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Dedicated to the arts

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
CHRIS BUCKLEY I TRIBUNE-REVIEW Charleroi attorney Rick Mudrick holds a painting of Virginia Niccolai, which will hang in the art room at Charleroi Area High School. The art room will be dedicated to Niccolai on Dec. 7.

Pat Kasuda created a Facebook page for her cousin Virginia Niccolai in 2010.

Within a month, the retired Charleroi Area art teacher had 600 students following her.

“When she did paintings, we would post them,” Kasuda said. “The students would share their art and tell her how meaningful her class was to their lives.”

One of Niccolai's former students sent her a computer so she could be online to communicate with them. Niccolai kept three 3-inch binders in which she kept all of their emails and Facebook notes, having copied them and pasted them onto Word documents for keeping.

On Niccolai's 90th birthday on Aug. 1, 2011, hundreds of her former students sent Niccolai birthday cards.

“Her approach to art was that she felt art was a way of expressing things that people couldn't express in words,” Kasuda said.

On Oct. 20, Nicolai passed away. But her spirit will live on in a part of the school she so treasured. On Dec. 7, the art room at Charleroi Area High School will be named for Niccolai. At the event, set to begin at 3 p.m., members of Niccolai's family and people who knew her along with a current student will speak.

“It will be a salute to Virginia Niccolai and the importance of the arts,” district Superintendent Dr. Brad Ferko said.

“We're really excited about honoring Virginia Niccolai for her dedication to art education and her love of students. The ability to name the art room after her demonstrates that in a teacher's life they touch so many people, so many lives and their impact on kids is never forgotten. This is the least we can do for Virginia Niccolai, who gave so much for the kids of the Charleroi Area School District.”

Niccolai taught in the Charleroi school system from 1943 to 1982. She initially taught special education students before becoming an art teacher in the junior high school and eventually the high school.

Kasuda, who was born and raised in Belle Vernon, was very close to her elder cousin. Kasuda's mother and Niccolai's father were brother and sister.

Kasuda often spent time at Niccolai's house, calling it “my summer vacation.” She described what art and teaching art meant to Niccolai.

“It was beyond love for her,” Kasuda said. “It was a passion for her. She had such love for her students.”

A 1939 graduate of Charleroi High School, she earned her teaching degree from California State Teachers College.

She lived in Charleroi for 78 years. While residing in Charleroi, she was very involved in the community. She was president of the board of the John K. Tener Library, and president of the board of directors of the Mon Valley Health Center in Monessen.

A school sponsor for the classes of 1962, 1971, 1982, 1983 and 1984, she was so attached to her students that when she planned her funeral, Niccolai chose former students to serve as pallbearers.

She moved in 1999 to the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, Md. There she introduced art to people who had never had that talent.

“It brought out a part of their personalities that they did not know they had,” Kasuda said. “One person told her she was only teacher who could teach him to draw a straight line.”

Never married and with no brothers or sisters, Niccolai's Charleroi students were her family, Kasuda said.

“She called them her children,” Kasuda said. “When these students would write to her, she would say ‘I remember him. He was that ornery kid, but he never gave me a bit of trouble.' ”

Kasuda said Niccolai would be proud to learn of the honor, saying it is fitting because teaching art was her life.

Chris Buckley is a reporter for Trib Total Media.