Category Archives: Education

Remembering Walt Melillo

To generations of Westporters, Walt Melillo was a beloved elementary school teacher.

I’m one of his former pupils — from 3rd grade, in Burr Farms School. Ever since those long-ago days, he remembered me. And I’ve remembered him.

Walt Melillo died yesterday, at 91. Today I’d like his many friends to remember him, through a 2010 “Woog’s World” column I wrote for the Westport News. If you did not know him, please read about the life of a proud native Westporter — and a wonderful man.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student, at Burr Farms School.

Walt Melillo teaching a Project Concern student in 1972, at Burr Farms School.

Born in 1924, Walt Melillo grew up on Franklin Street in Saugatuck. During the Depression the house – which stills stands — was filled with 25 extended family members. Melillos, Romanos, Reales, Espositos, Carreras – all lived and grew up together.

They grew vegetables in a backyard garden; baked their own bread, and made Prohibition-era wine. Each October, a neighbor butchered a pig. Every family got a part.

Walt attended Saugatuck Elementary School on Bridge Street – where his parents had gone – and then Bedford Junior High (now Kings Highway Elementary) and Staples High School (the current Saugatuck El).

Staples was small. “We knew everyone,” he recalled. “There weren’t a lot of course options, like today. But it was an excellent school.”

He was influenced by legendary teachers like Gladys Mansir (English) and Eli Burton (social studies). He played baseball well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds (in 1941), and football well enough to earn a spot on the Staples Wall of Honor (in 2004).

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Walt Melillo, as a young man.

Right after graduation in 1942, Walt joined the Navy. He was on active duty in the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa campaign. His destroyer escort sailed to the Pacific, patrolling through invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines.

A kamikaze plane crashed into his ship. Melillo was blown from the signal bridge to the forecastle. His unit shot down four Japanese planes, and received a Presidential Unit Citation. Seventy years later, he chokes up recalling those events.

The dropping of 2 atom bombs saved Melillo from participating in the invasion of Japan. His ship survived another hazard: a typhoon in the shark-infested North China Sea.

“I was a lucky sailor,” Melillo said. He appreciates his chance to serve – and to see the world. “I met all kinds of people. Before I enlisted, the furthest from Westport I traveled was New Haven.”

The GI Bill sent Walt to college. He majored in physical education at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a 6th-year from Bridgeport.

In 1951 he was hired as a teacher by the Westport Board of Education. His salary was $2,800 a year — $300 more than usual, thanks to a $100 bonus for each year of military service. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Melillo noted. His first assignment was Saugatuck Elementary School – his alma mater, across the street from where his brother lived.

After 7 years, Melillo moved to the brand new Burr Farms Elementary School. There was tremendous camaraderie between students, staff, parents – even custodians. Principal Lenny Metelits was an ex-Marine; the talented, lively staff included Matt Rudd, Sam Judell, Ed Morrison, Lou Dorsey and Ace Mahakian.  The number of male teachers was extraordinary.

“The parents were just fantastic,” Walt said. “They were so kind to us. They understood that teaching was a tough job for everyone.”

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

Walt Melillo inspired thousands of Westport elementary school students. This is his Burr Farms Class of 1973.

After nearly 2 decades at Burr Farms Melillo moved to Green’s Farms Elementary School, then Long Lots. He retired in 1986, after 35 years in education.

He kept busy, attending  Senior Center functions and playing tennis (he and partner Paul Lane won tournaments in the Over-40 and Over-60 age groups).

But teaching and athletics were only part of Walt’s story. In 1947 he organized Westport’s 1st summer Beach School, at Compo Beach. He was still in college, without a degree, so football coach Frank Dornfeld ran the first year. But Walt soon took over, and for 29 years he and Bedford Junior High instructor Carol Bieling Digisi were in charge of a popular program involving thousands of children.

“It gave me another chance to meet great parents,” he said. “And the entire staff was teachers.”

Two boys in that initial beach school group were Jack and Bill Mitchell. Several years later their parents, Ed and Norma, opened a small men’s clothing store. Walt was the first non-family member  they hired.

Walt stayed there —  working Friday nights and Saturdays – for 13 years.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Bill Mitchell (left) and Walt Melillo.

Walt’s life was full. He and Ann – his wife of 60 years – had 4 children. When they moved to Hogan Trial in 1960, it was the 1st house on the road; now there are 40. As a child, Walt hunted there.

“This is my town,” he noted. “As Paul Newman said, ‘Living in Westport is a privilege.’ I love it here.”

The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Dec. 9 from 4-7 pm at the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Road East. The funeral will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. at Assumption Church, 98 Riverside Avenue. Burial with full military honors immediately following mass. Interment will be private. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, 21 Imperial Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.

Breaking News — John Dodig To Retire As Staples Principal

After 11 years at the helm — and a tenure in which he has left an indelible mark on Staples High School as a caring, compassionate, energetic and enthusiastic leader — principal John Dodig is retiring.

The 70-year-old educator made the announcement a few minutes ago to his staff, and followed up with an email sent to all Staples parents. Dodig wrote:

All good things must come to an end at some point in time. That time now has come for me. I will retire from this wonderful position as principal of Staples High School at the end of the current school year.

John Dodig

John Dodig

I came to Staples 11 years ago thinking that I would remain for only 1 year while the superintendent of schools and a committee found a permanent principal.

Several months into the position I realized that this was a community in which I had longed to work, and a high school I wanted to lead for several years. Something intangible about the people I met told me that my message of love and acceptance would be not only accepted, but embraced. What a great reading of a community that turned out to be for me.

All of my travels to over 50 countries and my experiences as a teacher in an urban environment, an assistant principal in an affluent suburb and then, a principal in several other communities, helped me understand who I am, what my beliefs are, and what I believe a public high school should and can be.

I spent a few months at Staples and quickly realized that scholarship was supported by everyone, but what was needed was a leader who was not afraid to use the word “love” out loud when speaking about students. It seemed clear to me that Westport and Staples were where I should live and spend the last part of my professional life. I took a chance by applying for the position, and the Board of Education and superintendent of schools took a chance on hiring me.

John Dodig goes to great lengths to show his love for Staples. A few years ago, golf captain Dylan Murray duct-taped his principal to the wall, for a fundraiser.

John Dodig goes to great lengths to show his love for Staples. A few years ago, golf captain Dylan Murray duct-taped his principal to the wall, for a fundraiser.

In this message, I want to take the opportunity to thank all the parents in Westport who have supported me over the past 11 years; the teachers, school counselors and other support staff who have embraced my feelings about high school students, and the administrators who have shared my vision. This very professional team at Staples has made my vision of high school come true.

My 4 assistant principals are all loving people who understand young men and women. I think what I provided for them was the message that it was OK to use the word “love,” or some other form of the word, when working with teenagers who make mistakes.

Suspending a student for a rules infraction is part of the job. Letting those students know that it is their poor decision and behavior that is being punished, and not the individual, is not something most administrators are able to say. It takes courage and confidence to send that message. These 3 men and 1 woman have both.

Without them working with our students every day over 4 years, guiding them, supporting them, helping them resolve problems and stay focused on what is important in the long term, Staples could not provide the nurturing environment that it does. These assistant principals truly take on the role of parent while our students are in school. I cannot thank them enough.

It has been an absolute joy to lead this high school these past 11 years. It is the capstone of my career and something I will never forget.

John Dodig -- principal and proud Staples supporter.

John Dodig — principal and proud Staples supporter.

I was interviewed on television earlier this year about my career, and was asked if there was a teacher who influenced me in a positive way. I immediately said that Mr. Wilner, my 4th and 5th grade teacher in Queens, NY was that person. It wasn’t what he taught us, but the connection he made with all of us that was so powerful. He liked me and I liked him. I’m sure every student in that class would say the same thing.

That connection he made with me has been my guide for the past 60 years. At the end of the interview I said that I hope that I will be someone’s Mr. Wilner. I
hope that many years from now, some Staples grad will look back and say that I helped her or him in a positive way.

Thank you for your support.

John Dodig will join James Calkins in history as one of Staples’ transformational principals. Both used the word “love” with pride. In the turbulent 1960s — while other high schools imploded — Calkins steered Staples with strength and resolve.

In the 2000s — an era filled with enormous pressures, high student stress, and the insane demands of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core — Dodig kept Staples’ very high academic, artistic and athletic standards, while transforming it into a school that students genuinely love.

Teenagers feel safe and accepted at Staples. They know they are nurtured and cared for there. And they thrive.

That will be John Dodig’s greatest legacy of all.

Stop & Shop’s 100 Years = STG’s $1,000

To celebrate their 100th year in business, Stop & Shop asked their 200 store managers to solicit ideas for local worthy organizations.

Managers got feedback from employees. Each store then selected 1 charity or group.

Of the 200 suggestions, 100 were selected. Westport’s Stop & Shop made the cut — and Staples Tuition Grants is now $1,000 richer.

Stop and ShopPat Mooney — pictured at right with store manager David Faccin and STG president Rob Morrison — is a 23-year Westport resident. A single mother, she works hard to stay in Westport to send her 2 daughters through local schools.

She knew that without lots of help, college was out of reach.

Thanks to 4 years of aid from STG, Caitlin graduated from Wheelock College. She’s now teaching elementary school in Boston.

Her sister Brittainie graduated from Staples in 2011. She too received Tuition Grants help, and she too is interested in the field of education.

Pat — who says that her daughters would never be where they are now without STG — submitted the organization’s name to Stop & Shop.

Thanks, Pat. And happy 100th anniversary, Stop & Shop!

(For more information on STG, click on www.StaplesTuitionGrants.org)

Westport: Low Fences, Communal Spirit, Personal Pizzas

On Thursday night 9 teenagers left Westport, for a plane back to Singapore. They were different people than when they’d arrived, just 2 weeks earlier.

The group — part of the 2nd annual group to visit from the elite Hwa Chong Institute — lived with Staples students, attended classes, and visited New York City and Yale.

But — as is so often the case with programs like this — the little things meant the most.

The guests shared their impressions on a Facebook page called “Staples High Immersion 2014.” Among their observations:

In Singapore, students are “generally meek in front of their teachers.” Here, school relationships are very relaxed.  As a result, discussions are lively, resulting in “effective learning.” And without uniforms, Westport students “are free to express their personal identity.”

Staples’ electives were eye-opening. Radio, television, film-making, music, pottery, digital darkroom, drawing, painting, sculpturing, jewelry making, woodworking — plus the opportunity to choose another language, like French, Spanish or Mandarin — was intriguing.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

But that was nothing compared to extracurricular activities. The Singapore teenagers were impressed that Inklings, the school newspaper, gives students the opportunity to write on topics that interest them, from fashion to anti-Semitism.

The visitors were wowed by Staples Players’ “Hello, Dolly!” — let’s hope they don’t think that every high school puts on shows like that — and were amazed too at the importance that Wrecker sports hold for many students.

“Such is a mark of an obviously holistic education,” one youngster wrote. “Academics, while important, do not rob students of their time to engage in something they want to do and develop.

“Crudely speaking,” he added, “Staples makes Singaporean schools look like factories.”

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

The strong, close bonds of families in Westport neighborhoods impressed the Singapore teens. One said that “communal spirit” was lacking in his country.

And, he added, Westport homes do not have “high fences or walls to form a barricade around their properties,” as he was used to. (Another was surprised that Americans don’t mind living near cemeteries. That would never happen back home.)

Life here, one boy said, is less hectic than in Singapore. His father works overseas; his mother gets home from work after he is asleep, and he has not had a home-cooked meal since he was 11. Both host parents here cook.

He called it “heartwarming” to see that Westport families spend “sufficient time to interact and understand each and every family member.” Singapore youngsters “crave” that, he said.

One of his classmates remarked on the ease with which “numerous visitors” dropped in at his host family’s house.

It doesn't get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

It doesn’t get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

A host family took their guest to a local restaurant. A pizza that would be a meal for 2 or 3 people back home was his alone. At a supermarket, the only Coke he could find was 4.5 liters. On field trips, he and his classmates could not finish all the food they were served.

One Facebook post called Westport “stunning.” The “serene and quiet” autumn setting was a sharp contrast to “noisy and high energy” Singapore.

New York, meanwhile, seemed “straight out of a movie.” It had a “slight fairy-tale feel to it” — despite the “innumerable homeless people.”

“I am indeed glad I was honoured with the opportunity to come here,” a student wrote. “I feel accomplished and less ignorant” for having experienced Western culture.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family's house.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family’s house.

And, of course, nearly everyone asked the Singaporeans — “frantically,” one said — if they are allowed to chew gum.

“That is one thing we don’t really regard as something big, but apparently in other countries it appears really strange,” he noted.

Which is why all of us should travel. And when we do, we should wander out of our comfort zones. There are many lessons to be learned. As our Singapore guests have shown us, not all take place in school.

The Wheels On The Bus…

First Selectman Jim Marpe and the Board of Education have created a joint Bus Parking Task Force.

Eight high-powered members will explore a variety of school bus parking arrangements. They’ll see if a public or privately owned site can bring down the cost of parking those 8 trillion Dattco buses.

Let’s hope they succeed. The current spot — behind the gas station opposite Playhouse Square — creates a traffic nightmare. (And I’d say that even if I didn’t live in the condos across the street.)

But if the task force really wants to solve a transportation problem, how about attacking the most pressing school bus issue in town:

The fact that every kid in town has a personal bus stop. Even if he or she lives 3 !@#$%^& feet away from another one.

Pretty soon, each kid will get his or her own personal bus.

Pretty soon, each kid will get his or her own personal bus.

 

Remembering Vivien Testa

Vivien Testa died 2 months ago. Until today, there has been no public notice of her death.

That’s astonishing. Vivien Testa was 102 years old. For decades, she was a legend in Westport. She was a superb art teacher, townwide director of art, and a mentor to countless students and teachers.

In 1936 she began teaching art at Bedford Junior High School (now King’s Highway Elementary).

She moved to Staples (now Saugatuck Elementary) in 1948.

Vivien Testa

Ten years after that, she was part of the new high school campus on North Avenue.  (In fact — having minored in architecture — she helped design the place. She has an enormous slide collection from that time, which she donated to the Westport Library.)

Vivien Testa chaired the art department through the 1970s.

Several years ago, while writing my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education, I found an interview she recorded for the Westport Historical Society oral history project. Here is an excerpt:

—————————————————–

My family spent summers in Westport, so I knew the town in 1936 when I came to teach art at Bedford Junior High School. It was the Depression, and my father said I was taking a job away from a man who needed one.

In 1936 the school had a place in the life of the community. Teachers knew what they were expected to do and not do. For example, teachers were not supposed to smoke. But the faculty played basketball against the youngsters, and put on plays for them. There was a feeling we were all growing and learning together.

When Mrs. Holden, the arts supervisor, left in 1948, I took over. We had a lovely art room in the building on Riverside Avenue. It was good size, and well lit.  There were 15 to 20 students in a class, and I taught 4 or 5 classes a day. Westport was growing as an arts colony.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

I still carried nearly a full teaching load, but I was given one or two afternoons a week to supervise. There were three townwide directors in art, music and physical education. Those were considered special subjects, and the principals were not trained in them. But the Board of Education members and superintendent really knew teachers. They came into the classroom all the time.

Pop Amundsen was the custodian, and his wife ran the cafeteria. They set the tone for Staples. If they saw youngsters doing anything out of line, they let them know. Students respected them just as much as the principal.

Everything was in apple pie order. No one dared mark a desk. We were a small family. Education at that time was a family business. Teachers and students and parents all felt responsible for what was happening. There was no closing eyes to what was going on. Everyone respected what was happening.

We got help from a lot of places. The Westport Women’s Club had a $350 art competition, and when Famous Artists School came in they gave scholarships. Al Dorne [a founder of Famous Schools] always helped. He’d produce booklets for new teachers or students.He underwrote hundreds of dollars.

I was involved in the plans for the North Avenue building. I worked with the architects, Sherwood, Mills and Smith. I minored in architecture, so I was able to lay out my ideas about what I wanted to have. It worked nicely for me, except when they cut this, that and the other thing, and we ended up with just a mishmash. That was kind of too bad. But it was still better than you would find in many places.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

There were many bugs in the building that had to be taken care of. A 3rd art room was cut out of the original plan, and a wing in the auditorium was cut. We had to put all the crafts stuff – kilns, etc. – in 2 rooms designed for 2-D stuff. Then when they added Building 9 a few years later, they added a 3-D room, and extended the stage.

Before they did that, a ballet company came to use the stage. The stage had only been planned for lectures and assemblies, not theater – there was no room for stage sets. As you face the stage, there was a brick wall on the right, and a passageway and electric panel on the left. A handsome male dancer ran right into the brick wall. Performers had to dress in the art rooms, too. It was quite a mess.

There was one boys’ and one girls’ bathroom – none for the faculty. I learned a great deal about youth by using that bathroom. But we always took an interest in keeping our building beautiful, because art is beauty.

Veterans Day: The Sequel

Veterans never tire of serving their country — or their community.

Each year, Bedford Middle School marks today by hosting veterans from the Y’s Men. They talk about what they did, why and how they did it, and provide an important link to yesterday for tomorrow’s leaders.

This morning’s event was lively. A number of veterans brought mementos of their service. Their stories were insightful, poignant — and often laced with a bit of humor.

Among the attendees were the 2 most recent grand marshals of Westport’s Memorial Day parade: Leonard Everett Fisher (left, below), and Bob Satter.

Leonard Everett Fisher and Bob Satter

(Photo/January Stewart)

Both are World War II veterans. Though — except for their uniforms — you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.

Westport Students: BYOD

New York City is finally ending its long ban on cellphones in schools.

At Brien McMahon High School, a student said recently, anyone who brings a laptop to class is considered weird.

Westport, meanwhile, plows ahead with its “Bring Your Own Device” initiative. Beginning next year, students will be required to provide their own technology during the school day.

Technology 1 - NBC News

Students use their own devices — which tie in to classroom technology like Smart Boards. (Photo/NBC News)

According to Inklings, the Staples newspaper — accessible online, of course — the Board of Education heard a BYOD progress report last month.

A PowerPoint presentation (natch) noted that this month, parents will be advised of specifications for “devices that may be purchased.” The months ahead brings parent information sessions, student input and “boot camps” for students and teachers.

Inklings reported that the Westport School District will provide “refurbished devices” for elementary and middle schoolers who are financially unable to purchase their own; Staples students will get new Chromebooks. Funding comes from a $30,000 line item for new technology purchases this year.

Electronic devices don't necessarily lead to isolation. In fact, they can increase collaboration.

Electronic devices don’t necessarily lead to isolation. In fact, they can increase collaboration. (Photo/HerffJones)

According to Inklings, townwide director of technology Natalie Carrignan said that 60% of students already bring their own devices to school.

At Staples, that percentage seems low. Laptops, tablets and cellphones are everywhere. They’re used constantly — often for schoolwork, occasionally not.

Each month, it seems, fewer and fewer students sit at the desktop computers that fill the library and learning centers. And the laptops that teachers can sign out for class use are often slow, unreliable and out of date.

Sure, Staples students use laptops to play games or watch videos. But even in the cafeteria, the amount of schoolwork that gets done is compelling.

Sure, Staples students use laptops to play games or watch videos. But even in the cafeteria, the amount of schoolwork that gets done is compelling. (Photo/www.District196.org)

If you think there should still be a debate about using technological devices in school, you might have argued a century ago that cars may not be the best replacement for horses.

Westport students live their lives online. So do most teachers.

Our school district’s job is to prepare young people for life through the end of this century. Administrators and the Board of Ed are figuring out how to harness technology, to best serve education in the sciences, humanities and arts. They recognize reality in many forms (including financial).

But if you’d like to offer your own insights, click “Comments.” On whatever electronic device you’re using right now.

Tyler Paul: Art For All

It was the mid-1990s. Tyler Paul is not sure of the year, or his grade. But 2 decades later, he vividly recalls a day at Long Lots Elementary School.

A group of actors and puppeteers arrived for a “very special school assembly.” The troupe used original skits and puppets to talk about bullying.

Tyler remembers other special assemblies over the years, too: an original presentation of Maya Angelou’s works. A presentation on Chinese traditions. And many more.

Tyler Paul

Tyler Paul

Those events were only part of Westport’s long history of fostering and encouraging an arts environment. Between the Westport Country Playhouse, the PTA’s Cultural Arts Committee and the superb drama departments at Staples and the 2 middle schools, arts have been integrated into the curriculum at nearly every level.

Today, Tyler is executive director of the Northeast Children’s Theatre Company. Earlier this year he was contacted by a member of the Cultural Arts Committee. They wanted to bring his professional theatrical programming for young audiences into the elementary schools.

Coincidentally, NCTC had just commissioned and premiered a new musical. They were looking for a partner to pilot it in schools. With Julia Gannon and Diana Sussman, they brought “Jack and the Giant” to all 5 Westport elementary schools in March.

The musical teaches youngsters about perseverance, heroism, courage a self-identity. It fits in well with the curriculum core standards. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Looking back on his own in-school and after-school theater arts enrichment here, Tyler calls it a “full circle moment.” No other town that he knows of boasts the in-school enrichment program that Westport does. That early exposure to the arts, he believes, is a large reason he now works full-time in that field.

Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

Of course, every organization needs funds. On Saturday, October 25 (8 p.m., StageOne Theater in Fairfield), NCTC sponsors its 2nd annual “Broadway in Connecticut” gala. The evening of music is hosted by the Tony Award-nominated songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Yes, Justin is Tyler’s brother. He too has benefited greatly from Westport’s arts environment.

The concert includes performances by Broadway stars from “Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Bridges of Madison County” and “Next to Normal,” too. A live auction includes house seats to “If/Then,” followed by a backstage tour.

Proceeds from the gala benefit artistic programming for school audiences — and educational initiatives for underserved children in disadvantaged communities.

So that youngsters everywhere in the region — not just in Westport — can have the same awe-inspiring experience Tyler Paul had, back when he sat in his own very special school assembly.

(For tickets — which are limited — and more information, visit www.nctcompany.org/gala.)

A young girl in Bridgeport is inspired by NCTE's outreach program. Tyler Paul was inspired by the arts too, 20 years ago.

A young girl in Bridgeport is inspired by NCTC’s outreach program. Tyler Paul was inspired by the arts too, 20 years ago.

John Dodig Lauded By Lambda

Fifteen years ago, Fairfield High School principal John Dodig made a life-changing decision.

“I decided I’d no longer hide who I am,” he says. “At the same time, I knew I wanted to be known not as ‘the gay principal,’ but as a principal who cares about all kids, and happens to be gay.”

That decision, he says, allowed him to create a school environment in which he hopes every student feels comfortable in his or her own skin. “Many — if not most — people carry scars from high school or middle school forever,” Dodig says. “I don’t think that has to be the case.”

John Dodig

John Dodig

Dodig retired from Fairfield High in 2003. Soon, he was named interim principal of Staples. He liked the staff, students, parents and Westport community so much, he applied for the permanent position. The Board of Education did not interview anyone else.

In 11 years at the helm, Dodig has directed much of his attention to what he calls “the affective domain.” Staples has always had high academic standards. Concentrating on the social and emotional aspects components of the school, he says, allows everyone to create an environment in which all teenagers feel welcome. And that, he notes, helps them perform at their best academically.

Dodig’s work has drawn praise from fellow administrators, staff members, students and parents. Now it’s gotten the attention of Lambda Legal. On Sunday, October 26 (12 p.m., Mitchells of Westport), the human rights organization’s Connecticut chapter will honor the principal for his impact on thousands of students, over his 45-year career as an educator.

“John leads by example and strength of character,” says Staples graduate Adam Stolpen, who nominated Dodig for the award.

At Staples, Dodig has created a warm, supportive environment in many ways. At nearly every faculty meeting, he stresses the importance that teaching “chemistry, US history or whatever” is not all that matters. “Each of us has to support, care and love everyone else,” he says.

John Dodig -- principal and proud Staples supporter.

John Dodig — principal and proud Staples supporter.

He is a ubiquitous presence, standing in the front hallway as students begin the day and in the cafeteria during the 3 lunch waves. He knows most students by name. He congratulates them on their athletic, artistic, academic or extracurricular achievements. They, in turn, approach him to mention an interesting class discussion, suggest a possible improvement in school life, or congratulate him on his recent marriage.

For a school of 1900 students, the incidence of name-calling is low. Many students “have bought into the message that in this high school, you should be free to be who you are,” Dodig says.

Not all do, of course. But those who don’t “know that it’s socially inappropriate to put someone down for who they are.

“Our culture  is visible every moment school is in session,” Dodig says. “It starts at the top. If a principal is mean or nasty, that trickles down to everyone. If the message is to help kids navigate high school with as few scars as possible, that trickles down too.”

At graduation, many students ask to pose for photos with their principal. In 2013, John Dodig stood with departing senior August Laska.

At graduation, many students ask to pose for photos with their principal. In 2013, John Dodig stood with departing senior August Laska.

Dodig is proud of the many small ways his message trickles down. On the 1st day of school this year, for example, he addressed all 4 classes separately about Staples’ culture. He followed with an email to parents, suggesting they talk with their kids to see how that message was received.

One parent responded with a story about her sophomore son. He didn’t think he could make it to the end of his cross country run, but an upperclassman stopped, asked what was wrong, and finished the course with him.

The next day, the mother said, her son saw a freshman in the same situation. This time the sophomore was the one who stopped, talked, and ran with his teammate to the end.

Dodig is proud too of the many emails he’s received from parents, saying that at Staples their child felt empowered to come out as gay.

Lambda LegalThat makes his Lambda Legal award particularly important. The decision he made 15 years ago has paid off in countless ways, for thousands of students. Dodig has impacted them, and they in turn have impacted many others.

Even those who — unlike everyone at Staples — have no idea who John Dodig is, and what he stands for.

(Click on the Lambda Legal website for tickets to Dodig’s award ceremony.)