Northampton fitness group celebrates its ‘founding father,' retired Northampton High School teacher Donald Palmisano

Last modified: Monday, December 16, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — On Sunday afternoon, the aerobics studio at the Northampton Athletic Club was full of “SODs” and “FODs” — students and friends of Donald’s.

That would be city resident Donald Palmisano, a retired Northampton High School teacher and longtime aerobics enthusiast.

Palmisano, who has been attending weekly step aerobics classes at the club for more than two decades, hasn’t been there much since he began battling esophageal cancer in May. But on Sunday, he was back in the studio with his wife of 36 years, Marcella, for a celebration classmates organized to help bolster his spirits.

Dressed in a sweater, slacks and glasses with leopard-print frames, Palmisano, 68, batted away compliments about his singular presence in class — and in the community.

The Rev. Robert Coonan of Our Lady of Grace Church in Hatfield led the opening prayer. Classmates read a proclamation from Mayor David J. Narkewicz, establishing Dec. 15 as Donald Palmisano Day in Northampton, and hung a plaque on the studio wall proclaiming Palmisano the “founding father and maitre d’” of club aerobics.

(The plaque includes one of Palmisano’s famous sayings: “I’m sorry but you’re in my spot.”)

Janet Casey of Hatfield, the lead organizer of Sunday’s tribute, said when she first encountered Palmisano in class, “Donald was all over the room. He told everyone where to stand. I remember thinking, he obviously owns this gym!”

His bold humor soon became one of the main draws of the weekly aerobics sessions, Casey told the audience.

“I became part of the cult in the back of the room where we did nothing but have fun,” she said.

As an example, Casey pointed to the homemade button on her lapel reading “Ex-wife #1” and similar buttons sported by others in the mostly female crowd.

“Donald started introducing me as his ex-wife and the other students as ex-wives,” Casey said. “He started calling us his harem.”

The fun extended beyond fitness class, Casey said. When she founded the Marketing Doctor advertising firm in West Springfield a few years ago, “Donald and my father would dress up as my employees and go to seminars with me,” she said. “They helped me get all these clients.”

Several fitness classmates at Sunday’s tribute were also former students of Palmisano’s at Northampton High School, where he taught psychology for 36 years before retiring in 2003. They recalled his passion for teaching and his love of opera — which he frequently incorporated into his classroom lessons.

Blaise Bisaillon, a longtime neighbor of Palmisano, described his friend as a “lovable character” who is not afraid to speak the unvarnished truth.

“There is a direct line between Donald’s mind and his mouth,” said Bisaillon, a former director of Forbes Library.

Audience members at Sunday’s celebration got a taste of Palmisano’s friendly forthrightness.

When Bisaillon was finishing a thought that began, “Donald is so ...,” Palmisano filled in for him: “Irritating?”

When Bisaillon got to the part in the mayor’s proclamation about Palmisano being “the founding father” of the aerobics room, the guest of honor smiled and said, “That I am.”

Fitness classmate Melissa Ross of Florence said Palmisano was there for her after she was diagnosed with breast cancer last spring.

“He was my cheerleader,” said Ross, another former student of Palmisano’s at NHS. “Little did he know that he would be diagnosed about three weeks later.”

Was it strange to encounter a former high school teacher in aerobics class?

“It might have been with someone else,” said Ross, who works at A Notch Above hair salon in Northampton. “But not with Donald. He’s just a great guy.”

Another fitness classmate, Jennifer Randall, said Palmisano’s quirky humor helped her adjust to life in New England after she moved to Northampton from Georgia close to a decade ago.

“He told me he thought I looked like Michelle Obama and he started calling me that,” said Randall, who was sporting a button that said, “Ex-Wife #3.”

“There are people here that still call me Michelle,” said Randall, who is an associate professor in the department of educational policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Meeting Donald made everything better. He became my family.”

At the start of Sunday’s tribute, Randall laid out some ground rules she said Palmisano had insisted on for the event. “No wailing of any kind,” she told the crowd. “And no running out of the room and crying.”

As the celebration progressed, not everyone was able to follow those rules. But a closing performance of gospel music by the Women of Faith Ensemble of Springfield helped keep spirits elevated, as the entire room rose to sway and clap.

When asked what he thought of the event, Palmisano said simply, “There are no words.”

Then he found a few to express his joy at hearing the music.

“Do you know how long I’ve thought about having gospel music?” Palmisano said. “For me to be able to be here and experience it, it’s just amazing.”