Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Past Presents

Last night was Shelton High’s Scholarship and Awards Ceremony, where my stepdaughter, Julianna, received a nice award from the teacher’s union.  I went, but as proud as I was of her, it wasn’t something I was looking forward to doing.  As I told my 4-year old son earlier in the day when he asked why he couldn’t go, there’s nothing fun about sitting still for two hours and clapping until you get calluses.  

But, as it turned out, it was sort of fun.  I enjoyed hearing the kids whooping and hollering for their friends and watching them playfully interact with their administrators.  I got a kick out of seeing kids I had last seen as members of Julianna’s Girl Scout troop or soccer team all grown up and ready to graduate.  And speaking of grown-ups, I appreciated the chance to catch up with now literally old friends who were there to support their children. Strange as it sounds, even though I know I’m getting older, the people I haven’t seen in the 20 years since graduating high school exist in a sort of time capsule in my mind, so when I see that they too have thinner hairlines and thicker waist lines, it always takes me by surprise.

Even more surprising was I how emotional I was. From the moment I sat down, there was a lump in my throat.  I went there expecting to be bored to tears, but by the time we got through the student-led versions of the Pledge of Allegiance and Star-Spangled Banner, my eyes were welling up for a different reason.  Of course, I couldn’t let anyone know I was apparently getting my period  - especially with my wife’s ex-husband sitting right next to me  - so I choked back the tears the best I could, while trying to figure out where the hell they were coming from! Not that I’m embarrassed by emotions, mind you. I have no problem crying in public when there’s a REASON for crying, like at a funeral. Or a Mets game. But this was not an emotional event. Maybe if I was projecting down the road to Julianna’s future, or regretting my own high school experience, that would explain it. But I wasn’t. I was just sitting there, listening to the speaker read the requirements for each award and then clapping as he named each recipient.  Not exactly the type of stuff that tugs at one’s heartstrings.

But tug it did. It wasn’t until about midway through the ceremony that I figured out what it was pulling from me.

Each award had a sponsor, such as the Drama Club, P.T.A., and The Historical Society. There were some from local businesses and dignitaries, former teachers and administrators, and veteran’s groups and senior centers. And then there were those from individuals, mostly in honor of people who had passed away. Many of whom I had known.

I won’t go into them all, but there was the Joseph D’Agostino Jr. Memorial Award, given in honor of a former classmate who had died in a terrible car accident when he was only 23. There was the Mary Ellen Hames Dellacato Memorial Scholarship Award, given in memory of a girl who died much too young from Lupus. And there were two Neil Craig Heilweil Memorial Awards that honored a friend of mine who died just weeks before graduation from some crazy form of meningitis.

These three people represented the broad spectrum of high school life. Joe was the tough guy/cool kid, Mary Ellen the pretty and popular cheerleader, and Neil was…well, Neil was Neil! He occupied a clique all of his own, but people gravitated toward him. The illegal scavenger hunt he organized is the stuff of legend and is still talked about over 20 years later. And thanks to these awards and scholarships, strangers are now talking about them and benefitting from their all too short lives.

So I guess while my brain was busy paying attention to the “action” on stage, my heart was quietly aching back to the past. The sight of all those bright and beautiful young people smiling in the shadows of those who came (and left) before them was blurring my vision with tears. The thought that Joe and Neil have been dead longer than they were alive was putting that lump in my throat. But the hope and excitement and friendship and zest for life exhibited by all the teens in the room balanced it all out – but made it even harder to see and swallow.

 As the kids were exiting the auditorium, I made a point to track down the young man who won one of the Neil Heilweil awards. I grasped his shoulder and managed say, “Congratulations. I went to this school with Neil. He was a great guy…” before I got choked up. He thanked me, said a few polite words, and then rejoined his friends. But had I been able to keep it together, I would have commended him for his very Neil-like move on stage. You see, for the first 30 or so awards that were handed out, the recipients accepted their envelopes and shook the hand of the Dean of Students and then strode right past the half-dozen dignitaries sitting on stage. But when this young man went up to get his Neil Heilweil award, he took the time to shake EVERY hand on stage. And the BEAUTIFUL part of it was, for the rest of the night, all the other winners followed suit and did the same thing. 

Without even trying, this young man found the perfect way to honor the memory of another young man he had never met.  Other than organizing that infamous scavenger hunt, Neil was not someone I would consider a Leader, but he had many followers and admirers. And still does to this day.

So even though I entered that auditorium prepared to be bored, and spent most of the evening battling my emotions, I managed to leave feeling good, as I could tell that this group of kids had a LOT in common with the namesakes of their awards. 

Life is short, but life goes on….


  1. There are a lot of those in our town too, and I noticed that many of those awards recognize particular traits or talents shared by the honoree and the recipient of the award. I bet it brings those families great comfort to see those qualities they loved in their lost family member living on in the next generation. What a gift for you to find again what made your friend so special to you.

  2. Nicely written, Mike. You've brought a tear to my eyes as well!

  3. Mike, this is beautiful- so well said and so powerful!
    Lorraine Williams

  4. I am Neil Heilweil's stepmom and I can't tell you how much you words mean to me and his dad. Neil was an incredible young man. He passed away on June 11th...our other son's first birthday. You have moved me to tears and the fact you remember him so vividly keeps him alive for not just us...but obviously for you and others. Than you Mike for your beautiful words and thoughts. It means the world to his dad, me and his siblings Madelyn, Jaclyn, and Jason. God Bless you. Susan Heilweil

    1. So glad this found it's way to you! Neil was definitely one of a kind. And even though I only played a bit part in the large cast of characters he had as friends, he was a BIG part of my high school experience.

    2. Neil was one of a kind! I printed your blog for his dad (Larry) to read. Needless to say we both needed a lot of Kleenex! I teach in Bpt. and one of my co-workers sent me you link. I don't know how she found it. Her name is Jen Sciarrapa. I'm so glad your words reached her so she could reach. Bless you and your family. Sue Heilwei

  5. I've had sentimental episodes not unlike this lately myself. Midlife can be a bitch.

  6. My big brother was Neil and I happened upon your entry. Although I was small, he was my hero and I'm so proud to see how much he touched your life and I'm sure the lives of others.