Death came suddenly and without warning for beloved educator, firefighter and church music director Basil Pizzuto of Saddle Brook, leaving legions who knew him shocked, saddened and more than a bit shaken.
Pizzuto, an assistant principal at Ridgewood High School, was at work when an aortic aneurysm struck on Wednesday, Nov. 23, a day before he and loved ones had expected to celebrate both Thanksgiving and his 50th birthday.
It was a gut punch that spread through multiple communities of those who knew and loved Pizzuto -- from the village's public schools to the Saddle Brook Fire Department to the township's St. Philip the Apostle Church.
"Such an immense and painful loss. I just cannot accept this is real," said Lesley Whyard, the Ridgewood school district's main office secretary.
It speaks volumes about his character that one of the books that Pizzuto gave some of the many students he mentored was Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree."
He was "larger than life in every way," Whyard said. "He WAS Ridgewood High School. The go-to person for so SO many things. Absolutely beloved by everyone who knew him. A father to 2 boys but like a father to countless others. Always surrounded by students who looked up to him, leaned on him, and considered him a friend."
Fellow smoke eaters battled emotions instead of flames after hearing the news late Wednesday into overnight Thursday.
"You had the personality that just lit up the room," Saddle Brook Firefighter Vincenzo Iaquez wrote. "I'm going to really miss seeing you on fire calls and the firehouse on Tuesday nights. One of the best days of the week for me."
Capt. Pizzuto devoted more than 30 years of service to the Saddle Brook Volunteer Fire Department. The Paramus Catholic and Montclair State graduate joined the Ridgewood School District in 1998 as a math teacher before becoming a grade administrator and, ultimately, one of the high school’s two assistant principals.
"Simple words will never truly express what kind of person he was," Joe Dacosta wrote. "A true friend who will help out anyone. A man that loved a good time. A true family man. A brother in a beloved brotherhood."
"Truly one of the best men I’ve ever met -- the cool guy, the fireman, the one we all wanted to be when we grew up," John P. Patterson Jr. added. "You walked the halls of St Phillips larger then life… you took care of us in the after-school program. You always made us feel safe in the halls.
"When my grandpa got so sick in my house and was rushed to the hospital, you found out and made sure my sis and I were OK in school, not having us worry about a thing," Patterson wrote. "When he passed away, you were there with one of the biggest hugs ever."
Tommy Hayes, who began performing with Pizzuto at St. Philip's 18 years ago, said he'll dearly miss the mirthful keyboard-playing director -- and especially the joyous Christian music they made.
"I feel lost," Hayes said. "Our music has died. Basil has died."
Pizzuto's loss was felt elsewhere, as well.
"On behalf of the scouts and leaders of Saddle Brook Pack 222, both past and present, we send out thoughts and prayers to the family," wrote Joe Brett. "He was always a great leader and a good friend to the Scouts and willing to help us out.
"He always took the time to bring a truck to the car washes for Cubs, Scouts, Eagle Scout projects and many other events."
Among many solemn Thanksgiving dinners on Thursday, quite a few will find people thanking their creator for the time they had with Pizzuto.
That's because, as one of them said, "we lost a hero."
Click here to follow Daily Voice Essex and receive free news updates.