Don Woolley’s high school yearbook described him perfectly.
“Friendly and full of fun, an athlete loved by everyone,” read the caption below Woolley’s picture in the 1950 edition of the Cranford High School Yearbook, encapsulating his New Jersey youth in a simple sentence.
The description would be relevant for the rest of his life. Through his work as a physical education teacher, soccer, wrestling and track coach, Woolley brought fun and friendship into the lives of countless students.
Woolley, who taught physical education in the Sachem school district for 35 years and was the district’s first boys and girls soccer coach, died Oct. 29 at his home in St. Augustine, Florida, his family said. He was 89.
“He was a mentor, a friend and a person you could call at any time,” said former student and player Ray Fell, 74, who is the mayor of Bellport. “Many times after I graduated, I’d go to his house and talk to him about different things. He was always wonderful with advice and his advice was always the right advice.”
Woolley found constant joy in teaching and helping people. He taught mainly at Sachem High School, but also had stints at Waverly Avenue Elementary School in Holtsville and Gatelot Avenue Elementary School in Lake Ronkonkoma. He lived in Patchogue and Sayville before moving to Florida permanently in 1994, his wife of 47 years, Kathleen, said.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever known that the moment he woke up and put his feet on the floor, a smile went on his face,” Kathleen said. “He was so happy to go to work, be with the kids, and do what he was doing. He found his calling in life in teaching and coaching. He was never happier than when he was doing that. He was everybody’s friend.”
Born Sept. 13, 1930, in Newark, New Jersey, Woolley grew up in Cranford, New Jersey, where he was a high school football and track star. After graduation, he went to Ithaca College on a track scholarship and majored in physical education. While at Ithaca, he also played on the soccer team.
Woolley left Ithaca after his junior year and joined the Army, where he did cold weather and ranger training at Fort Carson in Colorado. He was in the Army from 1953 to 1955, returned to Ithaca after his service and graduated in 1956, Kathleen said.
After a chance meeting with Sachem wrestling coach Sam Cario at an Ithaca gas station where Woolley worked, Woolley got a job as a physical education teacher and soccer coach in the Sachem school district. He spent 17 years as the boys coach, compiled a record of 154-73-23 and won six league championships and a county championship in 1960, according to a chart provided by son-in-law Anthony Petillo.
“More than a coach, he was like a father figure,” said Ira Gafarian, 69, of Medford, who was captain of the soccer team in 1968. “He was a tremendous motivator. You could go to him for anything.”
Woolley was inducted into the Sachem Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003, and the soccer field at Sachem North High School is named in his honor.
Petillo, who also was a student of Woolley's, remembers an enthusiastic teacher who loved joining in on the physical education class competitions.
“He always participated in things that we were doing,” Petillo said. “He was very active. He always wanted to be playing in the game. He always liked the kids and gave everyone nicknames. You knew that if coach Woolley gave you a nickname, you felt special.”
Woolley retired from teaching in 1991. While living in Florida, he was an avid golfer, was the president of the St. Johns County men’s golf association and worked with animal rescue organizations.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughter Cathy Petillo and son-in-law Anthony of Bellport, daughter Casey Shaw of New Mexico, brother Richard of New Jersey, sister-in-law Patricia Dolan of Boston, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Christopher.
There will be a graveside service at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 18 at Calverton National Cemetery. Woolley was cremated.