Darlington’s Chris Hunter Stadium will be filled with Hawaiian shirts (and likely some Crocs) at the Tigers’ first home game this Friday in memory of history teacher John Zazzaro, who passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday after having a medical emergency during class.
“It’s hard for me to imagine how Darlington will be without ‘Z’ -- such a big-hearted personality, full of laughter and a passion for working with students,” said Doug Hamil, head of Moser House and close friend. “Whether he was bluntly giving you his opinion or causing the room to burst out in laughter, he was always a genuine soul.”
In true John Zazzaro spirit, the Tigers plan to play “Victory March,” the Notre Dame fight song, and have tater tot nachos on hand in the concession stand, which Zazzaro had planned to run this season. The players will also wear “Z” heart decals on their helmets and cheerleaders will have a batch of "Z" heart T-shirts to throw to fans in the stands.
“As deeply as we all miss John, you can’t memorialize him with sadness,” said Hamil. “I can’t think of any better place to celebrate his spirit than at a Friday night football game.”
A member of Darlington’s faculty since 2011, Zazzaro began his tenure as head of Neville House, one of three boys’ residence halls at Darlington. He and his wife Bebe, Pre-K to 8 counselor, raised their sons, Colin (‘19) and Casey (’19), in Neville House alongside young men from all over the country and the world.
“Mr. Z treated me -- as well as all of my other friends in Neville House -- like a son,” said Cam Watson (‘19). “He never failed to bring a smile to our faces and bring us up when we were feeling down or homesick. He was always my No. 1 fan at football games when I knew my parents couldn't be at all of them. Mr. Z did so much for me, and I know I wouldn't be where I am today without him. I am going to miss him so much. He made Darlington feel like a home to me.”
Nic Scoccimaro ('14) called Zazzaro a shining example of Darlington's Motto: "Wisdom More Than Knowledge; Service Beyond Self; Honor Above Everything."
“My greatest memories of John Zazzaro can’t be boiled down to a few highlights -- it was the day-to-day memories that stick: the perpetual grin he wore, the birthday dinners he made for us, inside jokes yelled down hallways, and the countless times he was available for us to confide in," he said. "Mr. Zazzaro was a great father, leader, mentor and teacher. He was the glue that held us together."
Classmate Kwabe Kumi ('14) echoed these sentiments. "I truly believe the ‘home away from home’ culture that I experienced in my time at Darlington is mostly attributed to Mr. Z," he said. "He created that urge which made many of us excited to leave our homes at the end of summer or winter break and get back to Neville House. Most importantly, he created the foundation that built us into men. He was a father to so many of us and treated us no differently than treated his own sons. Mr. Z molded me not only into a more compassionate person, but a person who could be honest and true to myself and others. I can speak for many of my closest friends when I say that his impact on our lives will never be forgotten, and his memory will always be cherished.”
As a member of the student life team, Zazzaro worked extensively with Darlington’s student leadership organizations, serving as faculty advisor of the Student Council and spearheading the Boys’ Life program, which provides life skills to help boarding students develop a greater understanding of themselves and their community at large.
After eight years as a head of house, Zazzaro entered the classroom full time in 2019, teaching AP Human Geography and Modern World History. He was also assistant coach of the boys’ and girls’ varsity tennis teams.
“John was a wonderful teacher and a valued member of our department,” said Brian Inman, chairman of the history department. “His passion for teaching, gregarious personality, and love for his students made every day in his classroom a special one. His progressive teaching style and creative ideas were at the forefront of Darlington’s mission as a school. John’s absence will leave a deep void which will be felt by his fellow teachers and students. We will miss him immeasurably.”
Zazzaro’s lifelong love of teaching and learning has impacted young people far beyond Darlington’s gates. Prior to his work here, he served as chairman of the history department and athletic coach at Carolina Day School in Asheville, N.C., as well as a teacher, dorm parent, and coach at Christchurch School in Virginia.
Additionally, he and Bebe have spent their summers working at Camp Androscoggin, an all-boys summer camp in Maine, for three decades. In fact, that is where the couple first met.
“John loved the magic of summer at camp,” said Hamil. “Those experiences inspired most of the dorm events and campus activities that he created here. Even his beloved Sausagefest, a cookout where the boys’ dorms feast on a variety of sausage from around the world, found its way from Maine to Darlington during his time as head of Neville House.”
Neville House alumnus Noah Katz ('14) even had the opportunity to work alongside the Zazzaros at camp one summer.
“Mr. Z made me feel like a part of his family, not just a member of his dorm," he said. "He pushed me to excel and was there every step of my high-school career and beyond. When I was a college freshman, unsure of what to do with my summer, Mr. Z went out of his way to help me find a job at the summer camp where he and his family were an institution. That selfless action is just one indicator of the type of man John Zazzaro was: an inspiration, a leader, and above all, a champion. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him."
In a letter to his advisees at the start of the current school year, Zazzaro shared a lesson he learned at Camp Androscoggin this past summer.
“There is a constant thread that binds us all,” he wrote. “Some call it the Golden Rule. I have learned throughout my life that ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is a thought that is present in every religion and society. At my camp, we have a motto that speaks to this message: ‘Help the other fellow.’ And, this summer I have rediscovered that message and came to realize that, much like the Golden Rule, it is just that simple...
“Helping the other fellow is exactly how we were successful [at Darlington] last year and will be again in 2021-22,” he continued. “I challenge all of you to live by the Rule. Put others first! Look around you, lend a hand where needed, put the community, the team, and the class before your own needs … This year, I want each of you to set goals for yourself based on the idea of looking outward. What can you do to make others around you more successful? What can you do to make Darlington a better place? How can you help the other fellow? I think that you will discover that if you are successful with these goals that the rest of your own personal goals will happen more easily and readily.”
When applying at Darlington in 2011, Zazzaro described himself as an experienced educator committed to the educational, spiritual, moral, and social development of young adults; an enthusiastic and innovative planner of curriculum, activities, and non-traditional educational opportunities; and a fun-loving, open-minded, and nurturing educator.
“These words truly encapsulate John and all that he has done at Darlington and elsewhere during his career as an educator,” said Matthew Peer, director of enrollment management and former director of Upper School, who hired Zazzaro.
“John has worn many hats during his tenure in independent schools and the one he wore proudest was that of student advocate. Whether he was sitting with a student in the emergency room at 2 a.m.; or in a Disciplinary Committee meeting after school; or during a free period in his office, classroom, or The Growl, he was always there for our students here at Darlington,” Peer continued. “John realized that the life lessons taught outside of the classroom were just as important as the wisdom learned inside of it. I am confident that there will be generations of students who will be better people, partners and parents because they had the opportunity to learn how to live life from Mr. Z.”
Social media feeds are a sea of purple this week as members of the Darlington Community show their love for Zazzaro and his family with a “Z” heart graphic designed by Hamil. Stickers and decals featuring the graphic will be available in The DAR Shop soon.
There is no doubt that John Zazzaro and his larger-than-life personality will be missed at Darlington. Please continue to keep his family, friends and students in your thoughts and prayers during the difficult days ahead.
A Celebration of Life service will take place this Saturday, Aug. 28, at 2 p.m. in Darlington School’s Morris Chapel. The service will be live streamed at www.darlingtonschool.org/zazzaro. The school also held a student-organized vigil at Chris Hunter Stadium on Aug. 24 and a prayer service in Morris Chapel on Aug. 25.