Gerard L. DeFina, a longtime educator in the Garden City schools, passed away at age 73 on April 12, 2012 in Delaware. A beloved teacher for the 34 years he worked here, Jerry was constantly involved in creative projects: he was a pioneer in open education and helped design and teach in the “Mod Quad” at Stewart School, which was modeled on the schools he had studied about while in England in conjunction with Oxford University. Later, he helped found the Gifted and Talented program at Stewart, which he taught in for many years, with both programs emphasizing independent as well as group study. He and Frank DeMonaco were also known for their annual musical productions involving the entire graduating class of Stewart School. After an 11-year tenure at Stewart, he moved to the middle school, where he taught collaboratively in various units, finally returning to Stewart in his last year, where a retirement tribute was held in his honor. Many former students returned to surprise him with reprises from Stewart shows they had performed in under his direction. (Since his shows had become such a long-standing tradition, after his retirement he was invited back to continue his yearly productions at both Stewart and Stratford schools).
A graduate of Hofstra University with a degree in education, he was also very involved in the theater program there, performing alongside Madeline Kahn, Lainie Kazan and Francis Ford Coppola who called him “one of the most talented people I ever met.” After graduation, Jerry continued to act in many Hofstra productions, his last performance there being a starring role in the play Next. For many years he also directed regional theater, as well as being involved in other aspects of stagecraft.
Jerry’s graduate degree was in educational administration at Queens College and he did post-graduate work at the University of Connecticut in gifted education; working with children, however, was always his first love. He had a huge capacity to reach every student on an individual basis, to empathize with the child having difficulties adjusting, and he strove to protect every child from bullying before it became fashionable to do so. A master teacher, he was able to nurture the creativity in every one of his students, to see their potential and help them fulfill it. His sense of humor and booming laughter filled the classroom, while he also demonstrated an integrity and work ethic that were his hallmark.
Jerry is survived by his long-time companion Frank DeMonaco of Newark, Delaware, and his brother, George DeFina of Woodstock, VT. A celebration of Jerry’s life will be held on Friday, May 4 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Donohue-Cecere Funeral Parlor, Post Avenue, Westbury. In lieu of flowers, donations may be contributed in his name to City Meals on Wheels, 355 Lexington Ave., NY, NY 10017.