantville High School for nine. He has also taught at the College of St. Vincent in Riverdale.
As superintendent, he has focused on developing a curriculum for the whole child, promoting character education, encouraging physical fitness and wellness. Because of this, when he looks back at his time in Yorktown, the highlight reel includes when the district was named a State School District of Character in 2015, only to be topped in 2016 when it was named National School District of Character—one of just four in the country.
Additionally, he has been the recipient of several awards, including the Elizabeth Ann Seton Compassionate Educator Award. Most recently, he was notified that in April he will receive the School District Leadership Award in character education at the Champion of Character Banquet in Troy, N.Y.
In 1995, he was honored to be the Grand Marshall of the Bronx Columbus Day Parade, and has the sash framed on the wall of his office to prove it.
Certificates of distinction and plaques aside, Napolitano’s sense of humor is also represented on his walls. He has a printed photo of himself circa 1974 beside a photo of John Travolta striking a pose in his iconic Studio 54 white disco suit. In his photo, Napolitano dons a moustache and a glaringly identical suit to Travolta’s. Travolta’s photo is dated three years later.
As one of his former students from Pleasantville High School put it, Napolitano’s “humor and compassion always transcend his professional, straight-laced appearance.” It was the same student who referred to Napolitano’s often detailed stories as vignettes. As a parting gift to Napolitano when he left the Pleasantville School District, the student wrote a vignette for Napolitano with that quote included. That gift is also hung up on the wall.
As the time to say goodbye inches closer, Napolitano is not having visions of skipping off into the sunset just yet. “The retirement word,” as Napolitano calls it, hangs heavy on the disco aficionado’s dancing shoes, which several former students and parents have said to both him and Yorktown News, are going to be very hard to fill.
“These 43 years have flown by and I would do it all over again if I had the chance,” he said. “I have never stopped loving the work or loving the students who will be the change agents of the future.”