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Ex-Wolf Pack star John Genasci, a long-time local educator, dies at 81

John Genasci
John Genasci, second from left, impacted hundreds of people as a principal of three local schools. (Handout)

John Genasci, a former Wolf Pack football and boxing star who served as principal at three local schools, died at his home last month at age 81 following a heart attack.

Genasci grew up on a 1,400-acre ranch in Loyalton, Calif., before enrolling in college at Nevada. He was a quarterback and linebacker for the Wolf Pack, earning letters from 1957-60. He also competed on the school's boxing team alongside national champions Joe Bliss and Mills Lane. A member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, he earned a degree in physical education and science from UNR in 1962.

"He was working in his yard, and he was always told me he wanted to die working, and he was out there and died of a heart attack," his son, Joe, told Nevada Sports Net. "About six or seven years ago, he learned he had heart disease his whole life. He had surgery on his heart about seven years ago to prolong his life, and he had a pacemaker put in about two years ago. But it was just his time."

Coming out of small-town Loyalton, Genasci was offered a full-ride scholarship to play football at Stanford. But wanting to stay close to his family, he choose Nevada and played for coaches Gordon McEachron and Dick Trachok.

"He always told me that he was needed at the ranch to hay, so his mom wanted him close to the ranch so he could help out when needed," Genasci said of his father turning down Stanford. "That's kind of what they needed back then."

Before attending Utah State for postgraduate work, Genasci sold insurance, hauled hay bales, worked at a lumber mill and provided security at the Riverside Casino. His friends lovingly called him a "buckaroo and big builder." After earning a degree in school psychology and education from Utah State, Genasci worked for the El Dorado Union High School District in Placerville before being offered a coaching job at Carson High.

Instead, he accepted an offer from the Peace Corps to train new recruits in the jungles along the Amazon River in Brazil, Iran and Bolivia. He also worked in Zaire, Africa, as a K-12 principal at the American School of Kinshasa where he administered to 750 students from 42 nations who spoke 26 languages. Before returning to the U.S., he and his family spent the last year overseas traveling and staying with family and friends living in Italy, Switzerland and other countries across Europe until they ran out of money.

"He and mom were just adventurous and sold everything," Genasci said. "They sold their cars, their house. They left with nothing. They went over there and worked for four years, but my mom was getting malaria quite a bit and my brother got it. They just felt like it was time to go before anything bad happened. There are a 100 different deadly snakes around where we lived. It just wasn't the safest place."

After returning to America, Genasci worked on his family ranch and did security at what is now Boomtown while applying for academic administrator positions. He was principal at Washoe High from 1976-84, building a fledging school into one that ably served both youth and adults.

"I'm still benefiting from John's impact," former Washoe High teacher Susan Henneberg said. "John saw something in all of us. He changed my life in every best way possible, and I will never forget him. My children have never met John, but they all have expressed hope that one day they will meet someone to light the same fire under them that John did for me."

In 1984, Genasci became principal at Hug High and received Ronald Regan’s Excellence in Education Award in 1986, earning a trip to the White House. That same year, Genasci helped develop Harrah’s Adopt-a-School program. Later, with the support of local businessmen Luther Mack and Grove Holcomb, Genasci took out a second mortgage on his house totaling around $80,000 to cover the remaining funds needed to add lights to Hug's football field.

"He was really worried about losing our house for the next few years," Joe Genasci said. "He'd talk about it every night at the dinner table."

Said the elder Genasci when the lights were installed: “We got those lights in by 4 o’clock one afternoon and played under them that night—a sold-out game against McQueen. We were told that it couldn’t be done and we would never get funding for stadium lights, but we did it. It’s just one example of what can be done through student, parent and community involvement.”

During his time at Hug, Genasci was awarded the Outstanding Principal Award (’87 Burger King), Humanitarian of the Year (’87 RGJ), Public Administrator of the Year (’87 Reno Magazine), Outstanding Nevada Secondary Principal (’87 State of Nevada) and Outstanding Secondary School Administrator (’88 Milken Foundation).

In order to watch his sons play college football (one at Nevada and the other at UC Davis), Genasci accepted the principal position at Sparks Middle School in 1988 and remained until 1997, changing the school's mascot from Rebels to the Golden Bears as an ode to his dislike of UNLV due to his Wolf Pack roots. Genasci also started the Academic Olympics and was later awarded Outstanding Educator (’91 Nevada Governor Proclamation), Citizen of the Year (’91 Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce) and Hall of Fame (’96 RGJ). He retired from WCSD in 1997.

In his retirement, he remodeled the family's 1860s ranch house and barn with his sons and built two homes. He also acquired government grants to build waterways in Sierra Valley. He was a member of Ty Cobb’s National Security Forum, led committees for the Wolf Pack boxing and football reunions, learned pottery and desert gardening, supported the arts and local politics and traveled the world with his wife and friends.

"He always had a positive outlook and knew anything could be done when you work together with people and put your mind to something," Joe Genasci said. "He was the type of guy who when he put his mind to something he'd find a way to do it. There's no failure. I think that goes back to him competing in sports with heart disease all those years.

"He knew if you respect people and turn them toward a goal and trust them they can accomplish anything. That's what I'm hearing from people when they call. He inspired them and made them believe they could do something when they didn't know they could do it. Like first-year teachers who had no confidence in starting the school year, he'd come over and talk to them and for some reason after they left they had belief in themselves they could do it. That was his true gift. Recognizing good people and inspiring them to be their best."

Mourning his passing are wife Kay, his three sons, Joe, Kerby and Andy, and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations to Hug High School and the Sierra School Foundation can be made in Genasci's honor at johngenasci.com.

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