Longtime EGHS disciplinarian was both loved and loathed

By Mark Thompson

Dom Iannazzi’s photo in the 1970 Crimson. He taught, coached and disciplined in East Greenwich from 1951 to 1978.

If you think the turmoil now roiling East Greenwich is unprecedented, you weren’t around when Domenic Iannazzi became the lightning rod that polarized the town for more than a decade. “Dom” Iannazzi, who taught, coached and principaled in East Greenwich from 1951 to 1978, died Monday, Oct. 9, in Providence of cancer. He was 94.

He was a black-and-white guy in an increasingly Kodachrome world. A tad different—some would say odd—Mr. Iannazzi gave strict orders to his family and friends against announcing his death, publishing an obituary, or holding a funeral or memorial service.

But that wouldn’t be fair to the man, or to the town where he spent 27 years schooling its children, in life as well as math and sports. Love him or hate him—and Mr. Iannazzi had students in both camps—his death should not pass unexamined.

Besides, he’s no longer around to give me detention.

While he may have been a lifelong bachelor, his legacy is in the hundreds of East Greenwich students he taught, coached and disciplined during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

I know. I was there.

His presence in town can be gleaned by how often his name surfaced in the weekly Rhode Island Pendulum newspaper over the decades: 10 times in the 1950s, 123 in the 1960s and 127 times in the 1970s—more than twice a week for 20 years.

Then he pretty much vanished from its pages, and the town.

Newcomers have no idea who he was. But it speaks to what the town was like as it grew from an insular bayside village into a bedroom community, with newcomers from far away who didn’t care for his approach, or his attitude.

Mr. Iannazzi was one of the few teachers in East Greenwich who hit the EGHS trifecta, beginning his career in town teaching at what had been the old East Greenwich Academy (Swift Community Center is all that’s left). He moved on when the Cedar Avenue high school (now Archie Cole Middle School) opened in 1956. He moved again to the current high school in 1967. He helped launch the town’s Citizen Scholarship Foundation, donated trophies to EGHS athletes and cash to EGHS scholars, supervised school dances, and served as the faculty adviser to the student council. And he coached lots of students, especially those who played football for the East Greenwich High School Avengers.

But that’s not what East Greenwich kids of a certain age remember. I met Dom Iannazzi 50 years ago this fall, and like most freshmen—who also feared sophomores, juniors and seniors—the high school’s assistant principal was the avenging Avenger. “Dom I’m-a-Nazi” we called him. He was a taciturn, difficult man, who embraced “tough love” for those under his wing. Some kids thrived; others rebelled. “He breathed fire. He ate raw freshmen for breakfast. He never slept and was stored in a closet at night,” Bruce Mastracchio, class of 1960, wrote of Mr. Iannazzi’s reputation several years ago.

I am sure he will give them hell where ever he goes,” a former female student said after learning of his passing. “I remember seeing him make girls kneel on the floor to check the length of their skirts,” she recalls. “Luckily I didn’t have to do that.”

“I know many wanted to make him a saint, but I wasn’t one of them,” says Alan Clarke, class of 1958. “If you were one of `Uncle Iron’s’ brotherhood, the slaps you got on the back of your head were love taps. If you were not in his band of brothers, he was a big pothole on your road to adulthood.” Many students found him uncaring and and even mean. Most would “get him” after a while but sometimes, Clarke adds, it was too late to save their grade point averages. “I felt his classes were a bit too much like Army basic training, and there was time enough for that ahead,” he remembers. “He wanted something I didn’t want to give him.”

Mr. Iannazzi had grown up in Providence and Johnston, earning degrees from Providence College and Northeastern University. He started his teaching (and coaching—football and hockey) career at La Salle Academy in Providence and Johnston. In January, 1951, he was hired as a math teacher at East Greenwich High School at $2,900 a year, along with coaching the junior high baseball and basketball teams.

In the spring of 1963, 12 years after coming to East Greenwich, he was tapped to serve as assistant principal at the high school, which by then was on Cedar Avenue. At the same School Committee meeting—on April 11 of that year, a date which lives on in infamy—Lou Lepry was promoted to be assistant principal at the junior high. Both served as the schools’ disciplinarian, and I felt the wrath of each back in the day. Mr. Iannazzi was Mr. Lepry, without the charm.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Iannazzi’s iron hand to generate ire among some of the high school kids’ parents. In January 1966, 50 parents complained about high school discipline, or the lack of it, in a petition to the School Committee. “The hearing came as a result of at least two different incidents in the cafeteria, one involving disobedience towards Mr. Iannazzi and the other involving blows exchanged by the vice principal and a student,” the Pendulum reported on its Jan. 13, 1966, front page.

“Mr. Iannazzi has proved to my satisfaction that he is not capable of applying discipline,” a Middle Road resident who launched the petition told the panel before 150 townspeople. Iannazzi, with his typical deft political touch, told the committee that the high school cafeteria had become a “blackboard jungle” until he set up a “student corps” to enforce lunchtime rules there. Principal Rufus Brackley declared, “I am behind Mr. Iannazzi 100%,” but grumbled that he would have appreciated it if the concerned parents had come to him, instead of his bosses on the school board, with their complaint.

Bill Foster, the editor of the Pendulum, came to Mr. Iannazzi’s defense on the paper’s editorial page that same week:

“As a disciplinarian, Mr. Iannazzi has helped create a high school environment that is the envy of other school systems. And the delight of many parents who feel that teaching and discipline go hand in hand. In performing his work, however, Mr. Iannazzi has demonstrated many `controversial’ characteristics. One is a short temper. Another, a vocabulary which can hardly be described as that of the suave politician. And on occasion, a lack of tact has irritated parents involved in disciplinary action. Still, as we review the 15.years he has taught in our system, we can’t help but come to this conclusion. What Mr. Iannazzi has done right so far outweighs what he has done wrong. East Greenwich might do better to treat him to a testimonial than harangue him with a hearing.”

This early confrontation led the next week to the first letter from a former student to the Pendulum championing Mr. Iannazzi. “Mr. Iannazzi is by far one of the best teachers that I have ever had the privilege of encountering,” wrote Gail Graham, a 1957 EGHS graduate who received her bachelor’s degree from Pembroke College (which became part of Brown University in 1971), and a master’s from Stanford University, before becoming a high school teacher in San Francisco. “I remember him as being a strict disciplinarian, but never once as being unfair never mind `dictatorial,’” she wrote. “He expects much of his students and for this I think the students are grateful.” She suggested he might want to apply for better-paying jobs in California.

But Mr. Iannazzi was nothing if not stubborn, so he stayed put. That spat was only a warmup for what was to come. Three years later, he took a year’s sabbatical from East Greenwich High School (gym teacher and coach Nick Carcieri filled in). While he was continuing his studies at the University of Utah, he said he was stunned to receive a letter from the School Committee telling him he would be teaching math at the junior high school when he returned.

“When I entered into the Sabbatical Leave Agreement with the School Committee, I entered it in good faith. But, I wonder, did they?” he said in a letter to the Pendulum, as news of his long-distant demotion surfaced. “It is a known and public fact that I was to return to the School System in the same capacity that I was in prior to my leave. On January 20, 1969, only four months after the opening of school, I received the notification that I was being relieved of my duties as Assistant Principal. At the present time, it is almost impossible for me to do or say anything in my behalf, for I am almost 3,000 miles away.”

An avalanche of letters supporting Mr. Iannazzi tumbled into the Pendulum. One was addressed to the School Committee: “You are charged with providing the best possible education and guidance for the young people of East Greenwich, yet you are humiliating and, in effect, dismissing one of the most gifted and devoted teachers to be found anywhere,” wrote Robert Bergeron, Jr., a 1960 EGHS grad. He recalled dawdling his first two years of high school until he came to Mr. Iannazzi’s attention. He “felt I was capable of doing more and, with the support and cooperation of my parents, began to exert pressure. I resented it fiercely.”

But Bergeron’s resentment eased when Mr. Iannazzi began picking him up each school morning, along with another student, for 30 minutes of private tutoring before the school day began. “Then, in his senior year,” Bergeron remembered, “he gave up his free period every day to teach us college calculus.”

It must have worked: Bergeron graduated from Brown and went on to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Had I never known Mr. Iannazzi,” he added, “I doubt that I would be in teaching, or in mathematics.”

The following week, Jeffrey Lord conceded in another letter that he had been a “disciplinary problem” as a freshman in the class of 1968 when he first met Mr. Iannazzi. “However, I grew to love the man in my four years at EGHS,” he wrote. “I remember him once telling me: `It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have that counts.’” Lord went on to serve as president of the high school’s student council in his senior year before heading off to the University of Rhode Island. He was killed in a crash in Narragansett a year after writing that letter.

In the same edition, Charles Keyes, the School Committee chairman, weighed in. The committee had discussed reassigning Mr. Iannazzi “for some time,” given that he was “extremely well-versed in mathematics,” Keyes said. The panel was forced to demote him long-distance when they realized he had to be informed of their decision to do so “before March 1st to conform to legal interpretations of the State Board of Education regulations.”

So they sent him a letter.

The committee had planned to keep their action quiet until they met with Mr. Iannazzi personally, but he had no intention of keeping their secret. “We feel it most unfortunate for him and for the youngsters that so much publicity has been given to the subject,” Keyes added.

“The School Committee is fully aware of Mr. Iannazzi’s interest in many youngsters in town . . . of the good work he has done for them . . . of his community projects and the benefits this town has received from them . . . and of his dedication to teaching,” Keyes concluded. Nonetheless, the committee felt it had to act “to improve the overall operation of a growing school system.”

But four months later, after a three-day hearing sought by Mr. Iannazzi, the state ordered him returned to his high school job in time for the 1968-69 school year. “By their own testimony,” the Pendulum grumbled, “the School Committee revealed little first-hand evidence to back up their action.”

Iannazzi in 1971.

Mr. Iannazzi was back at work, and I can attest that his bruising battle to hang on to his job hadn’t worn him out. I remember being summoned to his office in late 1970, along with several cowering classmates. Someone had burned down the temporary, and tiny, ramshackle snack bar at the football field the night after the last game of the season (the Avengers lost to the North Kingstown Skippers, 15-0). Our class of 1971 had built the 6-by-8-foot structure to help raise money. The arsonists also torched the heavy-timber football sled that Avenger gridironers pushed around the practice field. It was that second conflagration, no doubt, that most ticked off Mr. Iannazzi.

As I reported for the high school’s underground newspaper (The Subterranea—get it?), we “were called into the office of famed disciplinarian here at EGHS. He stated his case in the following manner:

“The remnants of the destruction must be cleaned up before Weds., the 25th of Nov. OR ELSE:

“—Seniors will lose their deserved privileges until the `fourth of July (1971)’.

“—If any student planning to graduate in 1972 is found to have been involved in this dreadful act of arson he will also lose the glamour of having senior privileges next year.

“—These recommendations have already been sent to our almost-retired superintendent, Mr. Cole, and he has backed Mr. Iannazzi fully in his endeavor to suppress any more such `Tom-Foolery.’”

I have no recollection what happened in the wake of that meeting. But I’ll never forget that I thought I detected a twinkle in Mr. Iannazzi’s eye as he scolded my classmates and me.

The next time Mr. Iannazzi ran into a buzzsaw, I had long since graduated from East Greenwich High School, gone to college, and returned to East Greenwich to help Bill Foster put out the Pendulum. By the time I got back, in mid-1975, the powers-that-be were trying to push Mr. Iannazzi out of the high school once again. He favored stern discipline, but his superiors, along with the School Committee and many parents, did not. 

Some students sensed the that the old paradigm that once pitted pupils against a united team of parents and school had broken. “Mr. Iannazzi will have to deal not only with a student but with his parents as well,” one told the Pendulum in December 1975. “It’s the parents who say, `What are you doing to my poor, little Golden Johnny,’ and all Mr. Iannazzi’s doing is to try and do his job.” A second agreed. “The parents just won’t believe it when they’re told that their poor, little Golden Johnny just blew up the bathroom.”

Relations between Mr. Iannazzi and his superiors frayed to the breaking point following a fire at the high school, where blame for a failure to sound the alarm bounced between him and the principal at the time.

In 1976 Mr. Iannazzi was tapped to serve as the “assistant to the superintendent for business”—basically, a glorified bean-counter. How a man who had been lauded for years as a teacher, coach and disciplinarian could be assigned to pinch pennies remains to some a mystery for the ages. “I am sure that I will miss working with the kids,” he said shortly before assuming his new position, “but I do think that perhaps it is time I had a change.”

Mr. Iannazzi was replaced by a young school administrator from Yonkers, N.Y., who was paid $19,500 in his first year for doing the job that Mr. Iannazzi had earned $18,150 during the last of his 13 years. “It sure does upset me,” said Mr. Iannazzi, never one to trim his sails as a storm brewed. “I’d be on that job for 13 years and then a new guy comes in and gets more in his first year that I did in my 13th?”

He wasn’t the only one upset. “I was told by a member of the School Committee three years ago that they were going to get Mr. Iannazzi out of the high school—by creating a position of business manager, or something,” Mike Romano, a beloved EGHS drama teacher, said at the time.

Some parents wanted Lepry to take Mr. Iannazzi’s high school post, but he declined. Lepry chose instead to fight for his job as principal at what was then known as East Greenwich Junior High School. The same forces trying to oust Mr. Iannazzi from the high school were trying to push Lepry out of his job there.

Things went downhill after Mr. Iannazzi left the high school. “The kids may have hated Dom while he was here,” one teacher told the Pendulum after he had moved on to the business office at Hanaford School, “but at least they respected him. The hate’s still there for the current administration, but there’s no respect.”

It was obviously a time of turmoil in the East Greenwich school system. Lou Lepry survived; Mr. Iannazzi didn’t.

When Mr. Iannazzi left East Greenwich for good in 1978, the School Committee decided the system no longer needed a business manager.

Mr. Iannazzi spent the final decades of his life quietly working for the federal government at Fort Knox, Ky., refereeing high school football games, and taking care of relatives as they aged, in California as well as Rhode Island. “He didn’t want anything publicized,” an old friend confided of the man’s life, and death. “But he often spoke of the students he knew in East Greenwich. He knew how strict he was with them, but felt they needed it—and he was proud of how many did so well.”

One of those was Bob Bergeron, that East Greenwich high graduate who had gone on to Brown and M.I.T. thanks to Mr. Iannazzi’s help. He ended up working for New Jersey’s Bell Labs—in math, of course—for 30 years. “Besides my parents, there is no one who had a greater influence on my life,” Bergeron said Sunday, Oct. 15. “He helped me learn how to get joy out of working hard.”

Bergeron and others say Mr. Iannazzi never expressed any bitterness at how he had been treated by the East Greenwich school system. But perhaps that was just part of his fervent lifelong desire for privacy. He spurned all honors, avoided photographs, and basically didn’t want to be remembered.

So it’s no surprise that Mr. Iannazzi didn’t go to his grave. Instead, he chose to be cremated.

That means there’s nowhere to go to thank him, or curse him, for his years in East Greenwich.