Crash Claims Life of Monticello Teacher
By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO January 23, 2007 John Spear, one of Monticello High School’s most popular and well respected teachers, died tragically late Friday evening after his car went off the road during icy and snowy conditions in Rock Hill.
Spear, 54, was on the way to pick up his wife Elaine to head to the hospital where his son, David, was taken after a car accident.
The 11th grade American history teacher for 22 years recently promoted to head of the department was known for his characteristic soft-spoken voice. He had deep knowledge of history and interest in current events. In addition, he had a deep-rooted passion for baseball and coached the varsity baseball team for each of the last 21 seasons.
Monticello Central Schools Superintendent Patrick Michel summed up the district’s opinion of him, when he stated, “he was an outstanding teacher and individual. He represented the best we had.”
Despite his low key tone, Spear commanded the attention of his classroom and demanded his students learn about this country’s history. He was well organized, and made an effort to involve the students in discussions on a daily basis.
Yesterday, current students and fellow teachers gathered at the High School Library to remember Spear. School psychologists and social workers were also on hand to help counsel them. Emotions ran very high.
High School Principal Arleene Siegel-Lerner was especially close to him. “He was an incredible human being,” she said. “He had great vision. We worked together everyday. He worked well with all of the administrators. Both of my children had him. As a teacher, he was extraordinary. I will personally miss him. The school will miss him immensely.”
Spear left behind his wife Elaine, who is battling cancer. They have three children, Thomas, 24; David, 17; and Gina, 21. Gina has a 22-month old daughter, Adyn.
Spear was looking forward to coaching David on the high school baseball team this year for the first time.
One of the most successful baseball players Spear ever coached was Steve Pinto of Woodbourne, a 1986 graduate. He went on to play professional baseball for the Catskill Cougars and Newburgh Nighthawks for three years. He was the hitting coach and bench coach for the Cougars for another two years.
Pinto played on the first two Monticello baseball teams that Spear coached. Pinto said he was in “shock,” at the death of Spear.
A first baseman, Pinto was on a team that put an end to the school’s worst losing streak in its history, a 64-game mark. “Wins and losses mean a lot when you’re younger, but when you get older the people whose lives touched you make the biggest difference,” Pinto said.
He added, “Playing for Coach Spear was a positive experience. He was the type of coach I think anyone would want to play for. He was a very kind and patient man… Certain coaches are screamers. He wasn’t one of them. He encouraged players to maximize your ability. He was a very positive force. It has been a tough couple days.”
Spear helped Pinto go on to play at Siena College in Loudonville by writing recommendation letters and speaking with their coach.
“Some coaches I’ve learned things from, like how to swing a bat and throw a baseball. I cannot use those skills anymore. But from Coach Spear, I learned how to raise my family and touch other lives,” Pinto noted. “In that respect, he was the best coach I ever had. The more you live, the more you realize the things that matter in life aren’t the wins and losses but the lives you touch.”
After professional baseball, Pinto returned to the classroom at Monticello Middle School where he taught for several years. In 1997, he opened up Pro Prospects, a baseball training facility in Monticello. Spear would stop in once a while and bring his son David in to practice.
“He listened to what you had to say and had a thoughtful response,” recalled Pinto. “He was a gentle, patient man and a huge loss to everybody who knows him… He truly cared about kids and set an example. It is a true loss to everybody who needs guidance. There are people who need him and don’t even know it.”
Michael Greco of Monticello played for Coach Spear in 1985, during his first season helming the Panthers.
“Even though we didn’t win any games that season I learned that his love of the game was very true,” Greco said. “I was welcomed back by John to volunteer and help the team for many years after I played and was given the chance to touch many young lives something that I know was a great reason why he coached for so many years.
“I will miss John asking me how my softball team is doing and asking about players that played for him who now have families and see the happiness he got when we would talk about the many successes he had off the field. I will always remember Coach Spear, my coach, and John, my friend.”
Jody Lounsbury taught alongside Spear for the last three and a half years. She assisted him, working with students on a one-to-one basis in the same Social Studies classroom. Lounsbury also taught special education students. She described him as “an expert,” and called his teaching style “unsurpassed.”
“He always had the answers to kids questions. There wasn’t a question asked of him that he didn’t have the answer to,” she said. He could recite all of the U.S. Presidents and the years of their terms by memory. “He was one of the kindest, gentlest, giving men I’ve ever known. A gem of a person.”
One word brought up over and over again in describing Spear was integrity. Siegel-Lerner said it as did English teacher Ann Hazelnis. In a letter to colleagues, Hazelnis called Spear “a man filled with kindness, generosity and integrity. His passing leaves a void that can never be filled, and words cannot express how much he meant to us.”
Siegel-Lerner said “if there was a student who needed his help he would go to bat for him.”
Barry Greynolds, an economics and psychology teacher since 1987, said Spear “didn’t dictate anything. He encouraged others.”
Mike Hughes, a current senior and standout player for Spear on the baseball team last season, said he was “a great guy all around. He wrote me a few letters to colleges. He was always positive. There was never anything negative.” Even though Hughes didn’t have him as a teacher, Spear helped him with his Social Studies work.
Spear was also known for making sure all of his players got onto the field during the games.
Christian Giunta, who had his AP Social Studies class, said Spear “made me like Social Studies for the first time. He gave me pointers on how to improve my performance on tests.”
In addition, Spear gave lectures to the students, and had them take notes, in order to prepare them for college.
Giunta remembered Spear explaining the tragedies the Native Americans faced during the war by the U.S. against them, including the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, during the term of President Andrew Jackson. In some classes, Spear put Jackson on trial in a mock impeachment trial involving the class.
Hazelnis has asked that donations be sent to the Spear family in this difficult time. They can be sent to:
Mrs. Elaine Spear
5 Avon Street
Rock Hill, NY 12775
The wake was held Monday, January 22. Mass will be held at St. Peters Church in Monticello on Tuesday, January 23 at 10 a.m. Spear will be buried in his hometown of Syracuse.