Mike Verdi would always tell his students, “Dare to be great.”
Verdi believed that greatness isn’t being the fastest runner, but what you bring to the race. “He always spoke to [his students] about character,” said his wife, Kristy, “and how doing the right thing is important even when no one is looking.”
The East Meadow resident was an English teacher at Division Avenue High School, in Levittown, and a coach in the East Meadow Baseball Softball Association. He died suddenly on Sept. 22, at age 45.
The two communities came together last Sunday to honor Verdi at the seventh annual McVey 5K and Fun Run — now known as the Veronica O’Donnell Memorial McVey 5K and Fun Run — at McVey Elementary School in East Meadow. The race is named for a nurse at McVey Elementary School who died in 2016, at age 77. It began in 2012 when Michael Simone, a phys. ed. teacher and football coach, wanted to create a race for the East Meadow community similar to 5Ks and marathons he had seen across Long Island.
Some 270 runners took part in the 5K, racing through town on a brisk fall morning, and 80 more ran a supplemental 1-mile run — a total of 90 more participants than last year. Riley Brennan, 18, a senior at Calhoun High School in Merrick, finished first in 17 minutes, 43 seconds.
Each year, proceeds from the race go to the McVey PTA and a local charity. This year the race helped establish the Mike Verdi Memorial Fund, and a scholarship that will go to a graduating senior at Division Avenue High School.
“As an educator, as a father and as a husband, Mike was one of the best guys,” Race Director Michael Simone said, “and his family is one of the best families that our community has.”
Verdi was born in East Meadow, and played baseball in the East Meadow Baseball Softball Association, in which his father was a coach. His family moved to Levittown, where he went to MacArthur High School, graduating in 1992. He earned a degree in education from LIU Post in 2000, and a master’s in the same field from Queens College in 2003.
While in school, Verdi tended bar at Red Robin on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown, where Kristy Tripody was a waitress. “He made a really good margarita,” she recalled with a chuckle. After they married in 2002, they moved to East Meadow, where they raised three children — Mikayla, now 14, Christopher, 12, and Marissa, 9 — and Mike rejoined the EMBSA as a coach of boys’ baseball and girls’ softball. For the past five summers, he ran the “Verdi Clinic,” introducing girls to softball in a friendly environment.
He wanted to ease the tension that often comes with playing travel sports, Kristy said, and used less conventional methods to teach those who took part in the clinic. That included using a Slip N Slide to teach players how to slide into home plate.
Since his death, Kristy said, hundreds of his former students have been reaching out to her “to tell me about their ‘Dare to be Great’ moment and how his lessons about character have had an impact on their lives.”
After Mike died, the community set up a “meal train”: Every day this month, at 5 p.m., a parent of a former student or athlete of his has come to the Verdis’ house and cooked dinner for the family.
In addition to his wife and children, Verdi is survived by his parents, Martha and Joe, and his brothers, Arty, Joseph and James.
Members of the Verdi family have run in the race each year since its inception, and this year was no different. “It’s really unimaginable,” Kristy said of the support she has received from the community.
Simone, a McVey alumnus, has taught phys. ed. there for 12 years. He met O’Donnell — or Nurse Ronnie, as she was known — when he was a student, and when he began teaching there, she became one of his closest colleagues, he said.
Richie Krug Jr., 32, another McVey alumnus, ran in his first McVey 5K this year, attributing his participation to the relationship he had with Nurse Ronnie when he was a child. Krug is lactose intolerant, and used to be ashamed when he took his daily pills to combat the allergy, he said.
One day he forgot to take them to school and needed to call home, but couldn’t work the rotary phone the school had at the time. When Nurse Ronnie found him crying by the phone, he recalled, she comforted him, called his parents and waited with him until he got his pills. “I’ll remember that forever,” Krug said.
“Everywhere I go, there are stories of former students who loved Nurse Ronnie and what she did for them,” Simone said. “When she died, we wanted to name the race in her memory.”
“One of the reasons I love this event is that I see so many people from my past,” he added. “It’s a lot of work, but every year it’s amazing seeing the [Chamber of Commerce], the local businesses and the community getting involved . . . I really want this to be a point of pride for the East Meadow community.”