At the high school where I have taught for nearly 30 years, we got a notification early in the day on Monday that one of our former principals had died suddenly in an accident. He was just 51, a little bit younger than me, but he was a giant both in his stature and presence, and also especially the way he conducted himself inside and outside the school. We worked together closely on a lot of stuff, so hearing the news of his passing was a jolt.
C.J. Hebert was our leader for eight years. In 2010 he spread his wings and expanded his horizons and took a job as superintendent in the Cooperstown, NY school district. He just grew, and was ready to grow some more. He was excited, and told me at one of our last meetings that he was thrilled that his new office would not be out of the way, but would be near where the kids were all the time.
It turned out to be a long day to get through. When I got home last night, I read some of the online comments from his colleagues and former students. C.J. was a big outdoorsman. He liked to shoot, hunt, and fish. If he went into the woods unarmed looking for a bear, you’d worry about the bear. When the kids in the National Honor Society would come to him selling our magazine subscription fundraiser, he always opened his checkbook, though he told me with a chuckle that his subscription to Field and Stream was now paid up to 2025. And some of these kids I read about last night he even shepherded through bowhunting classes.
He could be tough, but was always respectful in his professional demeanor. And when you were sitting with him in his office, you could talk to him man-to-man. He always liked hearing what I was up to. He had an easy laugh and though it may be a cliché, there was a twinkle in his eye that told of a deep personal interest in you, genuine good will and a down-to-earth contentedness that just radiated and went unspoken miles.
My current principal made the rounds to see how some of us old dogs were doing with the news. He knew him well too and I know we were all shocked by the loss. My dear friend Mary was his secretary all the time he was here, and even though C.J. left our school 6 years ago, the loss just hits you, like the wall you used to lean on suddenly falling down on you. I can’t imagine what it must be like for his family and his community now.
Later in the day and totally unrelated, I was gently reminded by a friend in the IT department that I should do something with my school email inbox-that it had reclaimed its place as the largest in the school district. (Okay, I admit it, I’m bad. I’m not a hoarder, but I’m not an immediate deleter, either…) At first I felt mildly chastised at being reminded at least twice. But through my friend, the universe dropped me a notice. Maybe not so unrelated, after all.
So I set about it- going back and deleting, one by one, the emails I do not want to keep, and do not wish to archive. Today I was on Day Two of this activity-which in a way is turning out to be some kind of release, an ablution of sorts, as I wind down my career. Staring at the screen and hammering away for all of the spare time that I can afford seems at first like a mindless endeavor, but then it slowly dawns that me that I am processing a loss that I did not ever expect to deal with-and here on Day Two I find the last email from C.J. to me, from June 2010, six years ago.
I save that one.
And I remember that I saved all of the handwritten cards and formal letters that he took the time to write to me, over the years, as a supporter of my work in the classroom and in this school, expressing appreciation for the true meaning of what it is to be an educator- the connecting with other human beings, to foster their development, to watch them grow, with pride. He did not mind chewing a little ass when it needed to be chewed, but that was always a flash and the twinkle always returned.
When he was leaving our school district, a local paper asked him what he would remember from his time here at Hudson Falls High. I did not see the article, but I was told that he held a special place in his heart for the two soldiers-survivors reunions we held while he was at the helm here. We planned it and between C.J. and many, many committed others, we pulled it off, and even made it on the the ABC World News. It touched me that this meant so much to him, but in hindsight, that is what he was all about- providing students with life changing opportunities and fostering their development as human beings.
So, it turns out that for me, across time and space, there is a significant loss here. There are no special words of wisdom, or special comforts that I can present to his wife, his son, his family-only that the universe presented him to so many people in so many different ways, most which you may never even know about- but that in the bigger picture, perhaps the one that we cannot see just yet, there is that glow of contentedness and confidence, that twinkle and the easy laugh, and that unassuming good will towards others that will always inspire, and that we can all aspire to. And that it won’t just go away. Though I have not talked to him in six years, there is a warmth that I can feel enveloping my insides almost physically right now, thinking of him.
And it feels damn good.
I’ll be pecking away at my email inbox again tomorrow. It will take a lot longer, as I have another six years to go-now back to the time when C.J. Hebert was at our helm-and I will probably have to read each one from him, I suspect. And with a twinkle, or something, in my own eye.
Lessons taught; the universe beckons. Godspeed, my good man.
Calling hours and memorial suggestions are below.