Vincent Altebrando, a longtime wrestling coach and physical education teacher at Walt Whitman High School, prided himself on trying to bring out the best in all of his student-athletes.
“He pulled kids off the streets and away from the gangs and gave them a chance at life,” said Jim Wright, the director of athletics at Whitman. “He always looked at every kid as a good kid and found the good in them.”
Altebrando died on April 20 of HLH — a rare autoimmune disease — while surrounded by his wife and four daughters at Stony Brook University Hospital. He was 51.
“I wanted his girls to see him and give him one last kiss,” said his wife, Kristie. “It was important for them to be there with him. I can’t believe he’s gone, it’s surreal.”
Altebrando grew up in Selden and graduated from Newfield High School in 1984. He was an outstanding football player, a Suffolk County heavyweight wrestling champion and a runner-up in the state wrestling tournament in 1984.
“Vinny’s work ethic was unparalleled,” said his former high school wrestling coach Tony Perna, who lives in Holly Springs, North Carolina. “I coached for 32 years and there was never anyone like him. He always gave 100 percent.”
Perna called Altebrando “a fierce competitor but an unbelievably humble guy, a soft-spoken gentle giant.”
Altebrando wrestled at Springfield College in Massachusetts and graduated with a degree in physical education.
“Vinny took the life lessons he learned when he was younger and developed his own coaching style,” Perna said. “He impacted so many young lives. He coached with a tough love and such passion. He taught students there are going to be tough times and you have to get through them, you have to find a way.”
Altebrando, who coached at Whitman for 24 years, earned 213 dual-meet wins and three league titles, and was the recipient of the sportsmanship award at this year’s Suffolk County Wrestling Coaches Association banquet.
“He was a guy that cared for all the kids,” Wright said. “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.”
While teaching in Brooklyn, Altebrando reconnected with his wife at the Hicksville train station.
“He was second on the ticket line, and I was in the back and we knew each other from high school,” said Kristie, who graduated from Newfield in 1986. “I went right up to him and said hello and that was it. We got engaged within a month.”
They married in 1994 and lived in Selden before moving to Miller Place. When he wasn’t coaching wrestling, he volunteered as a coach with his daughters’ local lacrosse program.
“He was the rock of our family,” Kristie said. “He taught our girls resilience and to do everything at 100 percent and never allow adversity to stand in the way. I know they’ll be successful because of the strength he embedded in them.”
His brother, Nick Altebrando of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, said Vincent used to run around their Selden backyard and play every sport imaginable.
“He was high-energy, a super-hyper kid,” Nick said. “He got the good and the bad of having two older brothers. And our mom tended to spoil him. Our dad died a week after Vinny was born and mom became our hero. She raised us by herself and took care of everything. And he embraced all of her good qualities.”
Aside from his wife and brother Nick, Altebrando is survived by brother Anthony Altebrando of Selden and daughters, Anjelia, Gionna, Natalia and Mirabella.
A viewing will be held Tuesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Branch Funeral Home in Miller Place. A memorial service will be held on Wednesday at the St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach at 10 a.m. Burial will follow at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Medford.