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Burton Koza, beloved teacher who fought injustice, dies at 72

Koza, who taught at Our Lady of Perpetual Help school in Lindenhurst for nearly 40 years, was described by students as a mentor and role model who tried to engage them in civic lessons beyond their books.

Burton Koza, seen on Oct. 15, 2011, at

Burton Koza, seen on Oct. 15, 2011, at a rally in Massapequa in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protestors.  Photo Credit: Newsday/Danielle Finkelstein

“Think globally, act locally.”

“If you want peace, work for justice.”

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

These were the kinds of sayings that could be found on the dozens of bumper stickers that plastered the metal desk in Burton Koza’s classroom at Our Lady of Perpetual Help school in Lindenhurst.

“It was really who he was,” said former student Jacklyn Tenyenhuis, 36, of West Islip. “This was a man who really contributed so much to the community he was living in and he really did make a difference. He just wanted to improve people’s lives.”

Koza, a longtime Copiague resident and Lindenhurst teacher who also served on Babylon Town’s planning and zoning boards, died at home on Jan. 2 from what family believe was a heart attack. He was 72.

Growing up in Amityville, Koza graduated from Seton Hall High School in Patchogue. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Marist College in Poughkeepsie and a master’s degree from Stony Brook University. While in college, Koza met his future wife, Margaret, while both worked at a credit union in Manhattan. The couple married in 1972 and later moved to Copiague.

Koza’s first teaching job was at St. Joseph School in Ronkonkoma, where he spent four years before moving to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in 1972 to teach social studies to the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. He retired in 2010.  

Dedicated to serving his community, Koza was an active member of the Democratic Party, and was a local committeeman for more than 50 years. He was chairman of Babylon Town’s now-defunct Consumer Protection Board for 10 years, then served as chairman of the town planning board for four years before being appointed to the town zoning board in 2002, a position he held until his death. He was the longest serving member ever for that board, according to Supervisor Rich Schaffer.

“It’s like losing a father,” said Schaffer, who had known Koza since he became active in politics as a teen. “He was always somebody you could go to for great advice.”

Despite holding strongly to his beliefs, Koza was “always good about listening and respecting others’ opinions and trying to find common ground,” Schaffer said.

As much as Koza was known for his distinctive booming laugh and his fondness for all things "Star Trek," he was also known to love to grab a picket sign and protest injustice. Whether it was a march against the Vietnam War or a rally for migrant farmworkers' rights, Koza was there on the front lines, said his son, Jason Koza, of Copiague.

“He was always out to make everyone’s lives better,” he said of his father, who spent time with famed civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. “He knew what he believed in and what he thought was right, and he wasn’t going to back down.”

Koza brought that same fiery spirit to his classroom, former students said, trying to engage them in civic lessons beyond their books.

“I loved the way he taught to the whole student,” said Tenyenhuis, who had Koza as a teacher in the mid-1990s and was inspired to become a teacher herself. “It wasn’t ever just about history. It was about what have we learned here, what can we now do with this information to make ourselves better people, to make the world a better place.”

In a testament to his impact as a teacher, after word of his death spread, Koza's Facebook page was inundated with messages from hundreds of his former students. From those who were taught by him less than a decade ago to those who were students 30, 40 and even 50 years ago, Koza was described as a mentor and role model.

Koza “taught me not just history, but about the kind of person and citizen I’d like to be,” one wrote. He “taught me how to care for my fellow human beings,” said another.

Koza, students said, was a teacher in the truest sense of the word.

“He was teaching me still,” said Peggy Giglio, 64, of West Palm Beach, Florida, who was Koza’s student at St. Joseph in 1969. The two reconnected decades ago and he gave her support through several health crises, she said, and as recently as August was helping her through some personal problems.

“I was always learning from him,” she said.

In addition to his son and wife, Koza is survived by a sister, Diane Egglinger of Amityville.

A wake will be held Thursday from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Powell Funeral Home in Amityville. A funeral service will be held Saturday at 10:15 a.m. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Lindenhurst, followed by cremation.


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