Thousands lined up to say goodbye to Vincent Altebrando on Tuesday. The line at Branch Funeral Home on Route 25A in Miller Place snaked around the property and westbound toward a side street. The viewing, originally scheduled for two two-hour shifts, continued for nine straight hours. Some people waited three hours to pay their respects, not leaving even as rain fell. That’s the kind of impact the Whitman High School wrestling coach had on so many.
He was an educator who left a legacy of love and compassion as a teacher and a coach. He was always upbeat, a glass half-full kind of personality who never seemed to have a bad day.
The suddenness of his illness, a rare autoimmune disease, gave us little chance to say goodbye. He died at the age of 51 surrounded by family at Stony Brook University Hospital on April 20.
“He was a guy that cared for all the kids,” said Jim Wright, the director of athletics at Walt Whitman High School. “He made a huge difference in our community. I think the true measure of a person’s life is how many lives they touch. And his were countless.”
“The people kept coming and coming and hundreds of mourners had to be turned away,” Wright said. “It was incredible, but not surprising. His impact was felt in so many communities.”
Altebrando was revered where he grew up in Selden, where he settled his family in Miller Place and where he taught physical education in the Whitman schools and coached the varsity wrestling team.
He graduated from Newfield High School in 1984 and was an outstanding football player, a Suffolk heavyweight wrestling champion and a runner-up in the state in 1984.
Whitman badminton coach Scott Wolff graduated from Newfield in 1985 and was Altebrando’s close friend. They attended elementary school together at Bicycle Path and were hired at Whitman 24 years ago. They even coached badminton together for five years.
“Vinny made people feel important, feel good,” Wolff said. “He expected people to be treated with dignity and respect at all times. He treated everyone equally. What a mentor! What he did for some students was truly unbelievable.”
Altebrando was a giant of a man in more ways than his physical stature of 6-2, 225 pounds. He went beyond the scope of his job description.
“He pulled kids off the streets and away from the gangs and gave them a chance at life,” Wright said. “He always looked at every kid as a good kid and found the good in them.”
Four poster boards sat on easels throughout the funeral home, signed by more than 300 people. One student wrote: “When my brother was being bullied, you made it stop. Thank you, love you!”
Another wrote: “You never quit on me. You always gave me the confidence that I could succeed in anything. Thanks.”
And this one: “You always made me feel special.”
Whitman senior Tom DeGaetano was a wrestling team captain and shared his thoughts.
“How many wrestling coaches tell you they love you?” said DeGaetano, who will attend Delaware in September. “He knew how to connect and make you feel loved. I want to impact people’s lives the way he did — in a positive manner.”
At Wednesday’s funeral, the Rev. Frank Pizzarelli, who married Kristie and Vinny 24 years ago, addressed more than 1,200 people at St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church.
Pizzarelli requested that anyone in the church who was coached or taught by Vinny to please stand. Approximately 300 people on each side of the church stood. He took out his phone and a portable speaker and played a Phil Collins song, “You’ll Be in My Heart.”
“That song is forever connected to Vinny,” said Bob McIntyre, who was Altebrando’s wrestling teammate at Newfield and an opponent in college. “I’ll hear it and think of him.”
Longwood wrestling coach Elrich Bowlay-Williams said he was touched by the turnout.
“He used to come down to Longwood and work us out,” Bowlay-Williams said. “He inspired me to become a coach. He is the reason why I coach. The man never saw color in people. He only saw the good. I was blessed to have him in my life, because he taught me how to be a good man.”
Wolff said that without Altebrando, Whitman wrestler Terron Robinson might not have won a state championship in 2016.
“It’s like the movie ‘The Blind Side,’ only in wrestling,” Wolff said. “Vinny took Robinson into his home and gave him a place to stay, fed him, drove him to workouts and made him a part of the family when the kid had nothing and was trying to survive.”
Wolff fought back tears as he described Altebrando’s status at the high school. “There’s a thing here at Whitman when there was a problem because he fixed so many of them,” Wolff said. “It’s called WWVD — What Would Vinny Do?”
“My husband was loved by many,” Kristie said. “The display of love for him and our family has been overwhelming.”
His legacy will be that he had four daughters and no sons, but in reality he had a thousand sons.
“The people kept coming and coming and hundreds of mourners had to be turned away. It was incredible, but not surprising.”
Walt Whitman High School
director of athletics