Joe Suriano’s Lasting Legacy

If he could be described in one word, you couldn’t only describe Mr. Suriano as a 16 time winner of Coach of the Year or a three time winner of Teacher of the Year, because he was so much more than that. 

Joe Suriano in 1971 coaching at WOHS.

WOHS

Joe Suriano in 1971 coaching at WOHS.

Tyra Hughes, Co - Editor in Chief

On Friday, April 10, West Orange longtime resident, educator, Track Coach and former English teacher, Joe Suriano passed away at 73 years old due complications surrounding COVID-19.  

Mr. Suriano was no stranger to West Orange township and his legacy has touched the lives of the community for over 40 years.  While current students may only know his name from the Joe Suriano Track at West Orange High School, many people first knew Mr. Suriano as their teacher, coach or colleague. 

Following his accomplishments as a 1965 state champion in the 100 yard dash, Mr. Suriano first began his teaching career in 1969 and his coaching career two years later.  It was then that West Orange retiree, Karen Perry became friends with Suriano when he was lead counsel for the WO Recreation Department and just a “young man speaking of the joy of starting a family and happy with his new career as a teacher.” 

Suriano went on to coach five All Americans and 3 Olympic Team standard athletes. Rightfully so, he was awarded the All-Area Coach of the Year 16 times, league Coach of the Year eight times, Essex County Coach of the Year twice and Essex County Retired Coach of the Year for his extensive resume as a West Orange coach.

He was so greatly looked up in the track community that last year, West Orange track coaches Flecia Blake and Coach Jackson hosted the annual Mountie Relays at the Joe Suriano Stadium in honor of Suriano, who led the WOHS track team to win seven league championships before he retired in 2016.

With hundreds of athletes in attendance, Coach Blake — who first met Suriano when she was a high school athlete — remembers how happy Suriano was that day: “the joy in his eyes was priceless.”

When I first heard of the passing of Joe Suriano, I didn’t realize that I had met him before, one year prior at my second time competing in the Mountie Relays. I was so busy being nervous to run the 4 by 4 relay that I didn’t realize that Coach Blake and Coach Jackson dedicated the meet in his honor.

Jesse Aporta, who currently teaches 9th grade English and also graduated from WOHS in 2001, first remembers Mr. Suriano as his freshmen year coach when he did field events in Track. Aporta said that even back then, Suriano always bore a sense of optimism and kindness that always “made you feel like you were the only person in the room or on the field.” 

Dave Alfano, a West Orange Hall of Famer who won the Essex County XC title in 2003 said Suriano’s kindness and passion is what motivated his athletes to all make him proud at meets. 

“As one of his athletes, I can say that he made us all feel loved as if we were his own children. When a coach goes the extra mile to check in with you throughout the day and during the summer, you know that they care and I believe that we all felt that, regardless of what our personal bests were.” 

Understandably, his death hit pretty hard to the community when the news broke out. 

If he could be described in one word, you couldn’t only describe Mr. Suriano as a 16 time winner of Coach of the Year or a three time winner of Teacher of the Year, because he was so much more than that. 

English teacher, Mr. Champagne, who first met Mr. Suriano at the start of his teaching career 16 years ago, said that if Suriano could be described in one word, it would be “present” in every conversation. 

Mr. Suriano wasn’t just a coach, or an educator, he was a friend who really listened in conversations and took the time to “always remember something distinctive about everyone.” 

Mr. Suriano was such a good listener that when he learned Champagne grew up watching WWE wrestling, he designed his own Joe Suriano Wrestling Test to test the true fanhood of Champagne and wrestling fans alike.

Like his love for Cross country, Suriano took his love for WWE wrestling just as serious (in a light hearted way), as he went on to grade the test. Champagne was delighted to see the test covered in red ink, with a kind comment from Suriano: “You can be my tag team partner any day. A-” 

Suriano was just as much of a mentor to the WO community, as he was a tremendous listener. 

Aporta says that one message he’ll never forget is the advice Suriano gave when he expressed his anxieties starting a new chapter in his life as a father. 

 “He said, very simply, ‘Being a father is scary, but you love them so much that you do right by them.’ And that might have just been the most recent of the many lessons.” 

For Ms. Dahl, who teaches English and advises both AVID and WOHS Pioneer, Suriano wasn’t just a  colleague, but a father figure too. He was the kind of person who saw the sadness that people had, bore a quick sense of empathy and acted to truly serve others with love and care. 

“I called him Uncle Joe. When I was going through my divorce, he just looked me in the eyes and could see the pain I was in. He’d grab my hand, give it a loving squeeze, and press a Hershey’s Hug chocolate into my palm. No words were exchanged. But he knew. And he cared.”

With each teacher who shared their favorite memories with Suriano, they all said that his compassion toward others is what they admired about him. His ability to listen in conversations and treat people with an immense amount of kindness is what always warmed the hearts of the WO community.

 He lived through kindness, but more importantly his kindness is what changed lives. 

“For me, it’s not what Joe said but what he did. Joe always made the time to talk to people. He never neglected anyone. Whether it’s your family, friends, or colleagues, I learned from Joe there’s nothing more important than our personal relationships,” says Mr. Champagne.

Mr. Suriano cared so much about people that when he knew he couldn’t change them, he extended his trust in prayers that God would. He believed in others when they didn’t believe in themselves, he spoke with confidence and faith that God listened to his prayers and changed the world just as his own kindness impacted the WO community. 

Mr. Champagne even regarded that if there was a Mount Rushmore for teachers, Joe Suriano should be on it. Mr. Aporta stated that, “he gave more to the world in 73 years than entire communities do in collective lifetimes.”

The love that the West Orange community, both students and teachers, had for Mr. Suriano was very much evident in his retirement send off in 2016. WOHS staff all cheered him on as he walked from room 1125 to the Cafeteria, where he later said that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”  

We can all live by his legacy in all the years to come by spreading kindness, and planting relationships with others founded on genuine interest and compassion. We must try to see the good in all people, understanding that everyone has a story to tell and one that is well worth listening to.