Naperville North's 'Mazz' remembered for passion, connection with students

Naperville North's 'Mazz' remembered for connection with students, passion

  • Naperville North High School health teacher and diving coach Steven Mazzarella, right, shares a moment at a dads breakfast with his son, Matthew, then 12, at Madison Junior High School in Naperville.

    Naperville North High School health teacher and diving coach Steven Mazzarella, right, shares a moment at a dads breakfast with his son, Matthew, then 12, at Madison Junior High School in Naperville. Daily Herald file photo, February 2006

  • Steven Mazzarella, left, was a longtime diving coach at Naperville North High School until his retirement about five years ago. He's shown with swimming and diving coach Andy McWhirter and former coach Lew Kasten.

    Steven Mazzarella, left, was a longtime diving coach at Naperville North High School until his retirement about five years ago. He's shown with swimming and diving coach Andy McWhirter and former coach Lew Kasten. Courtesy of Naperville North High School

 
 
Updated 1/17/2019 9:12 AM

People across the Naperville North High School community who knew Steven Mazzarella want to be sad about his death from a malignant brain tumor, but they know better.

Mazzarella's former colleagues and students feel strongly that the longtime health teacher and diving coach not only had a defined purpose in life, but achieved it. His purpose, they say, was to treat everyone with love and acceptance, to live life with passion and to show others how they could do the same.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"He has absolutely done his job and created this crazy wave of people who are ready to spread kindness," said 2015 Naperville Central alum Morgan Milmore, for whom the man known as "Mazz" functioned as a father figure. "The way Mazz loves others is the way I want to make others feel."

Mazzarella, 62, died Sunday at his home in Naperville.

Knowing how many lives Mazz touched makes it illogical to feel only sadness, friends say. They're also feeling joy as they recall all he achieved.

Visitation is set from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home, 44 S. Mill St.

"He made everyone feel special," longtime colleague and Naperville North health teacher Deanna Nesci said. "That makes him probably one of the most genuine, memorable, influential people I've ever met."

Born in La Grange, Mazzarella graduated in 1974 from Lyons Township High School and went on to receive a bachelor's from Western Illinois University and a master's from the University of Illinois, both in education.

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He worked as a paid on-call firefighter for the La Grange Fire Department, then got the job that became his life's work teaching health classes to sophomores at North. He taught for more than 30 years, retired about five years ago and then started subbing to stay connected.

He moved to Naperville and lived with his family that included his wife since 1984, Lesly A. (Sartori) Mazzarella, their three children and two grandchildren.

When teaching, Mazzarella incorporated a focus on mental health, working ahead of the trend known as "social and emotional learning" to help students feel worthy, affirmed and "good enough."

He'd have each student write a letter and mail it to them two years later for reflection. He'd attend every graduation ceremony and collect seashells he would give students on their last day in his class. And he'd dress up as the "Star Wars" character Yoda to emphasize the line, "Do or do not. There is no try."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Outside the classroom, he promoted student well-being through his work with the leadership development and drug prevention program Operation Snowball.

Milmore said she met Mazzarella during one of the program's weekend retreats in 2011 and came to know him as "Father Snowball." When her own father died the weekend of the sixth of 10 Snowball retreats Milmore attended, she said Mazz stepped in to provide "guidance and encouragement and unconditional love."

Mazzarella's endurance as a marathoner who ran races in Boston, Chicago and Naperville encouraged Milmore to run her first marathon last year after he was diagnosed with the tumor. Mazz also was a water skier who often invited colleagues to his family's cottage in Michigan.

Andy McWhirter, a coaching colleague who is now the North swimming and diving coach, said passion is what set Mazzarella apart. He excelled at helping high school athletes prepare for the internal challenges of diving and helped them build "mental stamina."

"Whatever Steve did, he had an intense passion for the work at hand," McWhirter said. "He never wanted to be interrupted in class because he had that passion with the kids, and never wanted to be interrupted when he was out on the deck with the divers because he wanted to give 100 percent the entire time."

Mazzarella's church, St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church at 2220 Lisson Road in Naperville, will celebrate a Mass of Christian burial at 10 a.m. Thursday. He will be buried at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. Teachers are remembering him with a tree and a granite memorial to be installed near the stadium. Instead of sending flowers, Mazzarella's family asks well-wishers to perform a random act of kindness in his honor.

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