Dan Napolitano. (Photo from the United States Holocaust  Memorial Museum)
Dan Napolitano. (Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
As a dynamic religion teacher at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda from 1990-2000, Dan Napolitano challenged students to make a difference in the world. Then he did just that, becoming the director of teacher education and special programs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, teaching teachers across the United States and around the world how to teach about the Holocaust, to help prevent it from ever happening again.

Napolitano died suddenly on Sept. 14 at the age of 53, and his death was a death in the family for his wife and three children, his parents and siblings, and also for the Georgetown Prep and Holocaust Memorial Museum communities, and for St. Martin of Tours School in Gaithersburg, which his children attended. A standing-room crowd filled St. Martin Church for his Sept. 19 Funeral Mass that featured soulful rock and sacred music that was also a hallmark of the life of Napolitano, a guitarist and prolific songwriter.

Msgr. Mark Brennan, St. Martin's pastor, in his homily praised Napolitano as "a teacher and leader of programs to promote interfaith understanding; and not least, a disciple of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church, a man who served God and cared about people."

The priest praised "this thoroughly modern man's faith in God and fidelity in practicing it on Sunday and the rest of the week," and he said that example could inspire those whose lives he touched to be "better persons and more faithful companions of others along the way."

The music at the Mass included the Prep Singers performing "Amazing Grace" and closed with a Bob Dylan song led by Prep faculty members, reflecting the varied musical tastes of Napolitano, who released two albums with his band Lunar Groove and was a founding member of the group, Loss of Faculties, which included current and former Prep teachers.

Delivering the eulogy for her father, Elena Soleil Napolitano, who is now a sophomore at St. Mary's College of Maryland in St. Mary's City, said, said her dad had a million-watt smile and a hearty laugh that "was a beautiful sound that could compete with any song he wrote."

Remembering a senior year trip to tour colleges, she recalled how her father rented out a silver convertible to drive her that chilly winter morning - "that was Dad making every single moment into a grand adventure."

Elena Napolitano also praised her father as a master teacher, who could help his own children with simple homework, inspire a high school classroom, and lead an international Holocaust conference. "Dad knew how to engage his audience and reach them," she said.

In an interview, Benjamin Williams, the dean of faculty at Georgetown Preparatory School, said his friend was passionate about justice and brought enormous enthusiasm to the classroom. "When you were in his class, you were sure you could do anything, the possibilities were endless," Williams said.

The congregation at the funeral included hundreds of current Prep students, along with teachers, staff and alumni. The school closed that day in Napolitano's honor.

Napolitano also taught religion at the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington and at the now-closed Immaculata College High School in Rockville. He also formerly served on the Archdiocese of Washington's Board of Education, and Deacon Bert L'Homme, the archdiocese's superintendent, read the Gospel at the Funeral Mass.

Williams said it was a natural transition for Napolitano to bring those teaching skills and his faith and passion to what became his life's work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Napolitano believed "in the end we are all human, and we are all children of God. We all collectively have a responsibility to our world and to one another," Williams said.

While still a teacher at Georgetown Prep, Napolitano served as a Mandel Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and he developed a booklet that served as a curriculum guide for thousands of Catholic school teachers around the world to teach about the Holocaust. His teaching guide was endorsed by the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and was distributed by the National Catholic Educational Association. During a 2002 papal audience, Napolitano's "The Holocaust: A Teaching Guide for Catholic Schools," was presented to Pope John Paul II.

At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Napolitano was dedicated "to bringing people together, people from different faith traditions, people from around the world," said Sarah Ogilvie, director of the National Institute for Holocaust Education at the museum. "...He just had huge passion. He had fearlessness. To be a really good teacher, you have to be willing to take risks."

She said Napolitano had just organized a conference for 18 teachers who came together at the museum from Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Napolitano's gift for teaching and his passion for engaging people about the personal impact of the Holocaust and the modern world's responsibility to learn those lessons from the past made him a natural tour guide for visiting dignitaries, Ogilvie said, noting that he led foreign ministers and members of Parliament through the museum, and also visiting celebrities like Dan Akroyd and Tom Cruise.

"I think he believed in the possibility that every human being has," Ogilvie said. "He was so aware of the failures in the past, and his passion was wanting people in the present to make a difference in their community, in their country, and in their world. He had a passion for sharing this story and challenging people about its meaning for them."

In his honor, the flags at the museum were hung at half staff on Sept. 17.

Dan Bowen, who teaches religion at Georgetown Prep, said his friend could come into a classroom "and connect everybody in the room with everybody else in the room," a skill that served him well in his later work with the museum. "I don't think he ever ceased to be a teacher."

Bowen was one of many friends whom Napolitano liked to jam with in informal music sessions. Napolitano, who played acoustic and electric guitar, wrote songs in every genre, from rock to blues to country, Bowen said, adding, "Music was the soundtrack of the way he thought."

The recessional song at Napolitano's Funeral Mass was Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," a song he often played with friends when they were doing gigs together. That song closes with the lyrics:

"I see my light come shining

From the west into the east

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released."

Dan Napolitano is survived by his wife Karen, who teaches in the English department at Georgetown Prep; and by their children Elena, Max, a sophomore at Prep, and Benjamin, a student at St. Martin School. He is also survived by his parents, Richard and Louise Napolitano; and by his siblings Rick Napolitano, Steve Napolitano and Alicia Napolitano. His brother Christopher Napolitano preceded him in death.