Robert Aquilina drove 428 miles to visit the elementary school where his now-lifelong interest in history was sparked between 1958 and 1964.
Jeff Mucciarelli and Duane Paddock, boyhood pals since third grade in the 1970s, have the school to thank for their business partnership today.
And Sue Dewey can make the rare claim of having attended class and taught in the same classroom.
They and more than 300 other alumni and friends of Thomas Jefferson Elementary in the Town of Tonawanda returned Tuesday to say a proper farewell to the school, which will dismiss its final classes on June 18.
Aquilina can still rattle off the names of his history teachers – Mrs. Booker in fifth grade, Mrs. Williams in sixth grade.
“They encouraged me to study history,” said Aquilina, 61, of Annandale, Va., who spent 31 years as a historian for the U.S. Marine Corps. “They relayed to me the importance of history, and they made it fun.” His wife, Stella, encouraged him to attend Tuesday’s open house so he drove up and threw on a blue and white Jefferson baseball shirt given to him by his sister, Lynn, and brother, Jerry, who are also Jefferson alumni.
Paddock, owner of Paddock Chevrolet in Kenmore, and Mucciarelli, owner of Gabe’s Collision, maintained their friendship after leaving Jefferson in 1976 and graduating together from Kenmore East High School. The two men dressed now in well-cut business suits popped in and out of classrooms recalling trips to the principal’s office and front steps that loomed much larger when they were preteens. “If it wasn’t for our connection at this school and going to third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade and making that bond then, we never would be where we are today,” said Paddock who, with Mucciarelli, sponsored the open house and an upcoming field day for current students on June 17.
There was an outflow of emotion for the brief two hours in the form of hugs, laughs and a few tears, some shed by Dewey, who attended Jefferson from 1957 to 1960 and returned to teach from 1986 to 2004. Sitting at her old desk in Room 212 brought tears as she left a handwritten note for the room’s current teacher, Mary Bieger: “I feel as if I left part of my soul in this room.”
Indeed, Dewey was pleased to see that part of her teaching legacy continues at Jefferson today in a project that involves covering balloons with paper mache and drawing the continents and oceans to teach students about geography.
“I have to tell you there’s probably 300 of those running around Ken-Ton that came from me and who knows how many more.”
The school, on Athens Boulevard just west of Parker Boulevard and south of Sheridan Drive, opened in 1956, closed briefly for three years in the mid-1980s but is slated to close this year due to budget cutbacks. Its 284 pre-K through fifth-grade students will attend either Hoover, Franklin, Lindbergh or Edison Elementary schools in the fall, said Principal Lilyen Mascellino.
“To bring it full circle and end on a positive note by letting our alumni group in was the right thing to do,” she said.
As families enjoyed refreshments in the cafeteria, browsed yearbooks and watched video of old variety shows, they recalled lyrics penned by 2004 alumnus Mark Sledziewski who was signing copies of “Ode to Jefferson” near the front entrance: “Hear us sing out / See us stand tall, / We are one for Jefferson.”