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Jerry Balistreri, 51

San Jose Mercury News (CA) - October 28, 1992 --------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Lee Papkoff had been a biology instructor for 13 years at San Jose City College in 1964 when Jerry Balistreri became his student.

''I remember the day he walked into my office," said Papkoff, now a division chairman at Evergreen Valley College. "He looked me square in the eye and announced: 'You know, Papkoff, I'm going to be a teacher just like you.' "

If Gerald Phimo Balistreri hadn't died in his sleep Saturday in his San Jose home, his colleagues and students at Evergreen say he would still be lecturing to anatomy and physiology students as he had done for nearly two decades.

But Jerry Balistreri had motor neuron disease or its more publicized form, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- or maybe even Lyme disease. One or a combination of them killed him at the age of 51. Which one, "no one knew," said his son, Brian.

It was frustrating for Mr. Balistreri, an expert in anatomy, to be so powerless to understand what was happening to his own body. Nevertheless, it wasn't a part of that anatomy to quit doing "what he was born to do," Brian Balistreri said.

It started for Mr. Balistreri at the alma mater where he had first taken pre-biology from Papkoff. He joined the faculty in 1974 after earning his bachelor's and master's degrees from San Jose State University.

The next year, he became a charter member of the Evergreen faculty. His regular subjects were zoology and natural science, but especially anatomy and physiology.

That is the make-or-break introductory course for nurses, thousands of whom have graduated from the Evergreen program. "He affected the careers of more nurses than virtually everyone else," Papkoff said.

One of those is Jean Mitchell, a registered nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose. "He was the only teacher I've ever had in my entire life who got me excited and made me want to go to school to see what he was going to teach me that day. He radiated such energy about his love of his subject."

Mr. Balistreri also was director of the California Natural History Field Studies Program at Evergreen. On weekend or weeklong field trips, Mr. Balistreri would lead students to Audubon Canyon Ranch in Stinson Beach, to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, to Point Reyes National Seashore, to Point Lobos and Big Sur, to Yosemite, to Death Valley.

Brian Balistreri, now a University of San Diego student who as a youth made "at least 20" field trips with his father, said "Mr. B, or Jerry, or just Jer made it exciting for everyone. He'd do little question-and-answer things throughout and had so many interesting facts."

His other son, Jeffery, now a Special Forces soldier with the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, N.C., also went on many field trips with his father. Mr. Balistreri was divorced, but his former wife, Donna Toothman, remained close.

Mr. Balistreri began showing signs of muscular problems about three years ago, and motor neuron disease was initially diagnosed in 1989.

He continued a full teaching schedule unassisted until early last year, said Papkoff.

When his hands, arms and legs failed him, and he began using a wheelchair, he was aided by teaching assistants, one of whom was Anita LaRae, a former student who became Mr. Balistreri's significant other.

In 1991, the entire Evergreen campus named Mr. Balistreri its Teacher of the Year. "That's tough competition," Papkoff said. "We don't give that lightly." Even after Mr. Balistreri's voice had softened to a whisper, and he was fitted with a headset and microphone, "he was still getting his material over," Papkoff said.

''He was a talker," LaRae said. "You couldn't stop him. He would kid with students, and he would tease a little if he felt they could handle it. For shy students, he would use them as biology specimens so they didn't have to participate."

On Thursday, Jerry Balistreri taught his anatomy and physiology class for the last time. "It is difficult not to make him a hero, but I've never seen anything quite like it. Here he is handicapped beyond reason, and I can still see him, microphone wrapped around right in front of his mouth, rolling into a lecture class. Our students loved him."

(box)Born: May 30, 1941, Richmond, Calif.

(box)Died: Oct. 24, 1992, San Jose, Calif.

(box)Survived by: Sons Jeffery Balistreri of Fort Bragg, N.C., Brian Balistreri of San Diego.

(box)Services: Memorial at 11 a.m. today in the Evergreen Valley College Amphitheater.

(box)Memorial: A memorial scholarship is to be established in Mr. Balistreri's name at Evergreen Valley College, or donations may be made to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, 4900 Highway 1, Stinson Beach, Calif. 94970.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- San Jose Mercury News (CA) Date: October 28, 1992 Edition: Morning Final Page: 5B Record Number: 9203180401 Copyright (c) 1992 San Jose Mercury News