Joe Maniaci, a longtime middle school teacher, college basketball coach and a man former students called a “titan” in the Connetquot community, died on Sunday at 75.
Maniaci had such a command of his classroom when he taught history to middle schoolers that one of his students who later became a teacher modeled his style after him.
“I don't think there's a bigger compliment than saying, ‘You know, your class was so good that I'm going to make my class as close to that as I can,’ ” said Eric Stolfa, an eighth-grade history teacher at North Middle School in Brentwood and a student of Maniaci in the 1990s.
Maniaci, of Ronkonkoma, died of esophagus cancer at Good Shepherd Hospice in Port Jefferson, his family said.
Maniaci had many roles in his decadeslong career. He taught, coached basketball and was a school photographer. His influence spans generations of students.
In 2009, Maniaci, head basketball coach at then-St. Joseph's College in Patchogue from 1992 until his retirement in 2001, was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame.
“That man is a titan in Connetquot,” said Stolfa, of Holtsville. “My story would just be one. … There's thousands upon thousands of kids who are adults now. We share similar stories and memories and the same affection for him.”
Those who knew Maniaci called him “lifetime T-Bird,” short for thunderbird, Connetquot High's mascot. A Connetquot graduate, Maniaci taught social studies at Ronkonkoma Middle School for 37 years. He stood 6-foot-5 and played along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the storied basketball powerhouse, Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan, before his family moved to Long Island. When he retired from coaching and — in 2007 — from teaching, he took photos of school events and games.
“You can see that twinkle in his eye,” said Mary Lou Assante, who was athletic director for the Connetquot school district before retiring in 2011. “You knew he was enjoying what he was doing.”
What Michelle Turissini remembered was how Maniaci went out of his way to make students like her feel comfortable. Sensing she was shy, Maniaci would talk to her about their shared Italian heritage: foods, holidays and traditions, she said.
Now with her two children in school, Turissini said her former teacher would photograph them and tag her on social media, where he would post the images.
“He knew how important that was to me,” said Turissini, of Bohemia. “He was one who took the time to be personable and make you feel you truly mattered to him.”
Among his former students and players, Maniaci was known for being active on Facebook, where he would send birthday wishes and leave comments.
When Maniaci coached at St. Joseph's in the 1990s, Sean Brosnan was one of his players. Brosnan, now the father of three, said his former coach regularly left comments on his posts of family photos.
“To get that comment, it was like I was playing for him again,” said Brosnan, of Huntington. “It’s like when you are playing basketball, you make a great shot, you get his ‘good job.’ Later on in life, you feel the same way. … It’s that feeling of accomplishment like you did something good.”
Maniaci was born on May 26, 1947, in Pittsburgh to Italian immigrants Filippo Maniaci, a bricklayer, and his wife, Antonietta, a seamstress. The family moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, when Joe Maniaci was about 9 months old. Queens was where he met his future wife, Diana, when they were in high school.
They went to see “All the President's Men” on their first date. For their honeymoon, the couple took a road trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, his family said.
Joe and Diana Maniaci were married in 1970 at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Ronkonkoma, after he graduated from Adelphi University with a bachelor’s degree in education. His passion for history later extended to family vacations, during which he often took his wife and two children to museums, monuments and historical sites.
After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Maniaci and some family members went to Washington, D.C., to witness the historic inauguration of the nation’s first Black chief executive.
“My dad understood the historical significance,” said his daughter, Alexandra Gordon of Port Jefferson Station. “He wanted to be there and share that with the family.”
His daughter and son said their father was loving and supportive.
“He was a strong Italian family man,” said his son, Phil Maniaci of Bohemia. “He was the rock of the family.”
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Joe Maniaci is survived by three younger brothers and seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by his parents and an older brother.
Visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Moloney's Lake Funeral Home & Cremation Center in Lake Ronkonkoma. A second day of visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the same location. A funeral Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Ronkonkoma.