Dr. Joseph Rella, the former superintendent of Comsewogue School District who retired just this past year, died on Friday, February 21. He was 69.
His passing was announced by the school district.
Social media was flooded Friday as colleagues, community members, parents, and students shared stories about their much-admired district leader, expressing their admiration, respect, and love for Rella.
School officials also shared their memories of their former co-worker and superintendent who touched so many lives.
John Swenning, Comsewogue’s school board president, described Rella as a humble servant of the community who accomplished much for the district — and was the kind of person who took credit for none of it.
“He was truly the most honest, caring, and loving human being I have ever met,” said Swenning in a phone call with GreaterPortJeff on Saturday morning, the day after Rella’s death. “Everything he touched turned to gold.”
Sweening said Rella’s work ethic and concern for his students showed in everything he did and how he conducted himself as an administrator.
“He met people where they were at and did what he had to do to make people better,” he said. “He wanted people to be better than he was.”
Rella was a music teacher when he first came to the Comsewogue School District and eventually rose to take positions as principal, then assistant superintendent and finally retired as superintendent in 2019 after a total of 25 years of service.
When he retired, Rella had already revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
He was a hands-on educator who gave more of himself to the role than most other administrators, volunteering to accompany students to NYSSMA music competitions, practicing with them, and giving up weekends to go to performances with them. He also performed music for school plays.
The school renamed their high school performance auditorium as the Dr, Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center in his honor in 2019.
Rella was often seen at school and community events accompanied by his wife, Jacquiline, who died in 2016. He is survived by the couple’s four sons, Richard, Andrew, Michael and Sean.
Swenning said that both Rellas embodied the spirit of the community.
“Joe and Jackie were hand-in-hand at every play, concert, and sporting event,” he said. “They bled blue and gold. She was as a part of the district as he was and they showed without knowing it, how to act as a couple.”
The school district also posted a statement on its website announcing Rella’s passing.
“He was Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior,” the post read. “Condolences to the Rella Family. Thank you for sharing such a great man with us.”
The Warriors is the name of the Comsewogue sports team.
Jennifer Quinn succeeded Rella as superintendent of the district this year. She said that she followed him up the ladder throughout her career and he provided her with inspiration, direction, and guidance over 14 years.
“We’ve been a team for my entire time at Comsewogue,” she said in a phone interview on Saturday morning. “He was my mentor, my champion, the person I would eat breakfast and lunch with every day. He had a way to make everyone feel they can do anything they want.”
Quinn echoed what others said about Rella, that he was caring, thoughtful, and humble but she said he was a risk-taker too who accomplished what he did for the district because he built trust in the community.
“His greatest strength was his ability to make connections and help fix people’s problems,” she said. “He thought out of the box and understood that sometimes you have to do things in an unorthodox way to get them done.”
Quinn also described Rella was a strategic planner who saw things that others did not.
“He was brilliant. He could see things ten steps down the path,” she said.
And he was unselfish, always comfortable sharing the spotlight.
Before he left his position Rella began to step back and let Quinn start to run things while he was still there, giving her the experience she needed while he was still closeby to guide her. When he announced his retirement he insisted that Quinn’s appointment as superintendent be recognized on the same night.
“That’s another lesson that I learned from him: always give credit and support those that work hard. Encourage people to take risks and they will accomplish great things.”
But the buck also stopped at his desk.
“If something went wrong he always took the blame,” Quinn added.
Among Rella’s accomplishments both Quinn and Swenning mentioned that he helped get ComsewogueSchool District a Middle State accreditation, a designation of educational excellence bestowed on schools that meet rigorous and comprehensive standards in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“I believe that we are the only large district that has all of our buildings accredited,” said Quinn. “That was important to him because he wanted everyone to know just how great we are.”
His legacy is also that of fostering a culture of inclusiveness. Rella had an open door policy, encouraging students and staff to come to him.
“The trust he built with our community is like nothing I have ever seen before,” Quinn said. “It enabled us to do amazing things. They just trusted Joe.”
On Monday when students return from Winter break they will decorate the school buildings blue and gold ribbon to honor Rella. Plans for an official school memorial are not cemented yet but Quinn did say that she is closing school on Wednesday so students can attend Rella’s funeral.
“I’m heartbroken that he had such a short time after retirement to spend with his family,” Quinn said, adding that Rella was a man of strong faith who is now reunited with his wife, Jacqueline.
“He knew this day would come,” she added. “The message he wanted to get out there is that when people remembered him he did not want them to be sad. He wanted them to laugh and tell stories.”
Online condolences and memories poured out on Facebook as the community grappled with the loss. Former students on the Comsewogue Community Facebook page praised him and his influence on their lives in school and beyond.
“We lost a hero today. I am so sad,” wrote Monica Gleberman, who graduated in the class of 2004. “The amount of sacrifice he did for the district is something that we will never see again. Rella was a force to be reckoned with, someone ready to fight a battle and the first one to hug you while making you smile.”
In her post, Gleberman spoke about how Rella helped her in her high school career and even offered her advice and guidance as she pursued her Masters degree.
“He is irreplaceable,” she added. “Rella embodied possibility and hope. Something so rare that you don’t realize what’s happening until it’s gone.”
The Terryville Fire Department also issued a statement saying they were saddened to hear about his death and calling Rella “an iconic individual in our community.”
New York State Assemblyman Doug Smith, who represents the region, said in a statement on Facebook that Rella was “one of the most kind hearted and caring educators that I have ever met and had the pleasure to work with.” He described how Rella fought with thousands of parents against overtesting and the Common Core, facing down New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo over the issues.
“He truly is and was ‘The Lorax’ of public education,” wrote Smith. “His smiling face will be greatly missed by all.”
Swenning-who said he and Rella became close personal friends and bonded not just over their Comsewogue connection but also over their families and shared backgrounds-said that he was more than just the CEO of the school during his tenure as superintendent.
“He was the Italian grandfather that every kid deserves.”
Quinn said that the loss will be felt throughout the community, not just within the school district buildings.
“He is going to be greatly missed,” said Quinn. “I can’t tell you how many lives he touched. As an educator that is what you try to do to make that mark and he has done it. He was like a rock star.”
Visitation for Dr. Joseph Rella will be at Moloney Funeral Home, 523 NYS Route 112, Port Jefferson Station on Monday, February 24 from 2-4pm and 7-9pm. His funeral will be at St. Gerard Majella RC Church, 300 Terryville Road, Port Jefferson Station on Wednesday, February 26 at 10:30am.
The district announced that anyone wishing to send a card to the Rella family should forward it to the school and they will ensure that the cards are delivered to them. Send condolences to Comsewogue School District, District Office, 290 Norwood Avenue, Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776.