By Jarret Liotta
High praise and heartfelt words were heard at. tonight’s Board of Education meeting regarding 18 school employees retiring this year, including interim Superintendent of Schools David Abbey.
While the virtual forum limited the traditional atmosphere of celebration experienced in past years, colleagues and the retirees themselves took moments to share their feelings about the impact of more than 450 years of service on the district, students and those individuals.
“I’m very moved by this, more than you know,” Abbey said, following a litany of praise from staff and board members.
Abbey, who took over in an interim role 13 months ago, expressed his gratitude and praise for the district, saying he was likewise humbled by the contributions of the other retirees.
“Believe me, I am well aware of your contributions as compared to mine and am in awe of them,” he said.
Others, meanwhile, praised Abbey for a range of professional and personal traits, including his sense of humor and humility in serving this role.
“The beauty about you is that you handled it all with such grace and with humor,” said Vice Chair Jeannie Smith, noting he walked into a range of issues when he took the position, and even more came in the form of COVID-19.
“I’m so glad and grateful that we had your calming hand at the helm,” said board member Vik Muktavaram, calling his tenure “a godsend.”
“I think something that I value the most is that you value every individual in the system, no matter what their role,” Karen DeFelice, co-president of the Westport Teachers Association, said of Abbey, who took part in hiring her in 1986.
“And you value their opinion and you listen,” she said. “And you don’t just say it, you demonstrate it.”
“Everyone is important and I’m grateful to everyone in the district,” Abbey said. “This is a wonderful district.”
Several retirees with long histories in town expressed similar feelings, including Eileen Bemus, a 40-year veteran retiring from Long Lots Elementary School (LLS), who was hired right out of college.
“I am a very lucky person,” she said. “I got to spend my entire adult working life as a teacher in the town of Westport.”
Also retiring from LLS was 25-year music veteran Elizabeth “Betsy” Tucker, who is moving to Vienna, Austria, where she’ will be teaching at the Danube International School.
“I’m totally jazzed to teach music in Vienna … but I will always be a Long Lots Lion,” she said.
Constance “Connie” Jones, another 40-year veteran of the district who spent time working at both BMS and Coleytown Middle School, shared about her experience.
“Westport has given me so many opportunities,” she said, noting her career began at the now-defunct Long Lots Junior High School.
Richard Franzis, who was assistant principal at Staples High School for 14 years, received praise from his colleague James Farnen, assistant principal.
“You were always doing great things when no one was looking,” he said. “It was an honor and a privilege to be working alongside of you.”
Other retires included Mary Alvarez, Wendy Bitler, Linda Cataudo, David Deitch, Sandra Evangelista, Paul Ferrante, Bobbie Flynn-Johnson, Lori Gazerro, Adolfo Hernandez, Paula Lacy, Patricia O’Brien, Eileen Shannon, and Nimade Werahaspati.
“They’ve given so much of themselves to their profession, students, school and community,” said Adam Rosen, Bedford Middle School (BMS) principal, expressing a sentiment about two BMS retirees that was equally applicable to many others.
“You guys are gonna be missed,” John Horrigan, Westport Education Association co-president, said of the teachers. “There’s no way to replace that kind of experience.”
“Tonight is really special because we honor careers and how you shape the lives of so many students,” DeFelice said.