St. John Neumann grads dedicate ceremony to Tony Grasso, former teacher, basketball coach

Graduates throw their caps after the St. John Neumann High School commencement ceremony Wednesday, May 18, 2010 at St. John Neumann in East Naples.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Graduates throw their caps after the St. John Neumann High School commencement ceremony Wednesday, May 18, 2010 at St. John Neumann in East Naples.

Saint John Neumann High School

3000 53rd Street SW, Naples, FL

— As seniors at St. John Neumann High School graduated on Wednesday night, the gym was filled with people.

But one attendee in particular was on their minds.

Tony Grasso is more than a science teacher and a basketball coach to the graduates. Grasso is an example of spirit and love.

Grasso, who is a five-year cancer survivor, suffered a stroke in November that left his right side paralyzed. He uses a wheelchair and his speech is still impaired. Six months later, he still has to struggle to say simple phrases, though his blue eyes express his desire to share his thoughts.

Grasso had to retire from the classroom and the basketball court. Although he is still recovering from his stroke, Grasso donned his traditional graduation regalia and participated in the ceremony to support his students during their rite of passage.

Stephan Mazula, his longtime friend and a fellow St. John Neumann teacher, pushed Grasso’s wheelchair during the processional.

Mazula, met Grasso in 1974 when they were both teaching at Power Memorial Academy in New York City. Their friendship, which has spanned more than three decades, has not been hurt by these latest obstacles.

“We’ve been able to help each other for the last 36 years. We’ve never been more than a phone call away,” Mazula said.

The crowd gave a standing ovation as they passed.

There were other tributes to the teacher and coach as the ceremony continued.

Natasha Lai, who graduated summa cum laude, gave the introductory address on behalf of her graduating class. During her speech, she said the class of 2010 wanted their moment to be a gift to Grasso.

“Our class would like to dedicate our achievements to … Mr. Grasso,” she said.

She explained later why they chose to acknowledge him.

“He always knows what to say. He’s every kid’s best friend. When he suffered the stroke, it devastated the whole school,” Lai said.

Her freshman year, Grasso was intimidating. She believes that his jokes about him hating freshmen were just a ruse to keep them focused.

“After freshman year, he’s the one everyone went to,” Lai said.

Every day, Grasso would have a word on the board to challenge his students. On Fridays the word on the board was always “thanks.” He would ask students to name what they were thankful for, Lai said.

“He reminded you that there’s always something to be thankful for,” she said.

She was thankful to see Grasso at graduation, even though it was emotional for her.

“I definitely needed it,” she said.

Grasso’s wife, Terri, said nothing was going to keep her husband from attending.

“He loves the kids. He has a big connection to them,” she said.

When asked what he was thankful for, Mazula and Terri Grasso were able to help Grasso articulate two words, “The students.” “Is that all you’re thankful for?” Teri asked him.

“You,” he managed to say on his own.

Nicole D’Agostino came to see her beloved teacher after she tossed her cap into the air on the football field with the rest of her classmates, a St. John Neumann tradition.

D’Agostino kneeled beside Grasso’s wheel chair and looked him in the eyes as she said “thank you.” Grasso managed to shake his head at her. “Thank you,” he said.

D’Agostino said Grasso has been like a family member to all of the St. John Neumann community.

When her little brother was diagnosed with cancer, it was Grasso, himself a cancer survivor, who helped her and her family accept it.

Grasso also inspired her to sing the national anthem at the basketball games.

“He gave me the courage,” she said. “He made me brave. He made it easier for me to become the best that I could be.”

D’Agostino remembers that the entire community was shocked when they heard about Grasso’s stroke. Despite the shock, D’Agostino said they had confidence in him.

“All of us knew that if anyone could make it through, it would be Mr. Grasso,” she said.

His attendance at graduation is just another example of his strong spirit, according to D’Agostino.

“It means a lot that even though he’s struggling that he would come for us,” she said. “Though it was amazing, it wasn’t surprising.”

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E-mail Maryann Batlle at maryannbatlle@gmail.com.

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