Ed Mariano had a legitimate chance at the big time.
In the early 1950s, the stocky 20-something-year-old World War II veteran was quickly moving up the national ranks as a baseball umpire. He was just days away from working a season of Triple-A professional ball in Louisville when he took that fateful phone call.
It wasn’t from Major League Baseball, but to Mariano, it was just as important. His hometown of Naugatuck, Conn., needed a physical education teacher in a hurry. So, Mariano packed his bags and headed back east, forever leaving behind an opportunity to call balls and strikes on the grand stage.
Fast-forward some six-plus decades to modern day Naugatuck, where innumerable Borough residents are thankful Mariano answered the community's call. Many now rank him among the great Naugatuck residents of all time because of his endless dedication to schools and the community. Today, the community mourns his loss while remembering his passion for the Borough and his compassion for its citizens. Mariano, a longtime former educator, coach and principal, died at home on Sunday after complications from cancer. He was 88.
The legacy he leaves behind is one of greatness both on and off the athletic field. He is remembered as a standout, three-sport athlete from his youth, a physical education teacher, a great basketball coach and a beloved principal at Andrew Avenue Elementary School. He frequently made teachers and students laugh, while he simultaneously commanded their respect.
And while people in the community remember him as a local icon, his children remember him as a loving husband, father and grandfather.
“His family was definitely first and foremost,” said his son, Pete Mariano, the probate judge for Naugatuck, Beacon Falls, Middlebury and Prospect. “He had a lot of passions and a lot of interests, but he never missed anything we had going on. And if he were umpiring in the College World Series or something, he’d sit us down and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t make the game or the concert.’ …He was the best father anyone could ever ask for.”
Pete Mariano said his father seemed to know everyone. On vacations out of state, people would approach him at dinner and say, “Aren’t you that umpire, who did this or that?, Pete Mariano said.
“When I was running for my first term as probate judge, people would say, ‘I know your father. Your father was my principal. Your father was my teacher, my coach...” Mariano said. “Half the kids in Naugatuck at one point were taught by my father.”
Pete Mariano said his father carried the same message of hard work and dedication into the house that he brought onto the courts and fields.
“He told me when I first ran for probate judge, ‘You will win your first term because of me and your mom. Anything you do after that is up to you. You have to work for it,” Pete Mariano recalls.
Mariano said that this year's Naugatuck High School football team, of which his nephew is a member, plans to dedicate the season to Ed Mariano. The Greyhounds will post something on their jerseys or helmets to signify his loss.
Naugatuck High School basketball coach Mike Wilson said he, too, plans to remember Mariano in some way during the winter season. He said Mariano was still involved in the basketball program and would constantly give players and coaches advice: sometimes he would send notes to Wilson during games, suggesting a new defense or a possible play.
“It was always respectful the way he went about it,” Wilson said. “The kids loved it. There he was, 86 years old, teaching our kids the proper way to shoot free throws. …He was all about the kids and about trying to help the kids of Naugatuck.”
Wilson learned of Mariano's dedication to Naugatuck at a young age. Wilson used to ride his Power Wheel kids’ bike around the Andrew Avenue School yard when his older brothers were in school.
“Mr. Mariano would come out and bring me a lollipop,” he said. “He’d ask me about how things were going in my life and then he’d send me on my way. He was like another father-figure in our neighborhood.”
Wilson said the biggest thing he learned from Mariano is that coaching is not just about making better ballplayers, it’s about making them better people.
"Mr. Mariano was just the man," Wilson said.
Mayor Bob Mezzo said the loss is great for Naugatuck.
"Mr. Mariano was a kind, compassionate leader in Naugatuck for many years. After serving his Country valiantly in the Navy during World War II, he returned home to become one of the greatest examples of what an educator should be in a community. Not only did he passionately care for students and their educational needs during the school day, but he was continuously involved in their extracurricular activities as a coach, official and mentor. Mr. Mariano will be remembered as part of the Greatest Generation of Naugatuck principals, which included such names as Aquavia, Connolly, Legenza, Leonard, Markovic and Sullivan: those educational leaders who not only worked in Naugatuck, but also became an integral part of the social fabric of our community.
Sadly, it was not until I read the earlier Patch article this morning that I learned he sacrificed the possibility of a major league umpiring career to return to the Borough and become an educator. Generations of Naugatuck students have benefited from his decision to return home and serve his community in so many ways. Despite all he did for others, I personally admire him most for his devotion to his loving wife, and their commitment to raising an amazing and beautiful family. His children and grandchildren continue his legacy of service to others. May God bless and comfort the Mariano Family at this difficult time."
Editor’s Note: Many people have taken to our comments section and to social media, especially our Naugatuck Patch Facebook and Twitter feeds, to tell stories about Mr. Mariano. They have also read the wonderful column we published on Naugatuck Patch written by Don Harrison, former executive sports editor of the Waterbury Republican-American and later a contributing columnist for Naugatuck Patch. We've asked Harrison to tell us about Mariano. Here's what he said:
"It's hard for me to believe, but we met nearly 50 years ago when he was coaching Naugatuck High basketball and I was a 20-something sportswriter for the Waterbury Republican. Frank Monardo, who was the Republican's sports deskman, had played baseball with Ed at the old Arnold College in Milford, and he told me what a good guy he was.
"Frank was right. Ed was a straight-shooter in every respect, as a coach, educator and umpire. It was a pleasure to watch him umpire college ball; he was colorful and he could be combative if the situation called for it.
"I was so pleased to reconnect with Ed Mariano a couple of years ago when I wrote the column about him for Naugatuck Patch. We had a nice visit at his home. Later that year, he was kind enough to attend my Hoops in Connecticut book-signing and presentation at the Naugatuck Library. I'm certain he'll be missed by many."
We encourage people to continue to share stories about Mr. Mariano in our comments section. Our condolences to friends and family. – Paul Singley, editor