Obituary of John Lee Tozzi
John Lee Tozzi, 75, of Oak Hill, Virginia, passed away on April 30 after suffering a stroke. He had been diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer but continued to live a quality life after the diagnosis despite the odds against him. John is preceded in death by his parents Osie Munsey Tozzi and John Tozzi of Pembroke, Virginia. He is survived by his wife Alta Jane Harrington-Tozzi, his daughter Lauren Marie Tozzi, her husband Christopher Joseph Maner, and his granddaughter Hadley Rey of Alexandria, Virginia.
John was born on June 18, 1947, in Roanoke, Virginia, and grew up in Pembroke, Virginia, a small town west of Blacksburg. As John tells it, he and his friends had free reign of the town. They played baseball and basketball or packed lunches and wandered the adjoining streams and hills in search of adventures. It was from these close contacts with nature that John developed his lifelong love of “God’s amazing world.”
John graduated from Giles High School in 1965. While in high school, he was editor of the yearbook, played alto saxophone in the band, and was president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship.
After graduating from high school, John attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He graduated in 1969 with a degree in government and political science with the goal of working for the State Department.
To prepare for his State Department career, John spent the summer in Paris, attending French classes at the Alliance Francais. His goal was to continue his studies in government and international relations and qualify for a U.S. State Department position. However, during this time, the State Department exam was not given due to government budget cuts.
In the meantime, John had begun teaching in Narrows, Virginia, a small town where the New River “narrows” to pass through a gorge. He worked in a culture where many parents, and hence their children, did not value education. As a result of this formative experience, John developed a lifelong dedication to education and a deeply-held philosophy that every child should have the freedom and opportunity to develop their individual talents.
In 1972, John moved to Reston, Virginia, and began his teaching career in earnest at Lake Anne Elementary, where he taught 5th and 6th grades. In these early years of teaching, he was called upon to complete training videos modeling science instruction for the teachers in Fairfax County. He piloted the innovative curriculum People and Technology for the school system. This highly interactive curriculum led students to experience pressing environmental issues as relevant as today’s headlines. He also implemented Project Math for Fairfax County Schools. Rather than learning math by typical instructional methods, his students were presented real world situations and then led to learn and use math to find solutions. In addition to these leadership roles, John was tasked with writing the curriculum for the history of the county. He and two other teachers completed this innovative and hands-on curriculum that is still used today.
While living in Southwest Virginia, John began his love of snow skiing and took many ski trips during school vacations. When he moved to Reston, he joined the Washington Ski Club, and on a group flight to Aspen, Colorado, he met Alta. It was love at first sight and the beginning of a wonderful journey that the two soul mates and best friends would take over the next four decades together. They were married at Saint Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in January of 1980, appropriately in a snowstorm, and then spent their honeymoon in Aspen, Colorado. They were blessed with the birth of their daughter, Lauren, in 1983. She added immeasurably to the richness and meaning of their lives.
In addition to his early teaching career in Fairfax County Public Schools, John began working for British Airways in the evenings and on the weekends. He was a customer service representative and also the special escort for Concorde passengers, interacting with celebrities ranging from Henry Kissinger to Julie Andrews to Elizabeth Taylor to Prince Charles. Also during this period, Alta began working in the Concorde Lounge at British Airways. They were frequently on duty at the same times and interacted with the same celebrities.
In a logical extension of his passion for teaching and staying active, John coached tennis at South Lakes High School in his early years in Reston. Whether it was lifting weights in the gym, skiing, working in his beautiful garden, hiking, or biking, John loved to be active.
One of John’s favorite hobbies was real estate. So much so that he obtained his Virginia real estate license and found homes for his own family and close friends. His knowledge and keen interest in real estate also allowed him to find a vacation home for his family in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where the family spent summers and holiday ski vacations. In 2008, John began another “career” as the HOA president of the family’s Colorado neighborhood, a position he held until his passing.
Shortly before John and Alta met, John completed his master’s degree in school administration with the goal of moving from the classroom to leadership. After teaching elementary students enrolled in “advanced academics,” he transferred from the classroom to a leadership role developing and coordinating the advanced academics program for all of Fairfax County schools from kindergarten through high school.
He then became an assistant principal at Lanier Middle School and later Franklin Middle School. In both of these schools he led the initiatives to transform the schools from junior high schools to middle schools. While at Franklin, he spearheaded the introduction of technology into the instructional program. After the school day, he taught Franklin students computer programming in HTML. Soon Franklin became one of the first schools in the nation to have a website. One of the students from John’s class was on the design team for the first Apple iPhone. Other technologies introduced at Franklin included airplane wing design and program driven 3-D printing. Franklin became the “go to” school for the White House to showcase educational technology initiatives.
John left Franklin to become principal of White Oaks Elementary School in Burke, Virginia. John and his team of teachers at White Oaks became regular presenters at the annual conventions of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education. Embassy personnel from the DC diplomatic community would visit White Oaks to learn about best practices in technology education that might be introduced in their home countries. During his time at White Oaks, John also restructured the primary grades to help teachers better focus on reading instruction and reading recovery.
After retiring from Fairfax Schools, John became involved in a number of initiatives. He formed a job interview coaching business called Winning Interview. He coached job candidates ranging from maritime engineers to video producers with a job acquisition success rate of over 90%. Naturally, John turned his interviewing expertise into a curriculum by writing a book of the same name, Winning Interview.
John used his years of experience as an educator to design curriculum for the Princeton Review. He became a master instructor for the company’s premier technology program and taught teachers across the country how to use the program to help their students pass standards of learning exams.
Living a life dedicated to serving others was very important to John, and he continued to do so in retirement. After Hurricane Katrina, John helped people in the Gulf region recover from the disaster. He became a certified disaster relief coordinator for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. He led multiple disaster relief teams to Bay Saint Louis, Louisiana, and after Superstorm Sandy, he also participated in reconstruction projects in New Jersey and Brooklyn.
John’s church, Floris United Methodist, has maintained a relationship with Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon for more than 20 years. One of the church’s projects was a monthlong summer enrichment camp at the school run entirely by volunteers, and John was one of several educators that gave multiple weeks of their time to serve local children through this camp.
Through VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement), John and fellow team members organized listening sessions for Floris teachers, medical workers, and the Hispanic community. As a result of these sessions at Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, the VOICE team led Hutchison parents to learn how to self-advocate and interface with Fairfax County leaders to improve safety conditions on the streets near the school.
In an effort to foster conversation and understanding of how modern society is dealing with racism, John began teaching workshops through the church to foster racial reconciliation, with topics ranging from “How to Be an Anti-Racist” to “Voter Suppression” and “Criminal Injustice.” The sessions were offered to multiple congregations and used to train staff at Floris United Methodist.
Contributing to the church’s continuing outreach to the Latino community in Herndon, John and Alta became volunteer English teachers. They worked with a class of native Spanish speakers to help them learn the English skills they needed to find and keep employment. In addition, during COVID, John and Alta sponsored two Latino families to ensure they could buy groceries each week.
John and Alta were blessed to have enjoyed 19 years of retirement together, and John saw that they took full advantage of their mutual curiosity and love of other cultures to travel frequently. He was his own travel agent and loved putting trips together. They took numerous trips to Spain and Italy; they traveled to Austria and Ireland. When Lauren was in high school, he planned a long family vacation to Europe, and when she graduated, he arranged a trip to Spain. Throughout their retirement years, John and Alta spent month-long stays at their home in Colorado, where they enjoyed hosting family and friends. They both skied up until the past year.
Europe and Colorado were not the only travel destinations. John and Alta both embraced road trips and traveled extensively throughout the U.S. Sometimes they tried to share this love of car travel with others (including Lauren, John’s mom, and their cat Kiwi on a trip to Yellowstone), but the other travelers were not always as enamored with the journey as John and Alta.
Of course, a highlight of their retirement years was Lauren’s marriage to Chris. John gained not only a son-in-law, but also an extended family on Chris’ side that became an important part of his life. Special times included spending a decade of Thanksgivings together as well as sharing celebrations and trips to the coast and to the mountains.
John was a lifelong learner and wanted others to embrace learning, no matter at what stage of their lives. One of his favorite quotes was “Learning never ends.” Many have referred to him as a Renaissance Man, and indeed he had many interests. There was no home improvement project he was afraid to tackle; he loved challenges and problem solving and, as in all aspects of his life, he would doggedly pursue whatever he set out to accomplish. He rebuilt portions of his home’s two-story deck, including the stairs; he loved working in his yard and gardens; he could troubleshoot plumbing and electrical issues; he designed the renovation of his home’s basement and master bath; and he made furniture, including a long outdoor dining table to accommodate friends and family. John loved art and the humanities and was knowledgeable about both, but he was also interested in and knew much about politics and current events. He readily shared his perspective on these topics and enjoyed discussing them with others. At the end of his life, John was deeply concerned and disillusioned about the nation’s lack of action on gun safety, the high number of children living in poverty, and the lack of acceptance and action regarding climate change.
John was also passionate about building community, whether it was in his school communities, his Virginia neighborhood, or his Colorado community. He made it his mission to bring people together, and it brought him great satisfaction to foster connection. Along the way within these various communities, he encountered many special people who inspired him and became lifelong friends. Some of those who most inspired him were his students. John believed strongly in nurturing every student's potential, and in return, he learned from them as much as they learned from him.
John was a devoted husband, father, father-in-law, and grandfather. Spending time with his family gave him immense joy and strength, whether it was celebrating holidays and special occasions or just hanging out together. John had an unexpected and uninhibited sense of humor that often surprised but always entertained those closest to him. His humor could appear in a rant or a one-sentence outburst. His strength, compassion, boundless love, and intelligence provided a refuge for his family.
A memorial service will be held at Floris United Methodist Church on Friday, May 19, 2023, at 11:00 am.
A reception will immediately follow the service at the church.
Flowers or donations are welcome. Please send flowers to the church for the day of the memorial service (but kindly avoid lilies as the minister is allergic to them). Donations may be made to any of the organizations listed below or the charity of your choice. Alta, Lauren, and Chris are deeply grateful to all of the dear family and friends who have been so loving and supportive during this time.
- Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park: this non-profit supports the county park behind John and Alta’s home where John shared many happy memories with his family (LINK)
- United Methodist Committee on Relief: this is the United Methodist Church’s domestic and international disaster relief arm that supported the disaster relief trips that John took (LINK)
- She Believes in Me: this is an organization that was started to serve children at Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, the school where several of John and Alta’s volunteer efforts were focused (LINK)
Friday, May 19, 2023
Floris United Methodist Church
13600 Frying Pan Road
Herndon, Virginia, United States