‘Always putting kids first’: Monroe community pays tribute to Bruce Lazar

MONROE — Bruce Lazar is being remembered for his dedication to his students, his colleagues and the town he called home.

Lazar — a 24-year veteran of the Monroe school district, most recently as longtime principal at Stepney Elementary — died Monday after a battle with cancer. Once word broke, social media erupted, with people praising Lazar for all he meant to those he touched throughout the community.

“We should all be so lucky to live a life like Bruce Lazar,” Superintendent Joseph Kobza said.

“He touched the lives of so many people throughout his career as a teacher and administrator at Fawn Hollow, Chalk Hill, Jockey Hollow, and, most recently, Stepney Elementary,” Kobza added. “His North Star as an educator was always putting kids first.”

Lazar, 64, began in Monroe in 1992, hired as a fifth-grade teacher at Fawn Hollow Elementary.

Wendy Cushing, a teacher at Stepney Elementary for the past 12 years, first met Lazar that year.

“Back then, Bruce was the fun teacher with biting wit who always gave to his students as much as he expected from them,” Cushing said. “And that was everything he had … every day.

“For the past nearly 10 years, Bruce was more than a colleague I saw at school or bumped into on the weekends, he was my principal and my good friend,” Cushing added. “I have never met anyone with more boundless energy, as much passion, as much sentimentality — he was a total mush who teared up at anything that touched his heart — or as much love for his work.”

“Bruce was an amazing person, a really humble man who always looked at everything through the eyes of what’s right for children,” Sheila Casinelli, the district’s director of instruction, said.

Casinelli worked alongside Lazar for 16 years, calling him a true gentleman.

“He was kind and polite with a heart of gold who took personal interests in those he interacted with, always asking what was going on in their lives,” Casinelli said. “As an administrator, Bruce knew every student’s name and was out of his office more than he was in it ready with a smile or a question about how you were doing.”

Casinelli said Lazar’s true legacy is his family, calling him an “incredible, loving husband to his wife Diane and his four beautiful children, who meant the world to him.

“Those who had the honor of knowing Bruce Lazar will be forever in awe of his strength of character and will miss terribly the man that many of us called our colleague and our friend,” she added.

From Fawn Hollow, Lazar went to Chalk Hill School, ultimately serving as its principal until it closed in 2012. He was assistant principal under Jack Ceccolini before moving to Stepney Elementary, where he was principal until his retirement earlier this year.

Lazar was also praised for helping provide stability to the Sandy Hook school community.

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, the town of Monroe reopened Chalk Hill, allowing Newtown to use its building for classes until a new elementary school could be built.

Kobza said Lazar served as a shared Monroe-Newtown administrator, supporting the Sandy Hook students, working to reduce the anxiety and ease the transition for students coming from Newtown during such a challenging time.

“The work Bruce did aiding the Sandy Hook families, teachers, and administrators was inspiring as he supported them through such a tragic event and helped them all feel comfortable in a school that wasn't theirs — but he made it theirs,” Casinelli said. “Bruce’s knowledge of the Chalk Hill building, incredible interpersonal skills, and his leadership skills made his work with Sandy Hook possible.”

Lazar even escorted the Sandy Hook Choir to New Orleans two months after the tragedy, where the children joined singer Jennifer Hudson to perform “America the Beautiful” before Super Bowl XLVII. At the end of that year, Lazar became principal of Stepney.

“I was fortunate to be his colleague and luckier to consider him a friend,” Kobza said. “Bruce was a role model for all of us.

“Most importantly, I know how much his family meant to him,” Kobza added. “Bruce was incredibly proud of the family that he and his wife, Diane, enjoyed. His children were his true pride and joy, and Bruce beamed every time he talked about each one of them.”

Kobza recalled how Lazar was the first to greet students in the morning and the last to wave goodbye as they left the building at the end of the day, and how he would play with them during gym and spend quality time talking to them at lunch.

“Bruce’s good works are his legacy, which will continue to touch the children every day through the staff at Stepney Elementary School,” said Deb Kovachi, who worked alongside Lazar for several years.

After Kovachi retired, she was asked to go to Stepney last spring to help out, and then also in the fall to fill in upon Lazar's retirement.

“I was most impressed with the impact that Bruce had on the school,” Kovachi said. “There are many curricular programs and social emotional initiatives in place that were instituted during Bruce's leadership.

“The staff is working very hard to implement these programs during these very demanding times, which is a tribute to the impact Bruce had on the school and its environment,” she added. “The children are at the heart of all that the staff does ... something Bruce nurtured and encouraged.”

Cushing said Lazar could “traverse the entire building from the upper wing of Stepney to the end of the lower wing in record time. I never quite figured out how he moved so stealthily or so quickly. But, boy could he get around Stepney Elementary School.

“He was outside to greet students every day, he was in classrooms, he was in the cafe, on the playground, in the hallways, and back outside to say goodbye at dismissal — sometimes all at the same time or at least that is how it seemed,” she added. “Bruce was everywhere … he was the heart and soul of our school.”

Kobza credited Lazar for coordinating the Scientific Research Based Interventions process and adding the flex period for all grades. He also worked with the PTO to add playground equipment and provide numerous events for the schools.

“I was heartbroken to learn of the passing of Bruce Lazar,” said Board of Education member Donna Lane, who served as board chair during Lazar’s time with the district.

“Bruce was a wonderful guy and he will be missed by everyone in Monroe Public Schools and the community,” Lane added. “Bruce was the beloved principal of Stepney Elementary School for many years until his retirement this past summer.”

After Lazar announced his retirement, Stepney alumni and friends raised $5,000 to purchase “The Stepney Depot” playground piece that will be in the new Wolfe Park playground. The piece will include a plaque saying “In honor of Bruce Lazar, Stepney Elementary Principal and Leader, 2021.”

“It feels good that Bruce’s memory is going to last through the playground and generations of kids and parents who never had the pleasure of knowing him,” Mike Ganino, a playground project board member, said.

Ganino called the donation one of the most meaningful received for the project.

“I know there are thousands of lives that Bruce touched from Sandy Hook to Monroe,” Cushing said. “But his influence reaches well beyond the borders of our tiny Connecticut towns to all the students and families and staff members who had the honor of knowing him over his amazing 30 years as an educator.

“We will all miss you, Bruce. Your smile, your laugh, and your care and dedication to the students, families, and staff who loved you so much,” Cushing added.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in Lazar’s memory may be made to Swim Across the Sound, St. Vincent's Medical Center Foundation, 2800 Main St., Bridgeport, CT 06606 or give.stvincents.org/swimacrossthesound or to The Vicki Soto Memorial Fund at Vicki Soto Memorial Fund, 158 Knowlton St., Stratford CT 06615 or www.teamvickisoto.com.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com