Vice principal's 6-year cancer fight inspires students
Toni-Marie Hals returned to teach and coach at her alma mater, Immaculate Heart Academy, and gained an endearing nickname: "The Dean."
The Catholic girls high school in Washington Township is mourning its vice principal. Mrs. Hals, of North Haledon, died Saturday of ovarian cancer. She was 41.
"This school was a second home to Toni-Marie," Principal Patricia Molloy said Monday. "I think it was her dream to be here forever."
Molloy, who has been at Immaculate Heart Academy for 39 years, remembered the former Toni-Marie Verrone as an "energetic, cute, vivacious" soccer-playing student. What Molloy does not remember is young Toni-Marie voicing a desire to join the faculty.
But that's what Mrs. Hals did. She arrived in 1997 with a master's in education from Temple University and a bachelor's from Virginia's Lynchburg College.
Her first job at Immaculate Heart was as a physical education teacher and athletic trainer. In short order she was named physical education chairwoman and then director of students, a position that carried disciplinary duties.
"We noticed Toni-Marie was very talented and very fair, and the kids liked her, and we invited her to apply for this administrative job," Molloy said.
It was during her tenure as director of students that Mrs. Hals, also an assistant soccer coach, acquired her nickname. Some students called her "The Dean" or just "Dean." Others called her Dean Hals.
The moniker was appropriate, the school's IHA soccer and basketball coach, Steve Silver, said, but not because Mrs. Hals was intimidating or physically imposing qualities one might expect in someone called "The Dean." Mrs. Hals was the opposite of intimidating.
"Toni-Marie was a great leader and a great person for the girls to look up and aspire to be like," Silver said. "You could always count on her to give them good advice, and she gave it verbally and also by example."
Mrs. Hals was promoted to vice principal, the school's No. 2 position, in 2011.
Immaculate Heart Academy rallied around Mrs. Hals during her six-year illness. Just after she received the diagnosis, the school's knitting club created fuzzy blue hats for Mrs. Hals and other participants in the fundraising Revlon Run/Walk for Women. The fuzzy hats returned on Nov. 22, 2011, when Mrs. Hals received the YMCA of Bergen County's Inspirational/Courageous Adult Award.
The soccer team recently honored Mrs. Hals by wearing her initials and teal ribbons on their uniforms.
The teal ribbon symbolizes ovarian cancer awareness.
"She's the person I want to be," midfielder Grace Landers told a Record sportswriter last month. "She's hardworking and the biggest fighter I know."
Immaculate Heart Academy immediately notified its 830 students about Mrs. Hals' death.
"If not for the fact that we have a very strong faith in God and his mercy, this would be just a devastating experience for us," Molloy said.
The principal noted that Mrs. Hals battled cancer with courage and without complaint.
"She came to school wearing her baseball cap or wig and just kept on going," Molloy said. "Toni-Marie's fight has served to inspire our students. Seeing a beloved person suffer like this will provide these young girls with a resiliency, and an ability to cope with these things later in life."
Mrs. Hals is survived by her husband, Ian, and sons Thomas, 14, and Anthony, 12; her parents, Rita and Anthony Verrone; her brothers, Louis Verrone and Lee Verrone; a sister, Michele Verrone Manning; and her grandmothers, Amelia Sandstrom and Angela Verrone. no towns, per family's request
Visiting is 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today tues at Vander Plaat-Vermeulen Memorial Home, Franklin Lakes. The funeral Mass will be Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. at Immaculate Heart Academy, 500 Van Emburgh Ave., Washington Township.