DUMONT, N.J. - About 10 years ago, Dumont Public Schools superintendent Emanuele Triggiano remembers laughing when a retired teacher told him that she was going to donate a million dollars.
"I thought it was a joke,' Triggiano said. "But then we got the paperwork.'
Genevieve Via Cava, a special education teacher in the Dumont school district, had amassed a small fortune throughout her life. When she died in 2011, she left her savings to help some of the people who meant the most to her: her special education students.
"She was very kindhearted, sometimes with a rough exterior, but very compassionate deep down,' said Richard Jablonski, a close friend and executor of her will. "She was very loving and won people over with her beautiful smile.'
Starting with the 2019-20 school year, one special education student seeking post-high-school education, such as college or a trade school, will be eligible for a $25,000 scholarship thanks to Via Cava's million-dollar gift. The district also plans to give a scholarship for the 2018-2019 school year, although it may not be the full $25,000 amount depending on the investment, said Triggiano.
The money will stay in a fund that will generate interest, allowing the district to continue giving out the scholarships for years to come, said business administrator Kevin Cartotto.
Via Cava, who had no children, had spent most her of professional career in the school district.
Her desire to pay it forward to help the future generation comes as no surprise to those who knew her best. Jablonski first met Via Cava over 35 years ago, when he operated an Annie Sez store in Closter, N.J.. Via Cava would come in all the time with her husband and became a regular customer. After her husband died around 1998, Via Cava, who lived in Oradell, N.J., would continue to frequent the store, making friends with whomever she came across that day.
"She was an amazing woman who could light up a room just by walking in,' Jablonski said. "She had a smile that was unbelievable. She could talk to anybody just to start conversation with them, and by the time they walked away, they would be hugging.'
It wasn't just strangers that she had a knack for connecting with, but former students, too. No matter how many years had passed, she would still recognize and chat with them.
In some cases, she would help former students - who were then in their 20s or 30s - find jobs, thanks to the connections she had made in the area, said her friend James Kennedy.
"She had an uncanny memory when it came to her students and could remember things that happened a long time ago,' he said.
Kennedy, who would eventually become principal at the district's Selzer School, knows firsthand how well Via Cava connected with students: He was one of her students himself. Kennedy had Via Cava for seventh-grade English.
"She had a very good sense of humor,' Kennedy said. "She made kids feel relaxed and was very approachable as a person.'
Kennedy would eventually leave Dumont to go to college and teach in the Bronx section of New York, but later came back to his home district to work as a director of special services. There he reunited with Via Cava, who was then working as a learning consultant for the Child Study Team.
In addition to being a caring teacher in the classroom, Via Cava tried to help students outside the classroom, Kennedy said. She would befriend their parents and refer them to after-school groups that help special education students transition into daily life.
During all the time she was teaching and selflessly caring for students, Via Cava scrimped and saved, denying herself many things.
Jablonski thought it was probably a habit she picked up from having endured the Great Depression. When she started to lose her hearing later in life, she even refused to get hearing aids, Jablonski said.
"The Great Depression really left a mark on her,' he said. "I asked her what she was saving for, since she could afford it, and it would change her life for the better.'
What she was saving for, it turns out, was to help Dumont students, just as she had done throughout her life.
"She's leaving behind a lasting legacy,' Jablonski said.
Follow Stephanie Noda on Twitter @snoda11
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