Longtime Batavia educator Sam Rotolo dies

Sam Rotolo believed strongly that nobody, not even a teacher, should try to take away a child's dignity.

Even when that child had to face discipline for breaking a rule at Batavia Junior High School, of which Rotolo was principal for 23 years.

"There's a saying that says, 'Kids don't care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.' It's so true at the middle school level," he said in a 2001 Daily Herald interview. "They're testing their independence, starting to mature, but they're still kids. And they need to be kids."

Rotolo died Sunday at 89.

He was born in Chicago, to Sicilian immigrants. His mother worked in a candy factory. His father, a tobacco salesman, wrote and performed Italian-language plays monthly and took his son to Italian operas.

He obtained his bachelor's degree at Northern Illinois University after his military service during World War II that included fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.

For four years, he taught at the Illinois State Training School for Boys in St. Charles (now called the Illinois Youth Center).

He then moved to Batavia, becoming a physical education teacher and later principal at the old Louise White Elementary School on Washington Avenue. Then he was appointed principal of the junior high, located in those days at Wilson Street and Batavia Avenue.

He spent the rest of his career there, retiring in 1989.

During summers, Batavia children saw Rotolo in another role. He taught more than 1,000 of them to swim at "the quarry," now called Harold Hall Quarry Beach. The finale of the lessons was a jump from a diving platform into the deep end. Rotolo was known to encourage the most doubtful by offering to jump with them.

Rotolo's Italian heritage made the local news in 2006, when parents protested and filed a lawsuit against a middle school play about "little mobsters," saying it denigrated Italian-Americans. Rotolo was asked to comment.

He defended the teacher who wrote the play. "He's a fine young man who gets a lot out of the kids," Rotolo said. "He would never do anything to ridicule any ethnic group."

In 1992, the district opened Batavia Middle School. In 2001, a group calling itself "Sam's Fans" petitioned the district to rename it as Rotolo Middle School.

The late Bill Wood, a former teacher and administrator for whom Hoover-Wood School had been named, made the case.

"He caused us to look at our relationship with students," Wood said in an October 2001 Daily Herald article about the matter. "Many of us took him as our mentor."

"The relationship between the teacher and the student is so important," Rotolo said in 2001. "How a teacher reacts to a child results in how the child will relate to the teacher. Punishment is not the answer. Teachers are there to help them, not to hurt them."

His interest in education continued after retirement, as he served on the board of directors for Two Rivers Head Start and maintained membership in an association of secondary-school principals.

Rotolo is survived by his wife, Marlene; three daughters; five grandchildren; and a niece. A wake will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Moss Family Funeral Home, 209 S. Batavia Ave., Batavia. Services and interment will be private.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Batavia Foundation for Educational Excellence, P.O. Box 1003, Batavia, IL 60510.

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