When Tom Criscione was student at St. Bernardine School in Forest Park, no one ever imagined that young Tommy would ever become a teacher, let alone a principal, although he did spend time in the principal’s office.
“I was bad there,” said Criscione who is retiring this month after 12 years as the principal of Komarek School. “I was kind of a troublemaker, a little bit.”
Criscione left St. Bernardine’s in eighth grade and transferred to a public school where he did better and was happier. But even throughout most of high school at Proviso East, Criscione was not very interested in the academic side of school.
“I was one of those guys who was not into school per se,” said Criscione in an interview in his Komarek office. “I was into a lot of sports back in those days. … Education as a kid wasn’t that important to me and I didn’t put a lot of effort into it.”
But Criscione became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, and after almost becoming a mail carrier, he became a physical education and health teacher, eventually becoming an assistant principal before being hired as principal at Komarek School in 2004.
At Komarek, Criscione maintained a warm, caring atmosphere where students and teachers knew and liked the principal. Criscione would be at the entrance every day greeting students.
He hated what he described as the negative and demeaning treatment he experienced and saw at St. Bernadine’s, and that shaped how he treated kids in his career.
“It was a real negative, demeaning atmosphere that they promoted there,” Criscione said. “I tried to be an educator the complete opposite of how they were educators. You need to kind of try to see things the way [kids] are seeing them. Not act like a child, but try to understand what they’re thinking and I think that worked for me.”
Criscione says that his experience as a self-described difficult child led him to enjoy and have a knack for working with troubled or difficult kids.
“I was kind of a brat,” Criscione said. “I guess that’s why I relate to the difficult child as a teacher and as an administrator because I was kind of a difficult child.”
At Komarek Criscione helped troubled kids in many ways, including sometimes quietly giving financial help. Neil Pellicci, a former Komarek principal and superintendent, said Criscione would take those kids under his wing to help them succeed in school.
“Tom was always an advocate for the child, especially the ones who were kind of down on their luck,” said Pellicci, who hired Criscione. “That’s the kind of guy he was. He was always looking out for kind of the underdog, the kids that needed a little bit more.”
Criscione says the key thing is to care sincerely, because kids can spot a phony.
“Kids can tell when you really care about them,” Criscione said. “If you take some interest in them you just might get them to open up and maybe work harder or try to improve their behavior or whatever.”
The outgoing and gregarious Criscione worked well with the more buttoned-down and soft-spoken Pellicci. Criscione was the school’s liaison with police and village officials, and his blue-collar background and unpretentious personality made him a good fit at Komarek.
“I’ve made a lot friends here,” Criscione said. “When I got this job I really felt like I fit here and everybody kind of made me feel that way. I embraced the community right away and they embraced me. I felt like I was a good fit for the community.”
Criscione said he tried to make Komarek a fun place to be for students and teachers. He was known for going into a teacher’s classroom on her birthday with a musical animal to sing “Happy Birthday.” He hosted an annual end-of-year party for teachers and staff at his home in Villa Park and had an inspirational morning quote to start the day.
He helped maintain the close-knit, family atmosphere that Komarek, one of the few remaining K-8 public schools, is known for.
“We would call ourselves the Komarek family,” Criscione said. “That took in students, staff and community. That was kind of our motto. We were a family, all together.”
Criscione said that he just fit in at Komarek.
But Criscione said a familial, fun atmosphere is rare in schools nowadays, a time of increased standardized testing and assessments.
“We’ve taken the fun out of education,” Criscione said. “We’ve totally taken the fun out of school for kids.”
After graduating from Proviso East in 1976, Criscione attended Triton College for two years where he was the sports editor of the Triton student newspaper. He was planning to be to sports reporter when he transferred to Southern Illinois University.
But he didn’t like SIU, so he left after one semester. Back home in Forest Park he applied for a job with a post office and was about to accept a job as a mailman when Art Jones, the superintendent of Forest Park School District 91, encouraged him to go back and pursue a career in education.
He enrolled at University of Illinois at Chicago, majored in physical education and met his wife, Donna, a math teacher.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Criscione said of going to UIC. “I loved college.”
While teaching in River Grove and Schiller Park, Criscione coached at the high school level at Proviso West. For three years he was head baseball coach at Nazareth Academy where his 1993 team won a regional championship. He also coached junior high school basketball at Rhoads School in River Grove, where he worked.
His final year at Komarek has not been easy, said Criscione. He will miss the kids and the rest of the Komarek family. The last day of school earlier this month was especially hard on him.
“I have a lot kids from high school and college who are coming to visit and saying goodbye,” Criscione said.
It hasn’t been easy being a lame duck all year. The announcement of his successor, Jason Gold, was made in early December. And working with new Superintendent Brian Ganan was an adjustment after working 11 years under Pellicci.
“It’s been a tough year,” Criscione said. “I’m not going to tell you that it hasn’t been. There’s a lot of changes here. Even though it’s on my terms, it’s probably time for me to move on anyways.”
In retirement Criscione is looking forward to travel with his wife and three adult children. He already has a trip lined up to visit Civil War battlefields with his son.