I knew Vinny for many years, though not very well. Back when, as director of the East End Arts Council, I dealt with Vinny when he'd mount at least one exhibit of student work in our gallery every year. Deal with him but once, and you knew how deeply he cared for his pupils. They were more than pupils to Vinny. And he was more than a teacher to them.
This week, as I read through messages posted on the wall of a Facebook group created in his memory, and interviewed students and former students of this affable, fun-loving and passionate man, I encountered the same statements over and over again. It was almost eerie, as if they were all reading from the same script -- a testament to the breadth and depth of his commitment to youth and his passion for teaching.
From the teens in Riverhead, to the college students and the alumni artists, photographers and businessmen and women across the country and across the globe, their voices were one:
He was more than a teacher to me. He was one of my best friends. He was like my big brother. He was like my father. He made me believe in myself. He encouraged me more than anyone. He made me understand that I could accomplish something. I wouldn't have gone to college if it weren't for Mr. Nasta. I wouldn't be an artist today if it weren't for Mr. Nasta. He understood me. He cared about me. He cared about everyone. He would do anything for anyone. He was always there for me. He listened. He cared. He cared. He cared.
The intensity and the depth of love and grief that poured forth this week from the young people whose lives Vinny Nasta touched over the past 17 years at Riverhead High School was one of the most startling and moving things I've ever experienced as a journalist.
Their love for this man and the pain they felt at his untimely passing united them, and "the thing Mr. Nasta loved" -- as Erika Haas, the Riverhead High School junior who started the Facebook site in his memory, put it -- technology, gave them the means by which to come together to express that love and pain.
"I thought it was only fitting," Erika answered when I asked what made her set up the Facebook site, "to use the thing Mr, Nasta loved, technology, to create a memorial to him."
She set it up Monday morning, and by time the Duchess County Sheriff's Office, later that morning, officially released the name of the pilot killed at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome on Sunday afternoon, the "In Loving Memory of Vincent Nasta" Facebook group had more than four dozen members. Its numbers steadily climbed throughout the day Monday and Tuesday. As I write this Wednesday morning, it's 371 people strong, and growing still. Its members are almost all Riverhead students and alumni, representing almost every graduating class between 1995 and 2010, every class touched by Vinny Nasta. While most were students in his classes, not all had that honor. You didn't have to be one of his students to be one of his kids -- another oft-repeated refrain of the people who knew Vinny best, his kids.
Vinny's room was a place of refuge as well as learning, a haven where kids who might not otherwise have found their way through adolescence could "chill with Nasty." It was a place where they could belong, share their feelings, express their fears, laugh out loud, and feel good about themselves. Vinny's room was a place where kids dared to dream, and learned to soar.
"Fly high, Nasta," wrote Riverhead alum Sean Rachubka, "fly high."
The halls of Riverhead High School will be a little darker without Vinny Nasta's bright smile and warm presence, but, as his friend and colleague Frank Yolanga wrote, "Heaven just got a little bit brighter."
Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers