Wilton Hall of Fame gains four new members

Kendra Baker photos
Wilton High School’s Zellner Gallery was packed with people the evening of Wednesday, June 6, for the induction of four new members of the Wilton Publics Schools Hall of Fame — Kristine Lilly, Army Pfc. Nicholas Madaras, John Rhodes and Donald B. Verrilli Jr.

“Each of the inductees, in their own unique ways, began their journeys and wrote the first notes of their own songs of their lives here at Wilton High School,” Superintendent Kevin Smith said.

Plaques for the inductees will be hung in the glass hallway between the Zellner Gallery and Clune Center, where the Wilton Board of Education established the hall of fame in 2016 to honor those with ties to the Wilton public school system who have achieved notoriety in their chosen area of expertise and distinguished themselves in ways that have brought great honor and pride to the Wilton community.

The school district’s inaugural inductee, retired band director Frank “Chip” Gawle, was also officially inducted June 6. His plaque was ceremoniously installed during the hall of fame's ribbon-cutting in fall 2016.

Kristine Lilly

Lilly is a retired American soccer player who graduated from Wilton High School in 1989 and went on to become a three-time member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic soccer team.

During the induction ceremony, former Wilton High School soccer coach and current Parks and Recreation program coordinator Jim Lewicki said he’s “had the pleasure” of knowing Lilly and her family for “30-plus years,” and recalled the first time he met her.

“I was about 24 or 25 years old, coaching, and we were in the fieldhouse. There was this girl playing with the boys … and I noticed she was just tooling the boys and going around them and scoring at will,” said Lewicki. “I decided that I was going to … show her a thing or two. Well, she whipped me and the rest is history.”

In high school, Lilly was a three-time All-State, three-time All-New England and three-time All-American, said Lewicki, and she went on to play soccer at the University of North Carolina, where “her team won the women's’ national championship each year that she played.”

“Her accomplishments are too many to list, but they are monumental,” said Lewicki, noting how she won the Hermann Trophy her junior year in college and played in three Olympics and five World Cups.

Lilly, who started in the Wilton school system in kindergarten, said Wilton will always be her “home.”

“My career started here, and pretty much everything I did to get where I was at the highest level of soccer happened here. I can’t tell you the number of times I ran the stadium stairs at the high school … and [the high school] field house is probably one of the main places that I really trained,” she said.

“Whenever I was standing at a podium or receiving a medal or throwing my hands up in the air, I had Wilton with me. I had Wilton with me the whole time, and that’s what I was proud of — where I came from and what I learned.”

Pfc. Nicholas Madaras

Madaras was a 2005 Wilton High School graduate and soccer player who was killed by a bomb in September 2006 while on foot patrol in Iraq.

The national foundation Kick for Nick, which collects soccer balls for American soldiers to distribute to children in countries, was created in his memory. The Pfc. Nicholas A. Madaras Home for female veterans in Bridgeport is also named for him.

“Nick taught me to be a soldier long before I ever signed the dotted line,” Wilton native Thomas Thresher said about his late friend and former Wilton High School soccer teammate.

“A good soldier is loyal, tough … morally straight, honorable and selfless,” he said. “Nick truly lived it day in and day out.”

As a soccer play, Madaras “worked hard” and “put everything he had out on the field,” said Thresher, who recalled how Madaras would wear “zombie and cat contacts” to intimidate rival teams.

“He was quick with a joke; even quicker with a favor. Soldiers who served with him told me he was the first to volunteer for all the work details and first to carry extra weight, no matter what,” said Thresher.

“Being in a war sucks — believe me. There’s no such thing as a day off … every luxury is stripped from you … and to top it off, you’re faced with the most evil acts humanity has to offer, so for Nick to have that attitude … it’s not something you’re trained to do; it’s just who you are.”

Most impressively, Thresher said, Madaras “conquered the evils of the warzone with his love and compassion for the people of Iraq.”

“I remember he came home and told me how the kids in Iraq were so good [at soccer] and just needed an opportunity, so he wanted to collect balls and send them over. Unfortunately, he never got the chance,” said Thresher.

"Nick’s love of soccer, coupled with his ability to connect with the kids over there, led to the creation of the program Kick for Nick.”

Madaras understood that soccer was more than a game, said Thresher, and he wanted to use the “power” of soccer to “help other people.”

“Kick for Nick has grown far beyond what any of us had ever dreamed it would be [and] the impact of it is real,” said Thresher.

“[We] see an immediate decrease in violence in the areas where we hand out balls. On more than one occasion, would-be insurgents have handed in weapons in exchange for soccer balls to give to their kids.”

Thresher said Kick for Nick has an “immediate, instant impact that everyone can truly feel proud of — and it started with a simple idea by a kid who used to wear cat contact lenses.”

“Nick’s legacy is one of triumph over evil,” he said, “and shows what can be accomplished if we put the needs of others over ourselves.”

A video of Thresher’s full speech, shot by Post 86 Adjutant Tom Moore, can be viewed here.

Donald B. Verrilli Jr.

Verrilli, a 1975 Wilton High School graduate who served as the 46th solicitor general of the United States from 2011 to 2016, said it was “an incredible honor” to be recognized alongside the other three hall of fame inductees.

After graduating from Wilton, Verrilli earned his undergraduate degree from Yale University and a law degree from Columbia University. He clerked for Associate Supreme Court Justice WIlliam Brennan before entering private practice as a partner in Jenner & Block, where he co-chaired the firm’s Supreme Court practice.

Following the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, Verrilli was “desperate to work in his administration,” said Verrilli’s friend and Wilton Board of Education member Glenn Hemmerle, and he became an associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Verrilli became deputy counsel to the president in February 2010, and about a year later was nominated by the president to replace Elena Kagan as the U.S. solicitor general.

As solicitor general, Hemmerle said, Verrilli’s successes in front of the Supreme Court included “the successful advocacy of the Affordable Care Act [and] marriage equality.”

“He also achieved victories in patent cases, and numerous cases involving civil rights, women’s rights and other matters of national importance,” said Hemmerle.

When Verrilli stepped down from the position in June 2016, Hemmerle said, he became the “seventh-longest serving solicitor general in the history of our country.”

John Rhodes

Rhodes is Middlebrook School’s band director who, after more than 40 years as a music educator devoted to building the Wilton Public School District’s music program, will be retiring on June 30 .

Gawle thanked his former colleague for all his years of “dedicated service to thousands of Wilton’s best and brightest,” and his “insistence that we always strive to improve, no matter what current successes we enjoy.”

He also thanked Rhodes for “helping create and maintain a healthy philosophy that encourages flexibility and excellence on behalf of the comprehensive education of students of Wilton,” and for “helping us maintain quality across the board.”

“It is fit that we dedicate a permanent acknowledgment for he man with the most Warrior pride,” said Gawle, “and for the profound influence he’s had on the quality of the music program in Wilton.”

Read more about Rhodes contributions and accomplishments over the years here and here.

The induction ceremony featured music by Wilton High School Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Gawle, and performances by past and present Wilton High School Madrigals under the direction of Wilton Singers director Kevin Cotellese. Audio of the Madrigals singing “In My Life” by The Beatles at the ceremony is available at youtu.be/y59dR52YEig or bit.ly/2JyqUhd.