When John Passarella was a sixth-grader at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Melrose Park, his teacher, Sister Thomas Agnes, told her young student that he needed to relax more.
But that never really worked for Passarella, the assistant principal for student affairs at Riverside-Brookfield High School. Passarella, who has lived in Brookfield for the past 29 years, is known for his energy, his passion, and for always being on the go.
“I get it from my mom, I really do, my late mother,” said Passarella in an interview in his office this week. “I believe you’ve got to leave it all on the table and you should wake up tired.
“There is no off switch, there is no slow. It’s faster, faster. This isn’t show, this is just what makes me me, this energy. I can’t not do this.”
But Passarella, 56, may soon need to learn to relax or find another outlet for his energy, because he is retiring next month after a 33-year career in education, including the last 12 highly visible and involved years at RBHS.
It’s going to be tough transition said an emotional Passarella, who choked up a few times during a 40-minute interview reviewing his career.
“[Leaving] this job here is going to be a void that’s going to be very difficult to fill,” Passarella said. “It’s hard to explain because I’ve done it for 33 years. I’ve been Mr. Passarella for 33 years, longer than I’ve been John Passarella. I’ll learn how to re-identify myself as John Passarella.”
He will be missed at RBHS where he is a constant presence. Passarella has not been a distant administrator who stays in his office. Every day he interacts with student in ways both large and small. He arrives at RBHS at around 6 a.m., is always out and about and keeps his office door open whenever he can.
He responds to emergencies, walkie-talkie in hand, dealing out a cocktail of discipline and love when a kid messes up. He goes to the police station when a complaint needs to be signed or if a student is arrested, he monitors the raucous student cheering section at athletic events and even helps direct traffic before and after school.
“Mr. Passarella holds the whole school together,” said Jennifer Lucas, the mother of two current students and two graduates. “We see him at all the activities. We’re going to miss him when he retires.”
Wherever there’s a large group of students are that’s where you’re mostly likely to find Passarella.
“Mr. Passarella is an amazing man,” said Robby Filec the president of the Student Association. “He really loves what he does and he loves the students, and he’s not afraid to show that.”
Passarella roams the cafeteria during lunch every day talking to kids, shaking hands, high-fiving and celebrating birthdays all the while monitoring the atmosphere and preventing kids from cutting ahead of others in line.
“I believe lunch is your greatest opportunity as an administrator to really get a gauge on your building,” Passarella said. “It’s the least restrictive environment with the largest volume of students.”
He is known for three sayings: “Make wise choices,” “This is our house” and “You’ve got to want it.”
Passarella gets emotional thinking about not working in a school any more.
“I knew 33 years ago, I really did, the gift that I was given when I received my certificate and then a job,” Passarella said. “I knew the gift of relationships with those students, what it was then, so I’ve really enjoyed my journey.”
He began his career as art teacher at Lindop School in Broadview, staying for 18 years. He moved into administration as a junior high assistant principal and then an elementary school principal in Worth. After a couple years in Worth he became the principal at Komarek School in North Riverside, where he stayed for one year before coming to RB.
Passarella’s son was a student at RBHS when he was principal at Komarek and he became a loud presence at RBHS sporting events, cheering on his son.
He pestered then Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann about a job and Baldermann hired him on a one-year basis as the assistant to Bill Lehotsky, the school’s revered assistant principal, who was battling cancer. Passarella took a pay cut to work at RBHS.
“The reason I wanted to be around high school students is because their decisions could change the course of their life,” Passarella said. “I’ve always looked at myself as a teacher in an office, not an administrator.”
Lehotsky, who died in 2008, retired after that one year of working together. Passarella succeeded him, saying that year of working with Lehotsky was invaluable.
“Bill in a sense mentored me, cross-trained me,” said Passarella, who gets emotional talking about Lehotsky. “I haven’t filled his position. I’ve just done his tasks.”
Riverside police chief Tom Weitzel has worked closely with Passarella over the years. Weitzel, who was the detective sergeant when Passarella was hired, was immediately impressed when Passarella gave him his home and cellphone numbers and told him to call anytime.
“He was always available and always professional,” Weitzel said. “I can honestly say there’s not a single police officer in my department that has not worked with John Passarella in one way or another. He’s one of the most energetic people I’ve ever met.”
While Passarella often had to sign complaints for the school, leading to arrests, he also looked out for students and sometimes would ask police to consider other approaches short of a formal arrest.
“He was just as much an advocate for students getting the help they needed as he was when his role was to represent the school maybe in a capacity when he had to sign complaints,” Weitzel said. “He did both sides. He’s a very compassionate person.”
Passarella never would give up on a kid.
“Because it really is about hope,” Passarella said. “We’re trying to create hope in these kids, but it’s about accountability. You’ve got to have a plan, you’ve got to set goals and you’ve got to stick to it. And if you do that, you’ll succeed.”
What’s next? Passarella is considering his options. He has worked part time as a supervisor for a private security firm and may expand his role.
“I’m way too young to slow down,” Passarella said. “I don’t know. That chapter of my life has yet to be written. There’s options that I’m looking at. I’m going to do security in some capacity for sure. I enjoy security. I love that because there I’m in charge again. I think it has something to do with being in charge.”
It will be very emotional for Passarella at graduation on Friday, where he will again read the names of the graduates as he always does. But this time he is likely to be called upon to say a few words about himself.
“It’s been a fun run,” Passarella said. “I have no regrets.”