Surrogate Father and Godfather.
Kentucky Basketball Maniac.
You name it, and for 72 years, George Zanfini filled just about all those roles.
Most importantly, he may have been the first in the Belleville school system to receive the highest accolade a kid could provide a teacher. George was known by just one letter. He was ‘Z’. Or, to most of us kids, ‘Mr. Z’.
George was called home on Aug. 19, 2015, leaving so many people pondering his legacy, friendship, or just recalling a moment with George, and laughing, and crying at the same time. The outpouring of emotion and respect for this man from people ages 25-75 on social media has been staggering, both at the time of his death and for years since.
Z was 72 years old, and if anyone was the ultimate Bellevilleite, it was him.
Now, four years after his passing, George continues to mentor so many of us.
George was the man, plain and simple. A 1961 graduate of Belleville High, he never left the township he loved. In the ultimate irony, he passed away in his long-time Belleville home.
“I can’t even tell you what this man meant to me,” said Alan Frank, a 1973 BHS graduate who later coached baseball at his alma mater, when discussing George’s passing four years ago. “When I came back to coach (in 1999), I really had to work on George to get him to be an assistant on my staff. I needed his help with all the work that goes into being a head coach. He stayed with me for two seasons. And George was always there. When I was a kid, our class of 1973 had such a bond with him.”
George once told me a story about these small college pennants he’d hang up in his classroom way back when, and how the students really took to naming the school and team moniker, especially during the college football season.
I first met Z some 48 years ago, when he was my Social Studies teacher in the eighth grade at the Belleville Junior High School, on Washington Avenue.
It was hard to believe that George was just 28 back then. I learned about the Civil War, Reconstruction and World Wars I and II during that class in the 1971-72 school year. I became a fan of History because of him. As the years went on, George would move to Belleville High as a teacher around the same time I started at the high school. I knew he was a heck of a freshman football coach and an even better baseball coach.
When I started writing for a newspaper, in 1975, George and I would often speak about a game that he coached, or reminisce about a season. He would kid how then head freshman football coach John Senesky would practice for hours. “I’d tell him, John it’s too dark out, we gotta send these kids home. But John was so dedicated.”
Nearly nine years after graduating high school, a young man named Phil Cuzzi had a dream to attend professional umpiring school. Problem was, he didn’t have the money to go. A quick conversation with George changed all that. Seventeen years later, Phil Cuzzi was named a Major League Baseball Umpire and continues to thrive on the MLB circuit today. In 2017, Phil worked his first World Series and this year was named to work his second MLB All-Star Game.
Phil and George were as close as two friends could possibly be. George once called the loan he gave to Phil the best loan he ever gave to someone.
My last conversation with George was in July, 2015, after his favorite all-time BHS baseball player, Frank Fazzini, found out he was being inducted into the Florida State University Hall of Fame later in 2015. Frank was hoping George would be able to attend those ceremonies.
“Frank was a great kid then and a wonderful man now,” said Zanfini. “He was just a tremendous all-around player. We always kidded then that he was the guy without a position. And look what he accomplished at Florida State and getting a chance to play professional baseball.”
Danny Constantino, another BHS grad who loved Z, made a very telling statement when he heard of George’s passing.
“Think about how many thousands of Belleville kids’ lives Z has had an impact on,” Danny said, “He was one of a kind.”
In 2014, the Belleville Little League was going to honor Fazzini, along with Chipper Biafore, Mike Mundy and Frank Petite for their accomplishments as professional baseball players who had grown up and played baseball in Belleville. George wanted to have dinner with some of us, so Chipper, Phil Agosta, Alan Frank and I joined George for what was a marvelous night at LaSicilia’s. We laughed, told stories and had a wonderful time.
I said to George, “everyone at this table either had you as a teacher, or coach, a lifetime ago, and here we all are tonight. Do you realize the impact you’ve had on us?”
And, typical Z, just smiled, and said, “I guess.”
I’ve always said guys like George, Senesky and so many other teachers never realized, or at least admitted, how influential they were to us growing up in Belleville. They’re the reasons why the memories were so good. George worked the scoreboard for just about every Belleville High basketball game and wrestling match that was at the high school for five decades. He was the man on the scoreboard at high school football games, too.
“You kids were something special,” George would say to me in the later years, recalling my high school days. “I mean, you guys were respectful and fun to be around. Your parents taught you that. I must have made $9,000 a year back then teaching, and I wouldn’t have left for anything.”
His legacy as the Belleville High baseball coach included eight marvelous seasons between 1975-1982 and again in 1987, as well as those two years as Frank’s assistant in 1999 and 2000. George often yelled at me when I would remind him of that epic 1975 game between Belleville and Irvington, because the Bellboys lost, in 14 innings.
There was the 1981 team that won the GNT in classic style and there was George, taking it all in after the Bucs beat Glen Ridge in the final, 10-4.
In 2007, the Belleville Township Council voted to name the baseball complex at BHS, the George ‘Z’ Zanfini Municipal Baseball Field. A year later, we finally had the ceremony to make it official, and I was lucky enough to Emcee the event. There was George, with tears in his eyes, taking in the entire night.
George was feisty, too. If he didn’t agree with something, especially the way the school system was run, or for that matter, the Township, he’d let you know his feelings, loud and clear. It was that voice which resonated well with his friends.
George was a huge University of Kentucky basketball fan. When he wasn’t working the scoreboard, he’d be home watching his beloved Wildcats play hoops. He loved all sports, but he’d often get crazy about the quality of officiating. “They all (stink),” he’d say about umps, or referees. “They’re awful.”
When Wayne Demikoff was an up and coming History teacher in George’s department at Belleville High, he was also an assistant football coach at Wayne Hills High School. Every Friday, during the football season, there was George, bringing Wayne a cup of his favorite Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, to wish Demikoff luck.
“He was a great guy to me,” said Demikoff, now a History teacher and head football coach at Wayne Hills. “When George retired (in 2007), there was a huge void in that building. I remember how he’d come to my class and talk to my students, about history. He was something else.”
George’s sister-in-law, Trudi Posey, had told me that after George passed, that the funeral procession will stop by the baseball field to bid adieu to the ballpark George loved.
“We’d like to give it a nice sendoff,” Trudi said, her voice cracking.
In my faith, I believe that we will all see each other again one day. I can only imagine the Belleville party in Eternity, featuring George, Tommy Apicella, Mike Marotti, Sam Giuffrida, Ed Berlinski, Jim Silvestri, Doug Cantarella, Canio Constantino, Mike Pollard, Pete Spera, Bill Bakka, Joe D’Ambola, Chicky Puleo, ‘Doc’ Ellis, Milt Goldfarb, Ray Kimble, Red Clenighan, Bob Leffelbine, Bob Wis, Elias Lamberti and the countless others that helped shaped our lives as kids.
There’s a great line in the song ‘The Way We Were’.
“Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time re-written every line? And if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we? Could we?”
I love you, George. Thank you for everything.