It is with tremendous sadness that Tom Morabito talks about his upcoming retirement from taking care of East Bay children and the closure of the Claremont Day Nurseries – in Berkeley, Kensington and Oakland.
Morabito’s grief that he must close down — and sorrow for several teachers who have been working for the schools, some for more than 30 years — is palpable and real. But Morabito, 79, says he’s just too old to continue operating the day schools for pre-kindergarten students.
“The central theme always was, my direction was, always to keep the children safe, well-fed and then keep them happy and consequently their parents would be happy as well,” he says from the foyer of the Berkeley school on Claremont Avenue.
This month, Morabito will have run the schools for 45 years, after being a schoolteacher at private and public schools for more than 13 years. He’s also closing the schools at the end of this month, leaving several parents of the 47 children in his care on a desperate hunt to find quality daycare.
“I am not happy with my decision. I feel like I have to do it, for their sake and mine. What I have in terms of my heart could lead to a stroke and I don’t want to have a stroke here,” he adds.
Morabito said he has a heart condition and diabetes. Plus, Morabito, who shows up every day to the schools wearing a suit and tie, has tumbled down the Berkley school’s tall stairwell several times — even while using his cane — which can be fatal for an elderly person.
“I’ve fallen so many times and my staff has rushed to picked me up, and I don’t want to do that again in front of the kids,” he says.
He said this year the owners of his rented Oakland school site on College Avenue made it clear they are not going to extend the school’s lease. He found a buyer for the Kensington school, and is in escrow. Morabito said it’s just not feasible to run only Berkeley’s Claremont Avenue school, so he’s selling that one, too. And maybe, he said, he and his wife will be able to take another trip to Italy.
Walking through the Berkeley location, there are hints kids have been running around it for a while. The drapes with giraffes on them are sun bleached, the carpet a bit worn, the outdoor playground equipment and toys obviously well-loved.
The three schools have 47 students enrolled now, but typically have more than 60 students during pre-pandemic times. Little cubbies keep the kids’ sleeping mats rolled up, but Morabito and his staff have had to make several changes to the facilities to keep the students and their families safe from the COVID-19 virus, like demarking spots where kids can safely sit and stand. Pre-COVID-19, the place was alive with students, teachers and kids playing together and, hopefully, getting the kids prepared for kindergarten.
It has been operated with an open-door spot for families to grow, and many East Bay families just love it.
“Our kids have fun and come home sweaty, filthy, and totally tired,” says parent Dave Fenton, whose two children attended the schools, one graduating this month for kindergarten. “I think everybody appreciated how they ran the place. It was a big feeling of relief like, ‘ah OK, my kid can be here for the next three years and I can relax.’”
Morabito drove to the Bay Area from New Jersey with his brother during the 1967 Summer of Love, passing cars full of flower children, and never looked back.
“People say if you come to this area and spend two years here you won’t go back. Sure enough, I spent a day here and would not go back,” he says. “It was the weather, the excitement, and the sincerity of the people we met. It was nothing like East Coast living, especially like newer New York. This was humble, simple authentic living here. It has changed of course, over time it has changed, but that was what it was at the time.”
A devout Catholic who literally wears the pride of his Italian heritage on his face mask, Morabito met his wife Frances while they were both teaching at a San Francisco Catholic school. He calls him and Frances “humble people” from the beginning and wore a suit three sizes too big for their wedding, pinning it in the back. They have been living in North Berkeley for 46 years.
For parents, like TJ Moretto of Oakland, sending his kids to Claremont Day Nurseries was a great convenience as he and his spouse have demanding jobs.
“They made your kids lunch — it was just another chore you didn’t have to do when you get out the door,” he says. “My wife and I, we don’t have time to volunteer at the daycare, we don’t have time to do the laundry at the day care like other day care places want you to do. But the biggest thing for us is our kids were happy there, and for the most part they were always happy to go there and didn’t want to come home when we picked them up. They got to play and have fun and be kids. There is no high-pressure, over-arching philosophy. We just wanted them to have fun and enjoy themselves and be kids.”
Morabito also made quite the impression on the families during his annual Pasta Party in September. Tossing away his suit and tie for a white apron, he’d cook hundreds of pounds of pasta for families in a big, Italian-style feast and school attendees and their parents would munch away to Italian songs.
“There were tables and tables of giant bowls of pasta with five or six different sauces that Tom, with a few helpers in the kitchen, cooked himself with old recipes,” parent Fenton says. “There were piles of salami, and a salami menu he handwrites and puts on the door.”
In fact, parents say, Morabito always made several days a year special by treating the kids to snow cone vendors, petting zoos, even yard sprinkler days when it was particularly hot.
It’s true that some parents are reeling over the closure and facing the difficult task of finding new places for their children to grow. But Morabito made the sudden announcement of the closure just a month before it happened because he is having two knee replacement surgeries shortly, and the healing will be slow.
“It’s painful for us,” Frances Morabito says. “It’s difficult to make this decision because it puts everybody in a mess. The teachers are worried, and the families are worried. Tom was the worst; he didn’t want to retire. But it has to be done.”