Some teachers stick with you for a lifetime.
Joe Natale was one for me.
Natale, who passed away on Jan. 12, was my English teacher in my senior year at Lancaster High School.
In hindsight, I was extremely fortunate to have him as a teacher when I did.
I spent the bulk of my junior year hanging around with my less-than-focused buddies who were more worried about football practice than actually studying for much of anything. We had a silent pact to coast by in our classes that year.
A firm push from our high school football coach — the great Len Jankiewicz — put us back on the right path probably just in time. If you wanted to play on his team, Jankiewicz demanded effort across the board, classroom studies included.
My 11th grade English teacher was an extremely gracious and kind woman named Ann Brighton whose positive personality fit her last name to a tee.
I did my best that year to annoy Mrs. Brighton by refusing or failing to do writing assignments I was clearly capable of doing.
In order to pass her class, Mrs. Brighton offered me a deal. She gave me permission to write an extra credit, 10-page term paper on a topic of my choice. I did a good enough job writing about the Beatles that I somehow managed to avoid having to go to summer school.
At the end of the year, I made a deal of my own with Mrs. Brighton, assuring her I would apply my full potential in English my following year as a senior.
I got the exact right teacher to help me fulfill my promise in the form of Joe Natale.
His extensive background in the theater gave him an amazing command when it came to telling stories. When he read Shakespeare, he sounded like a Shakespearean actor — because he was one.
An excellent story on his passing, written by Anne Neville in the Buffalo News, noted that Natale performed in Shakespeare in Delaware Park for 20 years. According to the News, he also appeared in productions for Buffalo United Artists, the Kavinoky Theatre, the New Phoenix Theatre, the Ujima Theatre Company and the Irish Classical Theatre Company, among others. He also directed plays for New Phoenix Theatre, Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, Curtain Call Productions and at Daemen College, the News reported.
Mr. Natale’s skill as a performer spilled over into the classroom each day. His demeanor and attitude about things like acting and art and culture kept his classes lively and interesting.
You didn’t just read text in his class.
The master thespian in Joe Natale demanded more.
We routinely acted out parts from stories and plays. Even the shy kids participated and it was always in good fun. In Joe Natale’s class, students were free, within reason, to share their thoughts and opinions while enjoying themselves wherever possible.
What I remember most about his classes is having a blast.
I finished my senior year in English with final grades of 95 or above for all four quarters and did well enough to earn exemption from having to take the final exam.
At least in part, I have Joe Natale to thank for it.
He took what could have been just another dull English class and turned it into a fun experience where students were encouraged to approach basic tasks like reading, writing, acting or just plain interacting with one another with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm.
It says a lot about him as a person and as a teacher that he was able to create an environment where students were engaged and enjoying themselves while learning the lessons of the day.
I looked forward to each and every Joe Natale classroom “performance.”
Many of my former classmates felt the same way.
While he was well-known in Western New York arts and theatre circles and I’m sure many who knew him in his capacity as an actor are still mourning his loss, it’s important to note that Joe Natale’s presence extended well beyond the stage.
In addition to being a top-notch actor, he was a cool guy and an A-plus teacher.
He helped this underachieving high school student reach his potential in 12th grade English and I can’t thank him enough for it.
Contact Regional News Director Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.