Filippone Retires After Four Decades In Brick

Dennis Filippone. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)
Dennis Filippone. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

BRICK – On Jan. 31, Dennis M. Filippone, 62, will turn off the lights and walk out of his office, marking the end of a 41-year career in the Brick School District.

Not only has his entire professional career taken place in the district, but he also attended Midstreams Elementary School, Lake Riviera Middle School and Brick High School as a student after his family – which includes an identical twin brother, Steven – moved to Brick from North Bergen when they were four years old.

After Filippone’s 89-year-old mother recently broke her arm in a fall at her Princeton Commons home, Filippone and his wife of 36 years, Christine, invited her to convalesce in their Little Egg Harbor home, and then she broke her hip in a second fall.

“That sealed the deal for me to retire,” he said in a recent interview from his office at the Professional Development Center, where he is the director of planning, research and evaluation for the school district.

“She had to live with us, so that made the decision a lot easier. She needed somebody there, and I owe that to her.”

Filippone graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 1978 where he played football for four years, and was a political science major with plans to become a lawyer.

That changed after one of his courses required him to have a volunteer experience, so he worked at a YMCA where he developed a love for severely handicapped children, and changed his major to special education. “The rest is history,” he said.

After college, Filippone came back to Brick and interviewed for a job with the then-deputy superintendent of schools Warren H. Wolf, and started his career as a special education teacher and coach at Lake Riviera Middle School.

During his teaching years, Filippone went back to school to earn his administrative certification, and interviewed to be principal at Osbornville Elementary School, a position he held from 1995-1997.

Filippone might best be known in the district for the 14-year span when he served as principal at his alma mater, Brick High School, a job he said he always wanted.

His father, who was a foreman at a large construction company, had undergone a heart transplant and was in failing health. He was in hospice care on the night Filippone was approved as the new high school principal, and Filippone said he is grateful that his father learned about his son’s new position before he passed away the next morning.

While serving as principal at the high school, Filippone said he probably knew about 75 percent of the students on a first-name basis.

“I was out in the hallways and out in the community, so I knew a lot about them,” he said.

In 1997, enrollment at the high school was around 1,700 students, and were mostly white, middle-class kids, he said.

“Now it is more diverse, and that’s a good thing. There are all different types of kids who are all engaged with each other. Our staff and kids have always been very accepting of kids with differences,” he said.

He said he tried to influence the personal side of student development by saying “good morning” in the hallways – and expecting a “good morning” in return; and he always made his high school graduates stand up, turn towards the audience, and clap for their parents during graduation.

Filippone said student substance abuse was the biggest problem during his tenure as principal.

“I was trying to protect kids from forces that came from the outside,” he said. “I had my own two kids at night, but I had 1,700 kids during the day.”

The high school students who died were usually the result of drug- or alcohol-related car crashes, and Filippone said it was hard to watch kids who had tremendous promise lose everything. “It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill, so I felt an obligation to help,” he said.

Filippone has been involved in the war against drug and alcohol abuse, serving as chair of the Municipal Alliance (Brick’s anti-drug coalition), and on the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. He was also the founder of Relay for Life at Brick High School, which has raised over $1 million for cancer research since 2007.

Filippone is quick to give credit to others. “I’m not great in curriculum, I couldn’t do what [Director of Curriculum] Susan McNamara does; she’s brilliant and hardworking,” said Filippone.

He said he would have stayed on as principal at Brick High School “until the day I died, but there comes a time when you need to step aside – so the people you counted on for support and who worked for you – can move forward,” he said. “They were wonderful years, but it was time for a change.”

He was referring to current Brick High School Principal William Kleissler, who served as vice principal under Filippone.

While he was working in his new position at the Professional Development Center, Filippone was tapped by then-acting superintendent of schools Thomas Gialanella to fill the gap as the interim superintendent of schools until a permanent replacement could be found.

Brick has had 10 superintendents in 10 years, and Filippone said that while he was not interested in taking on the job permanently, he agreed to take it on temporarily.

“It was better that a new superintendent start at the beginning of the year. I only wanted to fill the gap until they could fill the position,” said Filippone. “I knew I wasn’t going to be here for five more years, so it wouldn’t have been right for me to fill the position [on a permanent basis].”

The district has hired Gerard Dalton as its superintendent, whom Filippone called a “right fit” for the district. “He has a compassionate approach to the students. He is a caring guy,” Filippone said.

Filippone said he has been surrounded by great people all of his life, ranging from his father, who he called “a quiet leader,” to the 20 years he coached with Warren Wolf.

“Other than my parents, he had the biggest impact on who I wanted to be,” said Filippone, who still sees the 91-year old Wolf monthly.

Wolf told Filippone to “always look for the best in people, because the worst in them will find you.”

Filippone said he has always been influenced by strong women in his life, including his mother and his wife Christine, a nurse who has earned two PhDs and who will continue working for St. Barnabas after her husband retires.  

He also has two daughters, Marie, 33 and Angela, 31, and a 2-year-old granddaughter, Kaia. His brother lives in Connecticut, is also a special education teacher and decorated football coach, and has two sons.

  Two Brick High School teachers of Italian descent nominated Filippone to be the Grand Marshal at the 2018 Ocean County Columbus Day Parade, which Filippone – who is 100 percent Italian – called “a great experience.” He walked in the parade with his wife and granddaughter, whom he had to carry nearly the whole route.

“I struggle with retirement, but I’ve been very fortunate. God gives me great guidance,” he said.

School administrators are not allowed to coach sports, which is “a silly rule,” Filippone said. He hopes to return to the high school as a volunteer football coach after he retires.

“I miss that a lot. It’s unlike any other relationship,” he said.

Filippone coached Brick High School’s current football coach, Len Zdanowicz, as a youth.

The school district is facing some major obstacles as Filippone departs, including the loss of some $23 million in state funding over seven years, which could be “catastrophic,” he said.

“The backdrop is, the infrastructure still needs work, the security referendum failed by 39 votes, the teachers don’t have a contract, and we have declining enrollment. We’re losing 300 kids a year. Do we need the facilities we have? Can we restructure so it works? Can we repurpose buildings? I don’t envy [Superintendent Gerard Dalton] one bit, but he’s the kind of person that can do it,” Flippone said.

“I’m not worried. It’s a resilient community. We’ve responded to difficulties before. As long as there’s support for the administration it will work itself out,” he said.

In addition to volunteer coaching, Filippone said retirement plans include playing golf, spending time with his granddaughter and his mother, and cooking dinner for his wife.

The couple is planning a 13-day trip to Italy in September, which will be their first visit there.

“I owe more to the district than it owes to me. It has given me everything, except for my family, and I’ll always be willing to help,” he said.

Filippone’s last Board of Education meeting will be on Jan. 17.