NAUGATUCK — Many students know Naugatuck High School has a nature trail that runs through four acres of woods separating the building from Western Elementary School.
What they might not know about is the time, about 20 years ago, that environmental science teacher Tony Memoli took a class out to the woods — only to discover a bulldozer had cut a swath from the elementary school to the high school’s practice field.
“It was my class that really got upset,” said Memoli, now 60 and in his 27th year of teaching at the high school.
With Memoli’s encouragement, students lobbied the principal, the superintendent, the mayor, the press and state wetlands officials.
A plan to develop another practice field on the site was quickly scrapped.
“That trail, to this day, remains useful for our purposes at the high school,” Memoli said.
For those actions, and decades of work at the high school, Memoli will be honored Monday as the borough’s Earth Day Mayor of the Day. A ceremony will be held at 10:30 a.m. at Town Hall to honor Memoli. A “Telling Our Stories” program will follow at 11:30 a.m. at the Gunntown Passive Park and Nature Preserve, 60 Gunntown Road.
Memoli was one of about 20 teachers who established the trail in the 1980s. The trail is also used for lessons in art, math, English and history. He also established an environmental club, which at one point went on ambitious trips — snowshoeing in the White Mountains, canoeing on the Rangeley Lakes in Maine — before concerns about legal liability ended the outings. The environmental club is still active to this day, but remains closer to home, maintaining the nature trail and organizing an annual daylong Earth Day cleanup.
“It’s one thing teaching environmental science,” Memoli said. “It’s another thing getting kids to actually appreciate the outdoors, and there’s only so much you can do within the confines of four walls.”
Memoli, who lives in Waterbury, has always taught biology and environmental science to upperclassmen. Before he became a teacher, he said, he held outdoor jobs, building houses and trucks.
Since his childhood in Stratford, Memoli said his love of the outdoors drew him to an environmental career.
In one respect, he was like every other child.
“I’d look out the window and daydream about being outside after school,” Memoli said.
The Naugatuck Cultural Council picked Memoli for this year’s award because he has helped generations of borough teens understand the science behind the importance of passive open space, said Len Yannielli, a member of the council. Passive open space has no hard surfaces that keep nutrients from penetrating the soil so plants can grow and feed wildlife, Yannielli said.
“It’s what Tony Memoli did every day in his environmental science classes and his ecology classes, in giving them a framework that makes connections,” Yannielli said.