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Short walk leads to long career

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story was written by Steve Knapp who covers sports for six newspapers in the Englewood, Fla. area. The article profiles Tom Catanzarite who has served as teacher, coach and athletic director in Lemon Bay High School, where the gym bears his name, for 32 years after moving south from Hammond.

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Lemon Bay Athletic Director Tom Catanzarite was teaching math in a small school of 320 students in upstate New York close to the Canadian border. An aide at the school sort of “adopted” Catanzarite and his young wife Donna. After the aide’s husband had a major heart attack he was told to move to a warm climate and settled in Englewood.

Catanzarite visited this family in Englewood during spring break. On their first visit, with a few hours to kill before leaving for their flight back to New York, Catanzarite told Donna that he was going to walk to the school and just “talk to somebody”.

The principal, Mr. Bedford, told him that if he was interested in a job he would have to get his Florida certification as a teacher. During the next year Catanzarite did what was needed to become a teacher in Florida.

In his second spring break trip he again talked to Mr. Bedford. When he returned to New York, Catanzarite received a letter offering him a job as a teacher and possibly as a coach.

Catanzarite tells the rest of the story. “So we pretty much packed up and headed south. We went from two jobs to one because my wife didn’t have a job down here. We went from one house mortgage to two because we didn’t sell our home up north. We had just bought our house and our son was going to be two in October. But we took a chance.”

Thirty two years later their leap of faith has paid off for the young couple that “took a chance”.

Catanzarite has left his mark on thousands of students and young athletes that have passed through the halls at Lemon Bay High School. His name will live on as it is mounted on the high school gym. Having a gym named after you is quite an honor.

A modest Catanzarite reflected on the honor. “It a very humbling experience. I don’t know why it was done per se. I know I spent a lot of time up here. Our former principal Mr Strickland did it unbeknownst to me. It’s very humbling. It was never part of my plan to have a gym named after me. At least it isn’t a memorial for me because I’m still alive.”

He was instrumental in starting open gyms for the youth of Englewood. Those open gyms began youth leagues that have developed athletes that have starred at the high school level. He has coached basketball, golf and baseball for the Manta Rays. He spent 29 years as the head basketball coach at Lemon Bay which may have had something to do with the gym being named after him. He had the rare experience of coaching basketball against his son Matt. Matt was coaching at South Ft. Myers and they played each other three times. “The old man won two out of three,” Catanzarite proudly remembered. His wife and mother-in-law rooted for Matt’s team because “They cheered for me long enough.”

Catanzarite was born and raised in Massena just south of the Canadian border in upstate New York. He went to a Catholic High School and graduated in 1970. He played basketball, football, baseball and golf at Holy Family High School. At Potsdam State University he played freshman basketball. The Bears won the Division 3 National Championship a few years after Catanzarite graduated. “To be perfectly honest I wasn’t good enough to play varsity basketball so I was the manager of the team. On game days I kept the official book for the game,” Catanzarite remembered.

He taught math in Hammond New York for six years after graduation. Catanzarite also coached basketball and soccer at the school.

It was while he was teaching in Hammond that they took their spring breaks in Englewood which led to his walk to school “just to talk to somebody”.

As the athletic director for nearly 20 years, Catanzarite has never lost his desire to teach. His two math classes in the morning allow him to stay in touch with the students. “If I couldn’t teach and had to be the athletic director full time, I wouldn’t do it. I’m a teacher first,” said Catanzarite.

The athletic director does more than just attend the games for free eat a couple of hot dogs and collect the ticket money. After his two hours of classes, he checks in with his secretary Maureen Roberts for phone calls and any issues that need to be handled immediately.

He has mountains of paperwork for every sport ranging from physicals, insurance papers, permission to participate forms, pay to participate forms, concussion paperwork along with academic eligibility forms. The Florida High School rule book is updated every year and is the size of a small phone book. There are updates to that book and he must know all the rules concerning operating high school sports.

All of these duties are handled by Roberts who Catanzarite calls “a life saver”. All the paperwork and computer time that she handles allows him to cover other duties that must be done.

Catanzarite is in contact with other athletic directors to make up schedules for all the sports. He also has to arrange transportation, hire officials, check on concessions to make sure they are well stocked and have volunteers to work. Then he has to recheck with each of these groups to verify that their responsibilities will be met.

He has to deal with the public such as parents, salespeople, and even reporters too. Whenever there is an issue with an athlete or questions from a coach, he is the one they come to. There are budget concerns and fundraising issues that all fall on his shoulders.

He has to be an advisor, judge, mediator, psychologist and much more to make sure everything runs smoothly at every athletic contest that the Mantas participate in.

It is a job that requires a person to wear many hats. During my hour in his office, he had one visitor and two phone calls. After we finished talking he was on his way out to the football field to paint the lines and to cut the grass if it was needed. When you enjoy a game involving a Lemon Bay team and you happen to see Catanzarite at the game, thank him for all he does and for taking the walk just “to talk to somebody” so many years ago.

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