Although this week marks Rich Bernazzoli’s second week of retirement after heading Portage Area School District as superintendent for more than 30 years, he’ll be staying in school.
The school of rock, that is.
Bernazzoli and his cohorts – area school faculty and administrators – regularly jam down for local crowds. They call themselves Old Skool.
The career educator and district leader told The Tribune-Democrat that his older, albeit mutual, passion was fueled in the music classroom.
“It was back in the ’60s and I was into music,” he said. “I started playing accordion when I was 9 – as all good Italian boys and girls do.”
Bernazzoli said he took up trumpet and French horn in his grade school band, but started pining for the hopping, poppy riffs that The Beatles brought to American shores. So his parents got him a guitar just before his teenage years.
Bernazzoli said he and his schoolmates eventually formed a band in their early teens.
“By ninth grade, we were playing out – playing for money,” he said. “I can still remember our first show. I can’t remember exactly where it was; I remember it was in Cresson.”
Later that year, the freshmen rockers landed at No. 6 out of 12 bands at a Penn Cambria-hosted battle of the bands contest.
The group continued for another 10 years, he said, until life took over and everyone grew up – but not everyone grew old, per se.
Fast forward to 2008, and the height of Bernazzoli’s education career. He and administrators from other state districts were looking toward a leadership conference they regularly attended.
“I’d always (wanted to) get a bunch of school administrators together to play the leadership conference,” he said.
He spent some time pitching the idea to friends and acquaintances who had an ear for music.
“They thought it was a good idea. … It was just one of those off-the-cuff kind of things.”
The conference was supposed to be their first and only show.
“But we decided this was too much fun,” he said.
Currently the lineup includes lead singer Mark Kudlawiec, superintendent of Chestnut Ridge School District; drummer Brian “Biz” Bisara, a maintenance worker at Portage Area; bassist Brett Tozer, a Berlin Brothersvalley music teacher; and Berlin Business Manager Greg Beals and Bernazzoli on guitar.
Bernazzoli’s wife, Annette, a former music teacher, puts in vocals and plays keyboard.
“(It’s) classic rock – Petty, Beatles – it’s pretty electric,” Bernazzoli said. “It runs the whole gamut – some old stuff, Chuck Berry, Bob Seger.
“Just trying to please the crowd.”
The crew is a staple of Portage’s annual Summerfest.
They’ll be on stage at this year’s event from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Aug. 8 doing just that.
And now that Bernazzoli has been relieved by longstanding Portage Area IT coordinator Eric Zelanko, he’s got the time to start prepping for more local sets. Bernazzoli looks like he’s lined up a very active – and hip – retirement. He’s even buying a boat to complement his Glendale Lake area property.
“I have a lot of work to do here at the house that I haven’t done in – gee, 15 years,” he mused.
“My wife and I are both retired. We just really never had the time to actively seek employment or gigs,” he said. “We don’t want to make it a lot of work; we want to have fun. Back in the old days when we were playing three or four times a week, it became a job.”
It’s the dedication to the craft – and the good times that seem to follow the tune – that led Bernazzoli to find himself on the stage, he said. It’s also a testament to the school music programs he grew up admiring and championed during his time as a district leader.
“(Music class) was pretty influential. I don’t think there was any mistake out there about how I felt about music and people that taught music,” he said.
“They’re one of the few (educators) that have to put their product on stage a couple times a year. … Not too many educators have to do that.”
Bernazzoli said music is something that can change a kid’s life and, with more school districts cutting arts programs to even out budgets and offset anemic government funding, it’s something that needs to be protected more than ever.
“In my estimation, it’s gotta be like, the No. 1 mistake a school district can do,” he said. “There are so many districts across the state and country that are just hanging on – but they have to try to preserve that because there are so many kids that need the arts.
“It’s their identity …”
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.