Popular “Ab” retires from teaching at WOHS

Thirty-six years after taking a teaching position at West Orange High School, Peter Abatiello has decided now is the time to give up his history textbooks and coach’s whistle.

Pete Abatiello retired this month after 36 years of coaching and teaching at West Orange High School.
Pete Abatiello retired this month after 36 years of coaching and teaching at West Orange High School.
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Peter Abatiello taught at West Orange High School for so long that he was teaching his former students’s children. Many of the parents had such fond memories of taking his class that they requested him for their own kids.

“That’s the greatest tribute you can pay me is when you want your kid in my class,” said Abatiello, who retired earlier this month after 36 years at the Winter Garden school.

A self-proclaimed American history geek, Abatiello — or Ab, as he was known to most of the students — shared his love of the past through World, European or AP American history classes. In his initial year, he juggled teaching World History and coaching the first of many soccer programs. His favorite teaching time frame was from the medieval period to the Renaissance.

Pete Abatiello uses a world map to emphasize his history lesson in the 1990s.
Pete Abatiello uses a world map to emphasize his history lesson in the 1990s.

The Fort Lauderdale Beach native admits when he accepted his position at West Orange High in 1982, he had to be schooled in the culture of West Orange County.

“When I got here in 1982, (the zone for) West Orange went from Bass Pro Outlet (in south Orlando near International Drive) to Deer Island, 32 miles,” Abatiello said. “We were so diverse because you had the hoity-toity people of Windermere, Bay Hill and Gotha. And we had Pine Hills kids, and the Winter Garden/Ocoee kids were very country.”

He didn’t know what the dipping area was when he was asked to monitor it during lunch break. In the ’80s, some students carried in their back pockets a tin of chewing tobacco that was tucked between their gums and lips during dip breaks, a foreign concept to Abatiello.

When the teacher called one student a redneck for throwing his tobacco across the room and missing the trashcan, he was called into the principal’s office — and he would be summoned many more times during his 36-year career at WOHS.

Another first for Abatiello was learning all about Rick Stotler and the FFA. It didn’t take long for him to discover what the metal pole with the attached ring was for when Stotler was selling meat to raise money for his agriculture program.

“Stotler was holding a fundraiser and had a cow tied up to the pole,” Abatiello said. “It was shot through the head and strung up; I’d never seen that before. But I’ll tell you, that was the best meat I ever had.”

He also learned about smudge pots when a citrus owner called the school and asked if any coaches would volunteer to operate them in freezing temperatures to save the orange trees. Those who helped were excused from school the next day.

“Back in the ’80s, we were rural,” Abatiello said. “The East-West Expressway (State Road 408) didn't start until Kirkman Road.”



Coach Abatiello led a successful boys soccer team from 1982 to 1988.

“The first year we went 7 and 8,” he said. “The next seven years, we were top 10 in the state.”

The crushing blow to the program hit when Dr. Phillips High School opened.

“DP would be my undoing; it took my whole team,” he said.

In 1984, before there was a girls team, a female student tried out for the boys squad. She didn’t make the cut, but two years later, one girl did.

“I said, ‘As long as you can do the running, I don’t have a problem with it,’” he said. “She was a midfielder, and she got a soccer scholarship. And it was because of her that we got a girls soccer team.”

Abatiello credits Coach Ogie Keneipp for much of his success. In Fort Lauderdale, the schools funded the athletic teams.

Pete Abatiello coached golf for many seasons, including this 2000 boys team.
Pete Abatiello coached golf for many seasons, including this 2000 boys team.

“I said to Keneipp, ‘What do I get?’ He said, ‘We don’t do funding. Have you ever heard of fundraising.’”

So Abatiello set out to raise funds.

He stuck with the girls soccer program from 1992 to 2010 and enjoyed the experience so much that he never missed coaching the boys.

“I found out that girls aren't as fast, girls aren't rough and tough,” Abatiello said. “However, it was perfect for me. A boy expects his coach to be Pele. ... Girls can visualize it and do it. They don't care if their coach can't go down and do it.”

Abatiello didn’t stop at soccer. From 1992 to 2013, he coached the boys golf team, with a one-year stint as girls golf coach in 2015. That first year, the boys went as far as first runner-up, followed by nine top 10 finishes.

Ryan Dillon became the coach’s only individual state champion in 1994.



West Orange High didn’t have a Student Government Association until Abatiello finally convinced the principal to let him start one in 1985.

“(Principal Tony) Krapf used to say, ‘Mr. Abatiello, this is Winter Garden; we don't do it that way,’” he said.

At the school’s 10-year evaluation, when Joe Worsham became principal, West Orange was penalized for not having an SGA.

Abatiello was given permission to start one — and he was in charge of it until 2013. He said he had a successful Student Council program because of the excellent student leadership. His first president and vice president were Todd Parrish and Janet Zweifel Bittick.

“I love teaching but Student Government is a close second,” he said.

That is when the good in people tends to come out.

In 1989, the SGA raised $150,000 in a Laps for Lopo campaign for former football coach Ron Lopsonzski, who was in need of a heart transplant. Students stood at street corners with cans collecting donations, and Worsham, the principal at the time, granted Abatiello permission to hold talent shows.

Having developed the reputation of being able to secure funds, Abatiello was called to the office of principal Sarah Jane Turner in 1992. The cheerleaders had qualified for Nationals and needed $25,000 for a trip to Texas.

“I said, ‘Can you keep the teachers off my back?’” he said. “We held talent shows, fashion shows, basketball games, softball games with kids playing the teachers. We raised $29,000 in a month. But, see, you can’t do this stuff anymore.”



“My main theme is For the Kids,” Abatiello said. “That's what's wrong with the schools today. ... You have all these administrators who are looking at test scores. ... We're not allowed to teach anymore; we teach facts only. I've always tried to do it for the kids.

“I've always been like a $3 bill,” he said. “Principals always look at me strange. That's my track record.”

He surmises he was a popular teacher because he was always fair.

“Back in (the 1980s), I taught the way I was taught in the ’70s,” he said. “If you messed up you got punished. ... I was fair, I was off the wall, and I taught history the way it should be taught.”

In 1984, Abatiello took a group of students on the first of 26 spring break trips to Europe. It was always a popular trip, he said.

The school atmosphere has changed, he said, “because nobody wants to pay it forward anymore.”

Students in his current-year leadership classes earned their grade, in part, by cleaning up the school, which is immaculate because of it, he said. Every day, four students worked in the cafeteria.

Pete Abatiello has likely counted tens of thousands of dollars in all his years of operating the school store at West Orange.
Pete Abatiello has likely counted tens of thousands of dollars in all his years of operating the school store at West Orange.

In return, he personally bought them pizza once a week.

It was his idea to open the school store, which has operated out of his classroom, and his students arrived at 6:30 a.m. to sell doughnuts, pencils, T-shirts and other snacks and items. Their goal this year is to raise $5,000 for a patio area similar to Ocoee High’s.

His philosophy has been that students need to be taught to pay it forward and should be rewarded for their hard work. This year alone, the store raised $5,000 for the athletic department, bought shoes for homeless students, held a canned food drive for those in need.

He, in turn, took his students to movies and bought them popcorn and drinks.

“All the way up to 2013, I had principals that basically let me do what I wanted as long as it was for the school and for the kids,” he said.

Under Principal Gary Preisser, the Student Government Association expanded and Abatiello went from one leadership class to three.

More classes meant more opportunities to give back, and his students were in charge of Homecoming festivities and began working community festivals.

“I wasn't married, I didn't have kids,” he said. “These kids were my kids.”

A testament to his popularity and devotion came in recent weeks when Abatiello announced his retirement.

One of his first students, Kimberly Bohart-Correa, who now works in the school’s front office, snapped a photo of herself with her teacher-turned-colleague and her daughter, who also took Abatiello’s class in 2015. She posted the picture on Facebook, and decades of former students reached out to him, reminiscing and wishing him retirement luck.



Abatiello was offered teaching and coaching positions when Dr. Phillips and Olympia high schools opened. He considered applying for a job at the new Windermere High, but he reconsidered when he learned two of his former students were also applying for the position.

In recent years, Abatiello established the WOHS Hall of Fame, which recognizes former Warriors in athletics, academics and art.

As much as he’s looking forward to being retired, he said he’s going to miss his interaction with the students. He currently lives in Winter Garden but bought a house in The Villages in Lake County.

“I know if I’m not around West Orange, it’s not going to bother me,” he said.

He said he will miss the Country House Restaurant, a landmark in Winter Garden, where he has known the same waitress for 30 years.

His plan is to stay busy with his own restaurants: Tillie’s Tavern and Grill in Mount Dora and a soon-to-open sandwich and pizza shop in Eustis.

“I tried to make West Orange High School a part of the community because it is the community,” he said. “That's one of the things I'm going to miss because I enjoyed watching the kids get something out of life.”



Amy Quesinberry

Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.

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