Teachers and former students have been sharing their condolences and “Ab” stories on social media all week. The retired teacher and coach spent 36 years at West Orange High School and believed “once a Warrior, always a Warrior.”
Peter Abatiello arrived at West Orange High School in 1982, full of energy and opinions and with a passion for history and athletics that resonated with most students who experienced his classroom or his coaching methods. He was a Warrior through and through and remained friends with many of his students long after he finished teaching them.
Abatiello — “Ab” or Abs” or “Coach” to several generations of West Orange Warriors — died Sunday, June 19, 2022. The former Ocoee and Winter Garden resident was 67.
Abatiello spent 36 years at WOHS, sharing the past with students through World, European and AP American history classes; coaching boys and girls soccer and golf teams; and starting the Student Council program.
The death of the retired teacher and coach sent a wave of sadness and disbelief throughout West Orange County and beyond as former students shared hundreds of Ab stories on Facebook and called him “larger than life,” “a big presence,” “an institution” and “a man with a golden heart.”
His advice was objective and sound, one wrote.
Students fondly remembered watching the movie “Spartacus” in Abatiello’s classroom; buying snacks from the Student Government candy cart; his role as chaperone for many games, events and overseas trips; his coveted Florida State University ring.
Students blamed him for their love of fresh-baked cookies and commended him for always spearheading fundraising efforts that benefited clubs and teams.
James “Tillie” Tilquist, a former Ab student-turned-longtime friend, met Abatiello when Tilquist took his class and played football at WOHS in 1983. Abatiello was part of the athletic training staff.
The two were business partners who owned several restaurants together in recent years: Tillie’s Tavern and Grill, and The El Marie Pizzaria, both in Eustis. They stood up in each other’s weddings.
“He was passionate about his kids, his friends, his family; his two dogs were his kids,” Tilquist said. “West Orange High School was his second family, if not his first. … He was just a good ol’ guy. He’s a man who’s going to be missed.”
Abatiello — who was called Chuck by his family — was born June 14, 1955, in Fort Lauderdale to Peter and Barbara Abatiello. He graduated from South Plantation High School and earned a degree in education at Florida State University in 1978. He was a member of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity.
He taught for a few years in South Florida prior to starting his career at West Orange High in 1982.
He touched countless lives at WOHS, including teachers and administration. Every third Thursday of the month he attended a coaches lunch with Jerry Daughtry, Gary Guthrie, Rudy Zubricky, Rick Stotler, Bill Chambers and others.
Abatiello formed a unique friendship with Mike Armbruster, former West Orange principal.
“He was good to me, and if it wasn’t for him, then I probably wouldn’t have ended up at a high school as an assistant principal and principal,” he said. “Those six years of coaching made me realize I really loved working with high school kids.”
Armbruster, who played soccer as a WOHS student, visited the school in 1988 to see if the head coach needed some volunteer help, and he was offered the junior varsity position. A few years later the school named Armbruster head soccer coach, so he hired Abatiello as an assistant.
The two worked closely together when Armbruster was assistant principal and was in charge of student activities.
“He worked hard, and everything he did, even if it wasn’t for the betterment of the kids, but he thought it was for the betterment of the kids — his heart was always in the right place,” Armbruster said.
“Pete and I didn’t always agree on things … but what made our relationship unique is that we never got business and personal mixed up when it came to the friendship,” Armbruster said. “Through it all, we were always supportive of each other, even on the bad days. … One thing we had in common, we wanted to help kids grow.”
Michael V. Owens, another former student, recalled a contest he and Abatiello held to see who knew more about the American Civil War. Owens won by one point, and Abatiello allowed him to teach the battles and draw the battle lines on the board.
“His classes always had that something, which I try to use in my university lectures, like jumping around in a costume, sounds bellowing, or mimicking a verb, phrase or idiom silently,” Owens said. “I hope I am that teacher (he) saw in me before me.”
“Pete always felt like family,” said former student Ben Lagow. “He could drive you crazy sometimes, but you always knew he cared about you and once you knew him, you didn't want to imagine a world without him. Pete was one of the most unforgettable people I ever met.”
Another student, WOHS social studies teacher Dr. Aaron Shaw, said Abatiello told him on his first day, “You're one of mine; anything you need, let me know.”
Peter Moore, a West Orange soccer standout and 1986 West Orange graduate, remembered Abatiello as a demanding coach who cared about his athletes on the field and his students in the classroom.
Abatiello helped Moore obtain a scholarship to Campbell University. In fact, Moore said, the dedicated coach mailed up to 400 letters each year to colleges in hopes of furthering the education of his “kids.”
When Moore returned to West Orange County to find work, he got in touch with Abatiello and briefly coached soccer with him. When Moore transferred to Ocoee High and was in need of a junior varsity coach, he took Abatiello with him.
Abatiello remained close to his soccer stars, too, and organized a reunion with his former players.
He continued to support and honor students long after they left the halls of West Orange. He established the WOHS Hall of Fame, which annually recognizes former Warriors in athletics, academics and art.
“I tried to make West Orange High School a part of the community because it is the community,” Abatiello said when he retired in 2018. “That's one of the things I'm going to miss because I enjoyed watching the kids get something out of life.”
Just a few months ago, a seemingly healthy Abatiello was invited back to WOHS to throw out the first pitch at a Warrior baseball game. Tilquist said Abatiello was worried he wouldn’t hit the plate — but he did.
Abatiello continued touching lives in his neighborhood in The Villages, where he easily made friends and enjoyed a life of retirement that included playing golf daily. In recent weeks, he had been ill and neighbors were leaving letters and get-well cards at his door.
“He just loved his kids and loved teaching, and at least he got to enjoy his retirement for a few years,” Tilquist said. “He went up to The Villages so he could be active. He was just such a loved man.”
Abatiello is survived by two sisters, Stella Krusell, of Blairsville, Georgia, and Liane MacMillan, of Crofton, Maryland; four nephews, Ryan Krusell, Ross Krusell, Paul Skidmore and Peter Skidmore; and one niece, Grace MacMillan.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to raise money for a memorial service. To make a donation, visit bit.ly/3OCTJHc. Details on the memorial will be updated on the crowdsourcing website.
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