Joe Grasso had played soccer, basketball and baseball at the old Tappan Zee High School, so there really was little reason for him eventually to be known as the Suffern High School Mounties’ No. 1 fan and likely the school’s most beloved history teacher.
It’s just that life prepared him for both those roles and for everything that came along the way.
Joe was a child of the Great Depression and lived much of the history he taught.
At 16, near the end of World War II, he forged his father’s signature to join the Merchant Marine. When his country called upon its young men again nearly a decade later, he served again, in the U.S. Army in Korea.
After his service to the nation, he worked in the family restaurant business while continuing to play and coach and organize many recreation softball and basketball teams.
When legendary coach Nick Mottola was at Tappan Zee, he and Joe became friends and Joe even helped as a volunteer coach.
That friendship would play a role in shaping Joe’s life and career.
Joe remained Tappan Zee’s No. 1 fan even when Mottola left TZ for a short stint as an athletic director on Long Island.
When Mottola returned to Rockland as football coach at Suffern in 1956, Joe developed a rooting interest in his friend and the Mounties.
Joe’s loyalty and potential as a coach stood out to Suffern Superintendent of Schools Lester Rounds, whose doctoral thesis both advocated for and provided the blueprint for a new component for the state university system – Rockland Community College.
Rounds urged Joe to continue his education so he could – officially — become a coach and teacher.
Joe took the advice to heart and in June 1961 was a member of Rockland Community College’s first graduating class.
Joe went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University, where he tutored members of the football and baseball teams and developed a friendship with another legendary coach, the Orange’s Ben Swartswalder.
While earning a masters degree at William Paterson University, Joe began a 42-year teaching career in 1963 and by 1964 was coaching junior high school basketball and Suffern’s junior varsity football team.
Joe remained in those roles until 1973 and in 1974 he became Suffern football’s varsity defensive coordinator.
During Joe’s leadership of Suffern’s defense, the Mounties won county championships in 1975 and 1979.
Joe was forced to give up coaching in 1982 because of a heart attack that also ended his two decades as Suffern basketball’s official scorekeeper in 1983.
Joe had also officiated at the Rockland County track championships for many years while also working at many Rockland County wrestling tournaments.
After being forced to the sidelines, Joe returned to his familiar role as No. 1 Fan for the Mounties. Joe was a fixture at virtually all Suffern sports events and many county sports events as well, which endeared him to hundreds of Suffern athletes who knew Joe was pulling for them and cheering them on.
Joe was personally responsible for many of his history students going on to teach, especially the subject that earned him the respect and admiration on generations of students. Even those who went on to other fields of work knew that Joe was obsessed with helping them prepare for Regents exams, in part, he believed, because in doing so he was preparing them for life.
Joe possessed a bulldog-like appearance and a gruff sounding voice, but virtually everyone who knew him saw it as a cover for his gentle, compassionate and nurturing soul displayed with students and athletes who remember him fondly.
His connection to athletics at Suffern and beyond was celebrated for many years with the annual presentation of The Joe Grasso Award to Rockland’s most outstanding high school athlete.
It was clear Joe never intended to retire from the classroom, where he had suffered that heart attack and kept on teaching. Truth is, when he died on June 10, 2004, he did so at home only because he had stayed home from school that morning. Dying in his classroom probably would have been his preference, except for the trauma it would have caused for the students he so loved.
Speaking at his dad’s funeral, Topper Grasso said growing up during the Depression and servings during two wars had shaped his dad’s character. “It gave him the will to be successful. My father wanted everybody he associated with to have the will to succeed.”