By Bob Skolnik
Neil Pellicci has spent nearly half of his life at Komarek School. Next week his time at the school will come to an end when the superintendent of Komarek School District 94 retires after a 38-year career as a teacher, principal, and superintendent — the last 28 years at Komarek.
Pellicci, 60, who grew up in the old Italian neighborhood near Taylor Street on the Near West Side of Chicago, came to Komarek as what is believed to be the school's first full-time principal in 1987. In 2002, Pellicci became superintendent.
After so much time at one school leaving will not be easy.
"The people here are so wonderful. It's very hard because of the relationships that I've built here over the years," said Pellicci in a recent interview in his small office. "We're so close; we're like family. You watch everybody's children grow up.
"We're very close and to walk away from that is going to be very hard."
Pellicci has led Komarek with a calm, steady hand. Komarek Principal Tom Criscione has worked closely with Pellicci for the last 11 years and knows him well.
"He's not a limelight guy," Criscione said. "He doesn't look for accolades. He put a lot of hard work into this district, a lot of years. Let's face it. People don't hang around places for 28 years anymore. They just don't do it. You know these superintendents bounce around all over the place, and principals, too. It's kind of a refreshing thing to see."
Pellicci is known for his caring personality and treating everyone fairly. He made Komarek a pleasant place to work and to go to school.
"It's always been easy for me to talk to Neil," said Jan Greenenwald, who has taught in some capacity at Komarek for 44 years. "I always felt that he listened to me and took what I said — sometimes went with me, sometimes didn't — but he always gave me the courtesy of listening to my viewpoint. He follows the policies and he doesn't show partiality."
Pellicci set a positive, friendly, fun, tone at Komarek.
"One of the best qualities about him is that he doesn't hold grudges, and I think that's a really good quality that he has," Criscione said.
Pellicci has kept Komarek is good financial condition, helped by a tax increase referendum that voters approved in 2004, after the district had borrowed $2.75 million the previous year.
"That was always one of his main goals, to maintain the finances well here and he's done a great job doing that," Criscione said.
Pellicci has worked with about 35 school members during his time at Komarek.
"He was a great leader," said North Riverside Village Trustee Deborah Czajka, who served on the Komarek school board for 22 years, including four years as president. "We were never surprised about anything. He always had an open-door policy."
Pellicci set high standards for student behavior. Fighting is not tolerated at Komarek and kids just don't do it at school all that often.
"He's kind of from the old school," Criscione said. "He's stern, but then again he's very receptive to people and he's open to them as well. He's very compassionate with people."
Student demographics have changed some in the 28 years that Pellicci has been at Komarek. When he came to Komarek in 1987, students were overwhelmingly white. In 2013-14, 35.3 percent of Komarek students were Hispanic and 13.1 percent were black.
But, other than the increasing prevalence of two-working-parent families and not quite so much parental involvement in the school, Pellicci says that things are not much that different at Komarek than they were when he arrived.
"Not much has changed," Pellicci said. "It's still very family oriented."
In his first year as superintendent Pellicci started an after school homework club to help kids who only had empty houses to go home to when the dismissal bell rang.
When Pellicci became superintendent in 2002, he had to pull back just a bit from his close interaction with students as he let the new principal, John Passarella, establish his identity and authority.
That was difficult for Pellicci, and Passarella left Komarek late the following summer to take an assistant principal position at Riverside-Brookfield High School, so Pellicci served as both superintendent and principal in the action packed year of 2003-2004 when the referendum passed.
Criscione came on as principal in 2004 but Pellicci has remained a visible presence at Komarek, attending all home basketball and volleyball games. He even opened the school doors in the morning and high-fived students as they entered.
"He was at everything, and you don't see that at all with the new regimes that are coming in," Czajka said. "To me that shows me a lot right there — somebody who cares and who's around."
Perhaps the most contentious decision Pellicci made during his time at Komarek was the decision a few years ago to reduce the lunch period to 30 minutes from an hour.
"It was something we needed to do because we needed to increase instructional time, and having an hour for lunch was really very archaic," Pellicci said. "There really weren't any schools that we could find that still had an hour for lunch. We used that time and put in an enrichment period."
As a student at Illinois State University, Pellicci initially intended to go into secondary education as a science teacher, but found that he was drawn to elementary education. Pellicci began his teaching career February 1976, taking a temporary position teaching third grade at Olive School in Arlington Heights.
He then moved on to Lace School in Darien where he met his wife Deb, a fourth-grade teacher. At Lace he also worked with current Riverside-Brookfield High School music teacher Diane Marelli.
Marelli, like many who have worked with Pellicci over the years, discovered that Pellicci likes to joke around.
"He used to tease me unmercifully," Marelli recalled. "He was always pulling pranks on people."
Pellicci taught science to fifth- and sixth-graders while also eventually becoming an assistant principal and even driving the school bus. He went on to Fairview School in Darien, and served as assistant principal and taught science to fifth- to eighth-graders at Taft School in Lockport before becoming principal at Komarek.
Pellicci worked for 14 summers as a lifeguard, beach captain, and beach manager for the Chicago Park District. He worked for 10 years at the popular Oak Street Beach in Chicago and for four years at 12th Street Beach. Working in hot, crowded beaches honed his people skills.
"It was kind of an education dealing with people," Pellicci said.
Pellicci, who has run three Chicago Marathons and completed many triathlons, is a physical fitness buff. Even after a knee replacement, he still gets out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to run, bike, swim or play basketball.
He says that he's not sure what he will do in retirement other than spending more time with his five grandchildren.
Pellicci says that while he is somewhat sad to retire, it is time for a change. With typical generosity and grace, he says that he thinks that Komarek will benefit from new leadership and fresh ideas from incoming Superintendent Brian Ganan, who takes over on July 1 after serving for two years as the curriculum director in Riverside Elementary School District 96.
"They need new blood," Pellicci said. "Brian's a great choice. He has wonderful ideas. He's going to take the progress that we've had and take it even further."