Every so often you meet a teacher who energizes you, challenges you and empowers you to be the best that you can be.
In the fall of 1987, Hampton Bays High School hired a young teacher to teach Physical Education. This dynamic teacher went on to coach Middle School basketball and became the varsity football team's head coach. In 1992, this very energized educator and coach became the high school's Athletic Director.
As a coach, JP was an athlete's coach. He was committed to the total athlete. He had a passion for winning but was more concerned about his players' total growth and development. He wanted all of his athletes to become outstanding human beings. He was tough but fair. He set a standard that he lived and expected all of his athletes to strive for. He treated all of his students and athletes with dignity and respect. He demanded that they do the same.
When JP was a college student, he was a scholar athlete. The year he graduated from college, he was captain of the lacrosse team that won the National Championship in their division. Whether on the field or in the classroom, he gave 150% of himself. No student was ever not worth the effort. Coach JP would make time for anyone who requested it. When it came to school and the classroom, he never discriminated between students and athletes. He was always a teacher first.
In September of 1995, Coach JP had to change his curriculum. He was forced to write new lesson plans. The course work of his life was forced to radically change.
After a series of tests, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a terminal illness. Determined not to allow this destructive, debilitating disease control his life, JP continued to teach and coach until June of 1997.
By then his illness had rendered him to a wheelchair and had severely inhibited his speech. JP was not going to be deterred. He continued to support Hampton Bays High School by going to football and basketball games, cheering on his students and encouraging them any way he could.
If you were to meet him at a game, you would be touched by his penetrating smile. He would always beat you to the first line of conversation and ask you how you and your family were. Meanwhile, under his smile, he was suffering immeasurably and each day physically dying a little more.
By his fifth year, JP had already lived beyond the expected time for an ALS patient. His physical condition was overwhelming. This well built, husky lacrosse all-American was limited to a wheelchair, could no longer talk at all and was unable to manage any bodily functions without assistance. He was left with a little movement in a pinky and a thumb that allowed him to use his voice activated computer to talk. Even eating and drinking was a burden.
In 1999, JP entered hospice care. His doctor's believed he had less than six months to live. However, JP had another calendar in mind. There was a list of things he wanted to celebrate before his "last class." He was determined to be there for his nine year old's first communion that happened two years ago. His youngest sister pushed up her marriage when he became ill so that he could partake, and he did. He was determined to be with her when her first-born was baptized. He was there, that happened last summer in Freetown, Massachusetts.
All through his illness, especially during the last three years while he lived at home in hospice care, JP got up every day and received visitors. He spoke with his own unique use of the alphabet and blinking that he devised with his caregivers and family, so that they could communicate right until the end.
JP was wise beyond his years. People often sought his counsel during the last chapter of his life. He saw his suffering not so much as a burden, but rather as an opportunity. His courage throughout his illness was a source of strength and inspiration for his colleagues and countless students and parents who knew him.
The Friday before he died, he visited with one of his older brothers and his oldest nephew. They spent a few hours together. He was in terrible pain, but did not want them to go. When they were leaving, he spelled out that they were "great company."
That Sunday night, JP prepared the lesson plans for the last classes of his life. He breathing became very shallow. He asked to go to Southampton Hospital. The attending nurse did not think he would make the ambulance ride.
But the teacher was not quite ready to let go. He did not want his two small children to associate their home with his death. Thus, he changed his venue for his last classes. He wanted all of his family to be there. All had to travel a distance to get there. He gave them time.
By Tuesday, all were there with the master teacher, preparing for his final class. His children came in, said "good-bye", "I love you," and hugged their Daddy. He gave a powerful blink with a smile to let them know that he knew. That night, all of his family, his four brothers and sisters (all of whom are teachers), his aging parents and his wonderful wife (a teacher) were all around him.
As every family member took time to sleep and one went home for a few hours, his wife sat at his bedside and held his hand. His breathing was labored and his pain unbearable. As she held her soul mate's hand, he spelt out for the last time "I love you," and they cried.
Early Wednesday morning, his breathing was even more labored and shallow. The family was called to gather around their brother. All were there but the eldest who had to teach a class. He was reached by phone, left class and raced to Southampton Hospital. He got there at 8:30am. At 8:40am, with all his brothers and sisters around him holding hands, JP, the master teacher, breathed his last breath.
The next to last class JP had written in his lesson plan was his wake. He wanted it to be a celebration, and that it was. Hundreds filed in and out that Friday, sharing wonderful stories about him. They sang, they laughed, they cried, they shared stories, but most importantly, they remembered the lessons he taught.
The last class was held on Saturday, April 13th at 2:00pm in a beautiful church in Hampton Bays. It was filled with the old and the young, the educated and the not so educated, the religious and the not so religious. They sang, they prayed, they celebrated, but most of all, they remembered the courageous life of the simple teacher who called them together for this last class.
I was privileged to be among the hundreds who gathered for JP's last class. In his dying, he taught us so much about living. I am honored to have loved him and shared life with him as my youngest brother.
Thank you John for the lesson plans and the lessons learned!
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