Community mourns death of beloved teacher

Photo Courtesy of Leslie Garcia
Longtime Washington teacher Patricia Villarosa, above with her son, Nicholas, will be missed by the West Orange community.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange School District is mourning the loss of Washington Elementary School first-grade teacher Patricia Villarosa, who died March 9 from injuries she sustained after being struck by a car Feb. 26 on Pleasant Valley Way while on her way to a board of education meeting. Both a teacher and parent in the district, Villarosa, 64, had an impact on the children she taught, as well as the colleagues with whom she taught.

Villarosa’s time at Washington began when her son, Nicholas, started kindergarten. According to Principal Marie DeMaio, she was president of the PTA before working in the district as a substitute teacher and aide. Villarosa then returned to school to complete her teaching degree, and was hired at Washington as a first-grade teacher shortly thereafter.

“She had a great impact, students would always come back to visit her and parents came back to visit her,” DeMaio told the West Orange Chronicle in a March 16 interview in her office. “She was always willing to work.”

Linda Perna, a kindergarten teacher at Washington hired at the same time as Villarosa 23 years ago, agreed.

“She was a team player and very supportive and helpful, especially when there were changes, because education is always changing,” Perna told the Chronicle in a March 16 interview at Washington.

As a kindergarten teacher, Perna would send many of her students to Villarosa’s first-grade class at the beginning of the next year, and she said that the transition for the young children was always easy.

“I always knew kids going to her would be well cared for,” Perna said. “She had a beautiful rapport with students and other teachers.”

Villarosa’s resume as a teacher was extensive during her time at Washington — she was a building manager, the first-grade level chairperson and she was on the district’s first-grade Development Assessment Committee. And according to Washington third-grade teacher Anne Engelhardt, Villarosa was also a good friend in addition to being a good teacher.

“I knew her as a parent and a colleague, but also as a good friend,” Engelhardt told the Chronicle. “She always had a kind word and was friendly with everyone. She was a well-rounded person, so committed to school and children.”

That commitment was evident when Villarosa would volunteer her time to help with anything at Washington, or would stay at school late to assist anyone needing help.

“The clock meant nothing to her, she would put in the extra time if someone else needed her,” Engelhardt said.

While Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky didn’t work closely with Villarosa during the last four years he has been in the district, he saw the influence that she had had on everyone with whom she came into contact.

“She was in the district for 23 years, and it’s a hard loss,” Rutzky said in a March 16 phone interview with the Chronicle. “She was someone who had a very big impact, even on other teachers around the district. We’re going to miss her a lot every day.”

Elected officials in West Orange also mourn the loss of Villarosa.

“The West Orange Board of Education is saddened on the loss of one of our beloved teachers,” BOE President Ron Charles said in a March 19 email. “Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends, colleagues, and the children she touched in the West Orange School District. Ms. Villarosa set an example that will continue to be an inspiration to us all.”

In addition to being heavily involved as both a parent and teacher at Washington, Villarosa was an active member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

“Patty was very much a part of this neighborhood as a resident nearby, as a parishioner and as a teacher at Washington School,” the Rev. Jim Ferry told the Chronicle in a March 17 email. “She was a key contributor in helping our children prepare for a Nativity play in which several elementary school children had speaking parts. With compassion and expert touch, they were prepared well by Mrs. Villarosa to read and perform in the play.”

Ferry said Villarosa was also a member of the church’s choir, was on the Christmas and Easter decorating teams, and taught religious education to children preparing for First Communion. Villarosa was also involved with Our Lady of Lourdes’ service at Christine’s Kitchen at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

“It was evident that Patty had great affection for our people and ministries,” Ferry said. “We also had great affection and appreciation for Patty’s gifts and talents.”

Engelhardt fondly recalled a bell that sat on Villarosa’s desk that she used to signal subject changes and transitions in the day to her students, inspired by the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The well-known quote from the movie — “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings” — was a good description of Villarosa, according to Engelhardt.

“She was very optimistic and always believed good would come,” Engelhardt said.

Villarosa is survived by her son, Nicholas; her sister, Joanne; her brother and sister-in-law, Frank and Lisa; and several nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her husband, Stephen; her parents, Frank and Marie Cerreto; and her brother, Robert. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorial donations be made to St. Jude Children’s Cancer Research Hospital at www.StJude.org.  

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