May 17—HAVERHILL — Tony Sapienza had a fascinating mix of intelligence and athletic ability.
For decades, he taught math at Haverhill High School and was also considered one of the finest distance runners in New England.
Sapienza died in 1987 after competing in a major race, and has long been remembered for his accomplishments. His memory took the spotlight again last week when his family and their guests celebrated the reopening of the renovated Sapienza Memorial Track and Field at Haverhill High.
The event was followed by just what Sapienza would have wanted — a track meet. The meet featured Haverhill High against Central Catholic.
"I think it's beautiful and it's way better than what we had before," Hillie track team member Kenneth Howshan, a Haverhill High senior, said about the renovated track prior to his race in the meet. "This is one of the best tracks in the area and everyone is really happy with it."
After Sapienza's death in 1987 and at the urging of teacher John Savinelli, who worked in Sapienza's Haverhill High math department and is also Mayor James Fiorentini's brother-in-law, the School Committee and City Council voted to name the high school track and athletic field in Sapienza's memory. A plaque at the site honors him.
The guest speaker at last week's event — Tom Derderian, author of "The Boston Marathon: A Celebration of America's Greatest Race" and coach of the Greater Boston Track Club — told the crowd that Sapienza was very well known in the New England running scene. Derderian noted in his book that Sapienza came in fourth in the 1958 Boston Marathon and placed sixth in the Olympic trials in Culver City, California, in 1963.
Derderian said Sapienza taught him a valuable lesson during a 10-mile road race in 1967.
"I was a wise (guy) teenager and full of false confidence," Derderian told the crowd. "Tony had gray hair and his 10-year-old daughter, Toni, was there. I thought to myself, how can this guy be any trouble if he has kids? I was running in the lead pack and Tony Sapienza was in the lead pack. We came around and I thought, I'm young and I'm fast and I can outkick these guys. So I'm a wise guy and I call out 'gun lap' and that was my mistake.'"
Derderian said Sapienza responded, "You called it," and then Sapienza began sprinting with five miles to go.
"He was gone," Derderian said. "The lesson he taught me was do not provoke old men. I learned to keep my mouth shut."
The $1.2 million renovation of the high school track complex includes a new high-quality track surface similar to the kind Harvard University installed several years ago, said Haverhill High Athletic Director Tom O'Brien.
The mayor told the crowd that the renovations were among many infrastructure improvements happening across Haverhill. The roof of the high school gym will eventually receive repairs, he said.
City Council President Melinda Barrett, one of several councilors to attend the event along with School Committee members, said the council played a big role in urging the mayor to pay for improvements to the high school athletic field complex.
Those improvements included the creation of a new multi-purpose field for soccer, field hockey and lacrosse, along with a softball diamond — all of which opened in 2019.
"This is a wonderful facility that was in such horrendous shape that the high school could not hold track meets here," Barrett said. "With help of my fellow councilors, we insisted that this be addressed for our student athletes. I'm thrilled that we have this new facility that our athletes and the community can use."
O'Brien said the track, which is more than 20 years old, was in such poor condition before the renovation that it was off limits to students since spring 2018. That forced the high school track team to cancel events, including the long-standing Ottaviani Invitational meet.
Sapienza and his wife, Audrey, raised three daughters: Toni Sapienza-Donais, a Haverhill School Committee member and longtime local educator who hosted last week's event in memory of her father; Karen Sapienza, an eighth-grade math teacher turned electrical engineer who retired and is living in Florida; and Joy Sapienza-Kessler, who taught eighth-grade math in Hudson, New Hampshire, is retired and lives in Andover. She attended the event with her family.
The dedication had light moments. Just as Tony Sapienza's five grandchildren and two great grandchildren were preparing to run a half-lap on the track and pass a baton to members of the Hillie track team, his granddaughter, Ksenia Kessler, quipped, "Are we actually going to run?"
Following the ceremony, Toni Sapienza-Donais drew the names of two Hillie seniors who are members of the school's track team. They are Aidan Corcoran, who received a $500 scholarship courtesy of Dick and Mary Rose Early of Early Construction Inc.; and Ariann LeCours, who received a $500 scholarship from the Sapienza-Donais family.
"I want to thank the mayor, the City Council and School Committee, and all of the track supporters who pushed to make this happen," Toni Sapienza-Donais said. "It's a stunning state-of-the-art facility and my dad would love it."
In addition to being a long-time Haverhill High math teacher and math department chairman, Tony Sapienza also served as a cross country coach.
Born April 12, 1929, in Lawrence, Sapienza went on to graduate from Central Catholic High School in 1949 and Boston College in 1953. In his lifetime, he ran in more than 1,000 races locally, nationally and around the world. In 1952, he was on the cover of Life magazine for his running accomplishments.
A past president of the Boston Athletic Association, Sapienza died March 15, 1987, at Brown University in Rhode Island after winning a 3,000-meter race and setting an American record for his age group.