The memory is shared by a legion of graduates of McKinley High School. They recall an economics teacher who immediately pushed aside the official textbook during their senior year. He would make this promise: They were about to receive lessons in financial common sense of enough day-to-day value to quietly change their lives.
In return, Michael Vacanti asked them to keep a thorough notebook, and to listen.
“This dude was preparing us,” said Mohammed Shafie, a former student who took the call for this interview while working on a roof, one of the two Buffalo businesses he now helps to run, all of it based on knowledge he credits directly to Vacanti.
The gratitude is the same from such graduates as Saleem Naseer-Capone, now an artist. Or Zack Burgess, a Buffalo police detective. Or Ausar Tamar, a financial planner and fitness coach known as Caleb Buckley in high school. Or Jessica Sims, who is finishing her undergraduate degree in business and already dreams of starting a credit repair service for those buried in debt, a service she would call “Vacanti’s Way.”
“This was the first guy who ever had me interested in anything as it related to school,” said Tamar, drawing a straight line from Vacanti to his own decision to earn a business administration degree at the University at Buffalo.
Their thoughts were similar to a Niagara of praise on Facebook in recent weeks for Vacanti, who would have turned 49 this weekend – reflections offered not only from McKinley graduates but from teachers who recalled how his humor, patience and belief made a difference in their own careers.
More than 100 of those friends and students gathered Saturday at Canalside with Mary and Chuck Vacanti, Michael's parents, and their son David. They took part in the annual “Out of the Darkness Walk,” an effort to raise awareness about suicide and to build community for many families after monumental loss.
“What we want to focus on is everything he gave,” Chuck said of his oldest son.
Last month, Michael Vacanti took his own life, a reality those who loved him still find hard to believe. His mother and father, both retired teachers, say he faced a struggle with anxiety and depression of such crushing intensity that he went on sick leave from teaching last winter, while he sought treatment. The impact of his life has already been honored by a resolution from the Erie County Legislature, while the Vacantis are involved with creating a scholarship that will emphasize his priorities, at McKinley.
Mary said her driving goal is urging anyone feeling the same desperation to reach out for help through a 24-hour hotline at Crisis Services (716-834-3131) or through the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
“When someone gets depression, when they get this kind of anxiety, you have to understand what you’re up against,” Chuck Vacanti said.
The pandemic, he said, amplified his son's suffering. Joe Marciniak, a McKinley history teacher and a close friend, said Vacanti reveled in the back-and-forth of a classroom. He described Vacanti as “old school, a guy who started with chalk in his hand and then went from overhead projectors to white boards” – and as one of the greatest teachers he ever met.
Lindsey Mannes, who had been dating Vacanti for two years, said his sense of purpose was so powerful that he often drove to school in the heart of the pandemic, teaching by video conference from the quiet classroom he missed dearly, until it became too much.
The Vacantis seek to amplify what Missy Stolfi, area director of Saturday's walk, said is one hard benefit of the pandemic: It throws a spotlight on the need for greater support with mental health. Celia Spacone, coordinator of the Erie County Suicide Prevention Coalition, said suicides in the county dropped from 111 in 2017 to 96 last year, a trend she believes is tied to growing community awareness.
Alex Johnson is weighing all the advice from people he respects. The most important thing, he said, is choosing a path that “creates a better
The most meaningful tribute Vacanti’s family and friends say they can provide is to raise up his memory and remarkable career, behind the faith that it might cause others in similar pain to look toward treatment.
“We’re all a little banged up right now,” said Mike Sorrentino, who was head coach of McKinley’s baseball team when Vacanti – a Yankees fan and a former assistant coach – designed the school's striking pinstriped uniforms. "He knew what matters, and made it matter for the kids. You can’t even measure the kind of energy and positive reinforcement he brought every day, not just for his students but for the faculty.”
Shafie, who co-owns a Buffalo car dealership and also restores homes, said Vacanti ran a economics class of such joy, curiosity and practicality that even teens with little interest in school wanted to be there. Vacanti offered students a chance to make small investments in the market, then guided them in money management. In the days before easy internet access, he taped weekend Bills and Sabres games and replayed them for kids eager for the chance to watch. He loved to show classic “Simpsons" episodes, yet managed to sustain a disciplined atmosphere.
With several of Matt Benedict's close friends from Buffalo and Middlebury College, Joe Avino was among the founding board members for One Last Goal, a foundation dedicated to promoting mental health and wellness for young adults.
“He had an ability to make you forget whatever you were angry about and have a good day,” said Shafie, recalling Vacanti's reaction when Shafie – who sometimes drifted into trouble as a young man – told his teacher he was upset and preoccupied about a dispute with another teen.
If you had, say, $84,000, Vacanti asked, would you risk it all on a $10 problem?
Of course not, Shafie replied.
OK, Vacanti said. Then why risk the high value of your entire life on some brief and forgettable conflict on the street?
Vacanti taught about using wisdom with credit cards, with the stock market, with buying a home – and about the madness of going deep in debt for a new car when a used one made more sense. Burgess, now a police detective, knew Vacanti both in class and as a Kaisertown neighbor, and he said all the lessons about financial literacy went into a notebook – legendary at McKinley – that Vacanti checked and graded throughout the year.
“I’m 33, and I still have it,” Burgess said, a point made by many students. He remembered how Vacanti both commanded respect and exuded compassion, demeanor that Burgess still looks toward as a life model.
David Vacanti was always close with his brother, from their Amherst childhood, through St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and into what was most of all a deep friendship as adults. At the wake, many teachers told David how Vacanti's Jeep would be in the McKinley parking lot before dawn and would remain there until the evening, when almost everyone was gone. Mannes said Vacanti, on weekends or vacation, loved searching for little-known waterfalls, and she witnessed his beloved tradition with candles – how he would buy them on a whim throughout the year, then take long yuletide rides to reach from the car and hand them to strangers.
"He did all kinds of beautiful things," she said of Vacanti, who provided keen financial advice to anyone in need of it, including former students. The fact that an educator of such selflessness chose to end his own life remains for Mannes both a mystery and a still-fresh source of grief, and her hope is the enormity of the good that he did – and the way that he is missed – might lead someone else, immersed in suffering, to hear his tale and reach toward help.
Naseer-Capone, a former student, said that legacy would fit with the way Vacanti lived. As a teen at McKinley, Naseer-Capone was moving into foster care at the same time he was publicly coming out as gay, he said. Vacanti was his study hall teacher, a position that hardly demanded life-changing intervention.
Instead, something about the guy’s concern kindled and reaffirmed the teen's lasting sense of value. When Naseer-Capone learned of Vacanti’s death he sat down and drew a portrait that he posted to Facebook, an image that caught Vacanti as so many students remember him:
He wears the half-smile that often served as greeting, the instant warmth that Sims so beautifully called Vacanti's way.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.