Michael Denaro, a folk artist and avid outdoorsman who taught at Accompsett Elementary School in Smithtown, died Sunday from heart failure while hiking on the Greenbelt Trail in Cold Spring Harbor. He was 48.
Denaro, of Oyster Bay, had taught second and fifth grades at Accompsett since 2002.
In a message posted on the Smithtown School District website, Principal Jeanne Kull-Minarik said staff would be available to speak to students about Denaro's death when they return to school on Tuesday. Schools are closed this week.
"He was just a real wonderful and dedicated and beloved teacher," Kull-Minarik said in an interview. She said Denaro was known for bringing musical instruments and items found on his hikes into the classroom.
"It's a devastating loss for the district," said Smithtown school board president Robert Rossi, whose daughter Alyssa, 18, was a student of Denaro's several years ago. "He left an impression on my daughter."
Outside of school, Denaro carved fishing decoys, led woodworking classes and hiked the Appalachian Trail and Catskill Mountains, said his aunt, Fran Leone, of Mill Neck. She said Denaro made a fiddle for backpacking trips.
Denaro passed his love of nature to his two daughters, taking them on hikes and teaching them how to pack a backpack. Their home was filled with chickens, frogs, fish, hamsters, bearded dragons, chameleons, millipedes, hissing cockroaches and snakes.
"We had a little minizoo in our house," said daughter Mary Denaro, 21, of Bradenton, Fla. "He was the best person to talk to and so nonjudgmental. . . . He really understood life better than anybody I ever met."
While hiking, Denaro searched for gems, crystals and fossils, Leone said. He sold his crafts and taught at Think Long Island First, an Oyster Bay crafts store, said store co-owner Ewa Rumprecht.
In addition to his daughter Mary, Denaro is survived by his wife, Linda Denaro, of Bradenton; another daughter, Theresa Denaro, of Bradenton; a stepson, Joe Neumare, of Bradenton; a brother, Dominick, of Cleveland, and a granddaughter, Isabella Rose Denaro, of Bradenton.