Contributed by Mia Puccio
Tom DeMaio became assistant principal at Pascack Valley in the fall of 2002, but he almost did not even interview for the position.
“The superintendent at Leonia offered me a different position and a nice raise,” DeMaio said. “I came back and told Dr. Sapienza that I was going to withdraw my application and stay at Leonia.”
But Sapienza, PV’s principal at the time, would not take no for an answer.
“She said I owe it to myself to see the whole process through before I make my decision,” said DeMaio, who took Sapienza’s advice, finished a round of interviews, and accepted the job offer.
Twelve years after stepping in for Sapienza as principal following her sudden passing, DeMaio is retiring. His last day is Dec. 20, the day before winter break.
“When you invest yourself into something, it becomes a part of you,” DeMaio said. “[Being principal] becomes a part of you. Your motor doesn’t shut off. You’re on this thing 24/7, 7 days a week.”
Coming to PV
While DeMaio was the assistant principal at Leonia Middle School, a friend who had worked with Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Ben Tantillo told him about an opening at PV. DeMaio applied but then had second thoughts — Sapienza said no.
“My wife said ‘What do you mean she said no? She can’t do that,’” DeMaio said. “I said ‘But she did, so I guess I’m going to keep going.’”
Six years later, DeMaio was made the acting principal while Sapienza was undergoing knee replacement surgery. Following the operation, she went into a month-long coma and unexpectedly passed away in the middle of the 2007-2008 school year. DeMaio found out from Tantillo that he would be offered the permanent principal position.
He originally did not realize the responsibilities that came with being the principal and needed to adapt to the changes.
“I just figured to keep doing what I’m doing, but now all of a sudden, I’m dealing with so many layers to the onion,” DeMaio said. “There were just so many other things that started to come onto the desk. Your day-to-day is completely different. When anyone has a problem, it’s very important to them and you have to make sure that you deal with that nature.”
As principal, DeMaio said he has become more retrospective and perspective since he had the opportunity to look behind closed doors.
“I know I’m definitely going to miss this place and this job,” DeMaio said. “I’m going to miss everybody, from the students, to the custodians, to the aides, to the secretaries, to the teachers. I’m going to miss all the conversations that I have on a daily basis.”
DeMaio said his retirement has been an “ongoing conversation” and “it was just right” to retire before January. The first person he told in the district was Superintendent Erik Gundersen.
“It’s something that my wife and I have been mauling and talking about,” DeMaio said. “You look around and you see some of your friends and colleagues that didn’t get a chance to enjoy retirement or they retired and got sick. It was just something we felt that it was now a good time to do something different and spend more time together. I thought it might be a good transition to start a brand new year.”
The beginning of his career
DeMaio graduated from Hawthorne High School in 1979 and was told by his dad, a teacher and athletic director, to not pursue a career in education. In college, he received a business degree at Seton Hall University and graduated in 1983.
After college, DeMaio decided to go to graduate school and quickly “fell in love with being a football coach.”
“I went from going to graduate school and coaching to coaching and going to graduate school,” DeMaio said.
DeMaio coached college football for seven years at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut, and Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, before becoming the head football coach at William Paterson University in Wayne.
“I love the game of football,” DeMaio said. “It has a family-like atmosphere and it teaches you to rely on somebody else on every single practice and play. I feel like so much of who I am and what I learned about life was translated from what I learned from football. I love the strategy of the game, the competition, comradery, and the discipline that comes with it.”
Once DeMaio got married and had his first daughter, he wanted to find a stable environment for his family and received his teaching certification. His first job was at Elmwood Park where he became a middle school math teacher and coached high school football while pursuing his administrative certification.
“With college football, you can be bouncing around the country, so I wanted a little bit more of a stable family life,” DeMaio said.
Eighteen memorable years
While at PV, DeMaio enjoyed the Valley Cups, the physics bridge projects, the first trip to Italy with the exchange program, PV choir teacher and Tri-M Music Honor Society Adviser Argine Safari’s Iceland trip, the plays, and the football, volleyball, basketball, and tennis state championships he witnessed.
“[I love] when I get to see kids in PV do things other than academics and see them get outside of who they are as just a student, whether they are an athlete, singer, journalist, a theatre person, and see them get excited to do what they do,” DeMaio said. “Those are great great moments for me.”
DeMaio hopes the next principal “sits back and watches” students and teachers pursue their passions.
“Just watch what could happen when you let the kids and teachers do things that they get a passion for,” DeMaio said. “I look around and look at so many teachers who have gotten so many accolades, awards and accomplishments — it’s not just one teacher. You can go into every department and all these teachers made a lasting impact on me.”
Gundersen said one of DeMaio’s biggest hallmarks at PV was his contributions in technology since the 1:1 program and virtual school days began when he started as principal.
“He’s the type of person to see what we can do to improve,” Gundersen said. “He’s always seeking out what’s next and what could be better in the classroom.”
Gundersen mentioned how DeMaio should also be known for contributing to the overall school spirit at PV and help figure out ways the district can prepare its students for college and beyond.
“He really was the one who kicked off Valley Cup,” Gundersen said. “He’s been very focused on social causes, such as everything he has been doing from the T.E.E.E.M. organization to class causes. We’ve expanded our athletic programs and co-corriculturar programs under Mr. DeMaio. He’s been very supportive of what’s taken place.”
DeMaio does not credit himself for any programs introduced over the last 18 years, but instead, believes it was a collaborative effort among the community.
“It was everybody,” DeMaio said. “I might throw the idea out there and let everybody decide the best way to do it. A lot of things that we’ve done have come from other people and I supported it and figured out how to make it work, or I might throw out an idea and let them figure it out. All I can do is try to create an environment that allows you to feel good about being here and hopefully that’s what I’ve been able to do.”
The next stage
DeMaio said there are multiple goals that need to be completed before retiring, including the music wing renovation, but he wants to enjoy his last days at PV.
“This place is paradise,” DeMaio said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have problems, even Adam and Eve had problems. There’s always going to be things that can be better and we can improve upon, but that doesn’t mean the foundation for what this place stands for and what really occurs here every day isn’t great. It is, and that’s because of you guys.”
Once retiring, DeMaio hopes to spend time with his wife and his parents since his mom is going to be turning 80.
“My oldest daughter just got a new job at Duke, so I want to go down and visit her,” DeMaio said. “My middle one is teaching at George White and coaches three sports, so I want to be able to see more of her games. My youngest one is finishing up nursing school so she’s been knee-deep in her studies. Being able to spend more time with those guys is what’s on my immediate plan, and then to go sit on my boat on Lake Wallenpaupack and just relax for a little while. From there, I’m going to figure it out.”
Interim principal, permanent principal to be decided
The administration is currently soliciting resumes for interested candidates who are retired former principals and will announce the interim principal around the end of November, according to Gundersen. The selected candidate will be at PV from Jan. 1 until the end of June.
“The idea is to get somebody to keep things moving and serve as principal in the building for the remainder of the year while we seek someone to take over the position for the long term,” Gundersen said.
The permanent principal position could be an internal or external candidate and will be announced in the spring of 2020 with an anticipated start of July 1.
“I hope the next person that comes along enjoys what this building is all about and truly know and appreciate how good the teaching staff is,” DeMaio said. “They really appreciate the kids that are here. I gave a lot of pride in watching our kids succeed.”