When long-time Jersey City resident, teacher and athletic advocate Ellen Zadroga was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997, she basically laughed at her doctors.
“Her doctors gave her six months to live,” said her daughter Kristen Zadroga-Hart, the athletic director at McNair Academic. “And that was 23 years ago.”
Unfortunately, Ellen’s time on earth came to an end a few weeks ago, when her suffering finally ended. Ellen died Dec. 19, just two days before her 78th birthday.
For many years, Ellen Zadroga, who was born into the vast and beloved Finn family of Jersey City, was a school teacher at P.S. 8 in Jersey City.
But she was also always involved in athletics.
“When she was a teacher at P.S. 8, she started the intramural program there,” her daughter Kristen said. “She always wanted to get kids involved in sports. It became a big part of our family. She wanted to make sure that it was possible for kids to play sports.”
So she did. She campaigned for athletic events and facilities, raising money to help countless organizations in sports.
“She was always raising money,” her daughter said.
A good portion of Ellen’s time was her devotion was to her large family.
“I think her devotion to her family was her Number One priority,” Zadroga-Hart said. “But it wasn’t just blood relations. If you were her friend, then you were a friend for life. I can’t begin to count how many people who told me that my mother changed their lives. They said, ‘Your mother went out of her way to help me.’ If she could help, she would give whatever they needed.”
When Dan Finn, Ellen’s nephew, was hit by a car in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in 2004, an accident that ended the great St. Peter’s Prep athlete’s life, his organs were harvested. Sure enough, his aunt Ellen, who was already diagnosed with leukemia and in dire need of a kidney transplant, was a match with her nephew who had just passed on.
“We knew the prognosis was not good with Dan,” said Ed Finn, Ellen’s brother and Dan’s father. “We said to the nurses that if Dan doesn’t come out of this, then we wanted a promise to have Ellen get Dan’s kidneys.”
This came after stem cell transplant surgery on Ellen did not succeed.
But Dan Finn gave his aunt the gift of life and Ellen Zadroga most certainly did live life to the fullest every single day after the transplant surgery.
“I think she held on because of Danny,” Kristen Zadroga-Hart said. “She didn’t want to waste the gift of life that Danny gave her with his kidney.”
“I think the relationship between Ellen and myself grew deeper after that,” said Ed Finn, a long-time respected teacher and basketball official who runs the Dan Finn Classic every year in honor of his deceased son.
But in the last few months, Ellen’s health deteriorated. She had to endure the tragic death of her grandson, Richie “R.J.” Zadroga, in October.
And she eventually passed away, her fight was over a few weeks ago.
“When I got the call from Tara [Ellen’s other daughter] that Ellen had passed, I was extremely sad for about 10 minutes,” Ed Finn said. “And then I realized how great of a life she had. She never looked away from anyone. If she could help someone, she was always there. I never had to ask her for anything. If there was something I needed, she knew about it before I did.”
“There aren’t words to describe the strength she had,” Kristen Zadroga-Hart said. “She battled leukemia, stem cell transplant, kidney transplant. When she was in so much pain, she never complained. She said that she was happy to live another day. We told her that there were people praying for her and she said that she didn’t need the prayers. She said, ‘Pray for everyone around me.’”
Kristen Zadroga-Hart said that she had an idea of how much her mother was beloved.
“But a lot of it was a little overwhelming,” Zadroga-Hart said. “It was just the amount of people who were saying such great things about her, seeing her former students coming up to me and saying nice things. I think she had a life well lived. And she lived it for others.”
From a personal standpoint, I always loved to see the interaction between Ellen and our mutual friend, Ed “Faa” Ford, when Ellen was an assistant superintendent of schools and part of her responsibility was monitoring the Board of Education’s main playing field, namely Caven Point Cochrane Stadium in a complex that now bears the name of Ed “Faa” Ford.
“She had a close relationship with Faa,” Kristen Zadroga-Hart said.
That they did and it was a joy to see the two go at it with each other. Maybe that interaction is continuing now somewhere up there. God bless Ellen. She will most certainly be missed by many…
Former Lincoln High School standout Frank Darby, a standout wide receiver at Arizona State, has declared his intentions to forego his final year of college eligibility and make himself eligible for the NFL Draft this spring.
Darby battled injuries this season and caught only six passes, one for a touchdown. But Darby shapes up to be a strong mid-round selection in the draft with a strong chance to be playing in the NFL come September…
Major correction: Last week, when we listed the top 10 sports stories, we mentioned all the Hudson County sports legends that passed away in 2020.
One glaring omission off the list of great we lost was former New Jersey City University athletic director Alice Schmidt DeFazio.
A member of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame, Alice was a great player in her heyday, playing for that great Montclair State College team that featured other Hudson County women and went to the NCAA Final Four.
Alice then became a successful coach on the high school and collegiate level, eventually getting elevated to the position of athletic director at NJCU in 2007. She lost her life to a battle with pancreatic cancer, the same hideous disease that took the life of her Hall of Fame coaching husband Bill in 2010. Alice died last February and certainly deserved her spot of distinction with the list of people we mentioned.
My sincere apologies go out to all members of the Schmidt and DeFazio families for the unfortunate omission…
And perhaps the best news of all, Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the ban on indoor sports, so it means that the winter sports seasons can move forward as planned later this month. The seasons will begin with hockey later this week, but basketball practices can begin with the season to tip off by the end of January. That’s exciting news for everyone involved in New Jersey sports. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com