Photo by John Fortunato
The secret to 76-year-old Roger Cappucci’s youthful look and energy is what probably ages most of us most: kids.
It’s a Tuesday in late May, when a high school freshman’s thoughts naturally turn to summer and maybe that life-guarding job at the pool. But it’s pouring in Scarsdale at the moment, so there is no sunshine to lure a math student’s thoughts away from the topic at hand: locus theorems. (If it’s been awhile since you were in high school, locus theorems are what generate circles, lines, parabolas, etc.) Besides, this is Roger Cappucci’s fifth-period geometry class, and he has shown an ability to keep his students on point.
Katy in the front row is a tennis player, so he draws a tennis court on the SMART Board to illustrate that the best route between two points is a shot “right up the middle.” There’s the way he looks every kid in the eye, makes every kid feel part of the experience. His lessons are lively and interactive, peppered with esteem-boosting affirmations: “All I need is effort. There’s no right or wrong. There’s so much talent in this room.” He turns to a student with a question. “You ready David? This is your moment. Use that beautiful mind you have.”
Cappucci, who has been teaching math for more than 50 years (most of them at Scarsdale High School), says “beautiful” a lot. The word rolls off his tongue in four Bronxian parts: bee-yoo-tee-full. Math is a beautiful discipline. Scarsdale High is a beautiful place. He has a beautiful wife, Lucille, whom he met at a dance at St. Philip Neri Church on Grand Concourse when he was 19 years old. She is his best friend, the mother of his three sons. If something’s not beautiful, it’s fantastic. Or terrific. Good luck getting him to voice a negative thought. He didn’t last more than a half-century as a teacher by being a downer. He’s 76 and still loves teaching. As one of his fellow math teachers, Bruce Henry, puts it: “He’s got a little less hair, but his teaching’s still the same: spectacular.”
“It’s the kids,” Cappucci says modestly. “They keep me young. People say, you’re teaching the same subject every day. Yeah, I am, but the students are different. That’s the whole idea. I’m not up there lecturing. We are exploring this discipline together.” He adds, “Math is an art form I use to develop their minds emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Just as in life, on every level, the essential question is, ‘Why?’ As we go further, we encounter obstacles that need to be mastered through perseverance and hard work. Believing in their ability to focus and apply a strong effort to stay with a problem is vital to their success in life’s journey.
“When we do a proof,” he continues, “somebody will start off with one step, and then we have to follow his or her lead and go from there. So we’re really creating. It’s a beautiful experience.”
After class, Cappucci heads downstairs. A chronic back problem, from an injury he suffered 20 years ago when he was practicing with the varsity basketball team, has slowed him down a bit, and if anything halts his career, he says, it will be all these stairs. But he still plays tennis, which is a beautiful game. In the Math Department, students sit at tables with their books open, pecking at calculators. A girl approaches Cappucci and says she needs help with a problem, really bad, so he excuses himself to assist.
Spend a little time with his colleagues and it’s clear Cappucci inspires them too. “I’ve never seen him in a bad mood,” says Math Department Chair Lynn Potter. “His energy is contagious. He very rarely misses a day of school.”
In the math teachers’ lounge, his fellow teachers are eager to sing his praises. “He’s always upbeat, always caring about other people,” says Bob Arrigo, who has worked with Cappucci for 28 years. “As great a teacher as Roger is—and he is a master teacher—it’s even more incredible what kind of person he is. Anytime I get tired or I’m crabby or my heart’s not in it that day, I just say, ‘Look at this guy. He’s well into his seventies and he still shows this incredible enthusiasm.’”
Monica Palekar pops in to speak her piece. “He is always trying to help everyone else out, not just in math, but in life. He even sets up doctors’ appointments for you!” Cappucci enters the teachers’ lounge. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” he asks.
If Roger Cappucci’s career could be summed up in a single number, it would be 7,500. That’s the number of students he figures to have taught since 1957, his first year as a teacher at Lincoln High School in Yonkers. If you talk to a handful of those 7,500 students, they will all say the same thing: Mr. Cappucci made math entertaining, using funny phrases like “factorinos” and “There is strength in numbers” and “Go forth and multiply.” He cared about his kids and their lives outside the classroom—what sports they played, what their passions were.
Roi Hernandez, Scarsdale High School class of 2012, was thrilled when he got Cappucci for pre-calc/calculus his senior year. “I doubted myself in math,” says Hernandez, “but he boosted my confidence. I wrote him a thank you note at the end of the year.” Ryan Prendergast, class of 2002, says Cappucci “solidified my knowledge and sent me on to college with the right skills. I ended up in accounting, which is a whole swirl of numbers every day.”
Cappucci’s influence drills down through several generations. Harvard alum Liz Guggenheimer, Scarsdale High class of 1978, was one of his students back in the chalk-and-blackboard days. “Fewer girls were interested in math back then, but he gave me the confidence that I was good.” Today she is a lawyer and vice president of the Scarsdale Board of Education. He taught her daughter, Laura, as well. “One day she said, ‘I have to email Mr. Cappucci to tell him I passed my driving test.’”
Phil Shapiro also attended Scarsdale High in the 1970s. Two years ago, he posted a 15-minute video homage to his favorite teacher and blogged about him at pcworld.com. “He’s friendly, funny, smart, and exuberant, and he holds his students to high standards,” says Shapiro, an educator in the Washington, DC area. “I started thinking about a teaching career sitting in his class, because he was having such a good time.”
Roger Cappucci has wanted to be a math teacher since the sixth grade. He grew up in the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, the youngest of four children and the only son born to Vincent and Laura Cappucci. His father had emigrated from Italy at age 16 at the turn of the 20th century. He fought for the US in World War I, and then went to night school, took the civil service exam, and became a postman. The younger Cappucci has only fond memories of his childhood, of fish on Fridays, Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra banging homers at Yankee Stadium, where a kid could get in for a dollar and nab free balls and autographs under the grandstand.
He loved numbers from the get-go. “I remember, when I was three or four, my father teaching me how to add and subtract with the carrying over.” His favorite teacher was Miss Havender, who taught sixth grade at P.S. 74. “I remember her with the math drills. We had to be so precise in these exercises. She was fantastic.”
To him, Scarsdale was the countryside, a beautiful place off the Bronx River Parkway that he passed on family trips to the Catskills. “I remember as a youngster reading in Reader’s Digest about the Scarsdale school system and the fantastic things they did. It remained in my mind. I thought, I’d love to teach there.”
In the mid ’50s, he attended Cardinal Hayes High School, a Catholic school in the Bronx, and played on the baseball team before studying math at Fordham University and graduating in 1957. (He proudly wears his gold class ring; all three of his sons attended Fordham as well: “We’re a Fordham family.”) His teaching career began at Lincoln High School when he was just 21 years old; while there, he earned a master’s degree in education psychology and guidance, also from Fordham. After four years in Yonkers, he moved to New Rochelle High School, where he headed the math team. Word of his talent got around, and when a teaching position at Scarsdale High opened up, he got a spot in the lineup. “He was so excited about joining Scarsdale,” recalls his oldest son, Vincent, 53, a founding partner of the law firm Entwistle & Cappucci LLP in Manhattan. “He felt he’d hit the big time.” (It also meant all three boys got to attend Scarsdale.)
Teaching kids was practically a 24/7 obsession. He tutored after school and on weekends to supplement his income (but “primarily to help the students”) and taught College Board Advanced Placement Calculus workshops during the summers. He spearheaded the use of graphing calculators at Scarsdale in the early 1990s, and in combination with old-school values—respect, hard work, humility—he sees this new-school technology as another key to his longevity.
“About four years ago, the SMART Board came to Scarsdale, and it was absolutely out of this world,” he says, referring to the computerized whiteboards now popular in many classrooms. “I am a SMART Board addict!” Says Co-Principal Kelley Hamm, “I remember Roger saying, ‘This thing’s going to extend my career by ten years!’”
Since there are so many of his former students, the odds of Cappucci running into one of those 7,500 at some point in the future are pretty high. Just ask his sons.
“No matter where we are—Italy, a Yankee game—there are people who come up and say, ‘Mr. Cappucci, you saved me in math,’” says his youngest son, Robert, 44, also a partner at Entwisle & Cappucci. “We took a family trip to Italy, and someone on the plane recognized him.”
Middle son, Roger, Jr., 49, is a cardiologist and board member of White Plains Hospital. “I have patients who come up to me and say, ‘Your dad was my favorite teacher; he changed how I look at the school and my studies.’ It’s a story you hear over and over again.” Robert recalls how a cousin auditioned for a part in a commercial in Los Angeles. “The casting director mentioned she was from Scarsdale. When my cousin said her uncle, Roger Cappucci, teaches at Scarsdale High, the casting director exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, he saved me in math!’ I think she got the part.”