As a young teacher, nearly a quarter-century ago, Thomas P. Assenza was so beloved by the pupils in his Board of Cooperative Educational Services special-education class, they took it quite personally when he missed being chosen Teacher of the Year by a national teachers association.
"He is a man who would take no pay to teach us," a then-incredulous 11-year-old wrote in a letter to The Buffalo Evening News. "He is dedicated to our learning. He loves us and we love him."
And so it was for many years until Assenza, a former special-education teacher and administrator with Erie 2 BOCES for the last 15 years, died Saturday (Sept. 19, 1998) in Buffalo General Hospital after a long illness.
He was 51.
A native of Buffalo, Assenza was reared on Grand Island. He graduated with honors from Kenmore East High School.
After earning a bachelor's degree in sociology from Niagara University, Assenza worked for a short time at the Buffalo Child Care Center on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. It was his experiences there that helped him form the foundation of what would become a lifetime commitment to educating, advocating and developing programs for children with special needs.
Toward that end, he earned a master's degree in exceptional education from Buffalo State College and a doctorate in learning and instruction from the University at Buffalo. Assenza also earned a certificate of advanced studies in school administration from Buffalo State in 1981.
Assenza demonstrated such an uncommon ability to blend genuine caring with his gift for teaching that back in 1974, one of his young pupils in a BOCES learning-disorder class in Collins wanted to give him that recognition in a very special way.
After Assenza was not selected Teacher of the Year, she wrote a letter, signed by all of her classmates, to the editor of The News.
"He takes time to listen to our problems and if he can help in any way, he does. If we had more teachers like him, more children would enjoy going to school and would learn a lot more," she wrote.
After the letter was published in newspapers across the country, Assenza received messages of praise from people all over the United States. Then-President Richard M. Nixon lauded Assenza's "personal devotion to the education of children with learning disorders."
While pursuing his teaching career, Assenza also served as president of the local teachers association. He received a variety of awards and certificates for his work while maintaining myriad professional affiliations, including a role in developing New York State's New Compact for Learning.
Assenza was considered an authority on issues related to educating students with learning disabilities, and his expertise was frequently sought for local, state and national education projects.
He also was the author of children's books and demonstrated a love and talent for painting, photography and writing.
A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Unitarian Universalist Church, Elmwood Avenue at West Ferry Street.
Assenza is survived by his mother, Marian of Grand Island.