Weathersfield CT March 4 2017 Aftter 27 years manning the main entrance and chasing trouble makers down Wethersfield High School's hallways, John "Pops" Saccente is a legend in town.
From 1990 until this week, Saccente, now 90, was at graduation to give every boy a hug and each girl a kiss on the cheek after they received their diplomas. He'd be the gruff, but friendly face at the main entrance of the school and the man tasked with chasing down kids when they got in trouble.
Saccente retired on Thursday surrounded by 165 family and friends at a surprise party at the Wethersfield Country Club.
"I knew I had friends and I knew I had enemies, but I didn't know I had this many friends," Saccente said. "I had a bunch of wonderful people and I'll never forget that."
Saccente who was brought into the dining room of the country club in a wheelchair to huge applause, shed a few tears when he realized that the World War II trivia event had been a ruse.
"It was the biggest surprise I ever had in my life," he said.
Saccente, who was born and raised in Hartford's South End, didn't graduate from high school until 2011, when the Wethersfield Board of Education unanimously voted to grant him a diploma because he'd left school to serve during World War II.
Former superintendent Thomas McDowell traveled down from Massachusetts with his accordion in tow to perform the waltz from "The Godfather" — a tradition he had normally reserved for Saccente's birthday.
"To know John is to love him," McDowell said after he finished the song. "He's gruff. Very. He's a marshmallow. Very."
McDowell recalled how Saccente would always refer to principals in their 40s and 50s as "kid" and said the students at Wethersfield High School knew Saccente was always looking out for them.
"The kids had him figured out, instantly. Always. He has been a constant," he said. "He always knew what was going on. He always knew what was happening in Wethersfield."
Saccente's legend carried on to current students and recent graduates.
"You have had an absolute profound impact on our kids. That crusty demeanor? Underneath you have a heart of gold. And the kids knew that," Superintendent Michael Emmett said.
Saccente worked as a police officer in Newington for many years and ran the department's explorer program. He is also a park ranger at Mill Woods Park in Wethersfield.
"I have so many Police Department boys here who were my explorers and now they're cops," he said. "My kids, I call them, I would get along with them like you wouldn't believe.
Former Wethersfield High School principal Dan Casey recalled how Saccente's sense of humor, which people remembered was often coarse, was what made him a legend.
"He told me how he used to go to a small doughnut shop on the Berlin Turnpike when he was on patrol and would get a coffee and doughnut," Casey said. "And I asked him 'John, how do you hold a coffee in one hand, a doughnut in the other and drive a patrol car?' Then he stuck out his stomach and said 'I'll show you how.'"
Saccente's granddaughter Deena said she was moved by how many people came out to wish him well.
"To know that one man touched so many people is extraordinary," she said.
As for Saccente, leaving Wethersfield High School is a big adjustment after 27 years.
"I sit at home all day long looking out the window. I wake up every morning at 4 a.m. wishing I was back at that school," he said.