Eastport South Manor Families Planting Garden To Honor Former Theater Director

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Eastport South Manor families are installing a garden at the high school in Manorville this summer to commemorate retired theater director Joseph Minutillo, who, with the help of colleague Jon Raynor, virtually built the district’s robust drama program from the ground up.

To students, Mr. Minutillo, known to many as “Mr. Min,” was a friend as much as he was a mentor and teacher, they said.

“When you stepped into that theater, you became part of his family, and he made sure that everything was working out OK for you,” said Amy Ippolito of Manorville, a 2011 graduate who is now studying theater at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. “He was the absolute best.”

Mr. Minutillo, who retired in 2012, taught in the district for more than 30 years. He was first hired as an English teacher at the Dayton Avenue School in Manorville, and asked to help with an after-school drama program. He described his surprise upon seeing for himself the gymnasium at the school that doubled as a theater, and the makeshift lights they used in productions.

It was then that he met Mr. Raynor, who taught with Mr. Minutillo for the vast majority of his time in the district. The two became inseparable, Mr. Minutillo said, and remain close friends today.

“Little by little we started putting things together,” he said of the work they did to grow the program. “Believe it or not, there was a lot of great theater that happened in that gym.”

In 2003, construction was completed on the current high school off Moriches-Middle Island Road, which boasts a theater that both teachers helped design, and plenty of space to accommodate the stage craft program. Soon after the new school opened, merging the Eastport and South Manor districts, Mr. Minutillo was appointed theater director, and Mr. Raynor the instructor of the stagecraft courses.

The theater program soon transformed from an after-school activity to one that prepares students for careers in the arts.

“I didn’t want to retire,” Mr. Minutillo said, recalling with emotion the surprise party his students and their families threw for him last year. “My students and the parents, they could not have made me feel more proud and more welcomed, more needed than they did.”

In 2011, when the Eastport South Manor School District was forced to slash funding for its theater program, Barbara Stanco, whose sons, Brian and Alex, both graduated from the district, along with other mothers formed a nonprofit organization called the ESM Community for the Arts. Their goal was to raise the funds necessary to put on the spring and fall productions.

“The community really saw the value of it,” Mr. Minutillo said. “They kept it alive.”

Ms. Stanco and Debbie Ippolito, Amy Ippolito’s mother, explained that they raised money to throw Mr. Minutillo a going away party last year, and decided to use the remaining funds to install a garden next to the one they installed after Mr. Raynor retired. The new garden will be kidney shaped and feature a number of bushes and plants, as well as a rock with a plaque honoring Mr. Minutillo.

“He deserves so much more than that, but it’s really nice that we are able to do something for him,” Amy Ippolito said. “It’s only fitting that they should always be together and immortalized in the school forever.”

She explained that she, like many other students, spent hours in Mr. Minutillo’s office, talking to him about the theater and school, or anything she needed help with.

“You were safe there,” she said, adding that they still keep in touch. “If you were lucky enough to get close to him, you were never going to get rid of him, which is a nice thing.”

Mr. Minutillo, who lives in St. James with his wife, Luci, has two children, Megan and Gregory. He explained that he is mentoring the new leaders of ESM’s theater department, Clinton Raynor and Toni Caracci, and is still very active in theater education. Both he and Mr. Raynor are currently working on a show in New York City that their former student, Joseph Sturek, wrote and features many other former and current students. The plays, called “Love Slap” and “Michael In Room Two,” will be performed at the Abingdon Theatre Company’s June Havoc Theatre in Manhattan from September 11-22.

“You have no idea how satisfying it is for me,” Mr. Minutillo said of seeing his students pursue careers and their passion for theater. “I smile like a proud father with every one of them.”

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