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A Life: Richard C. Hatch, 1925 – 2014; 'He Was Just a Sweet Man to Everyone'

Richard Hatch in a Fall 2013 family photograph.

Richard Hatch in a Fall 2013 family photograph.

Norwich — For decades, the first person students saw when walking to Marion Cross School was Dick Hatch, who knew each child by name, called some by pet names such as “chickadee” and delivered high-fives as he ushered them safely through the crosswalk on Church Street.

Known at school as Mr. Hatch, he worked as the custodian and crossing guard at Marion Cross for more than 30 years. He retired as custodian in 1993, but continued working as the crossing guard for five more years. And while he hasn’t cleaned the halls of Norwich’s elementary school in more than two decades, his memory is still etched in the minds of many teachers and former students.

Hatch died in February at 88, and his wake was filled with the faces of family and friends, but also teachers and students from his days at Marion Cross. One of those students was Libby Webster, 32, of Danville, Vt.

Webster was in the second grade when her family moved to Norwich, and her classroom was across from Hatch’s custodian office, which was only a tiny room with cleaning supplies. Students were always stopping outside Hatch’s office to say hello, or running into him in the hall, where he would share a joke or gently chase students with a vacuum. Teachers always knew when he was coming because his large set of keys would jingle off his belt buckle.

He was always smiling and was “dependably positive,” former Principal Milton Frye said.

“To me, moving to any new place when you’re that young is tough,” Webster said, “but to have someone like that who is so kind and so happy, it seems so silly to think that the custodian was such an important part of moving to Norwich, but it really was. He was just a sweet man to everyone. You had to love him.”

When Webster went on to ninth grade, her English teacher assigned each student to write a speech about someone they admired. After one of Webster’s classmates read his speech aloud about Mr. Hatch, the English teacher told the class, “I don’t know who this Mr. Hatch is, but someone should tell him that at least one person writes their hero speech about him every year.”

Besides being a cheerful presence, Hatch was also a hard worker. He never tried to avoid the repetitive nature of many of his duties, and when teachers asked for a favor, he’d say, “OK, OK, right away.” He didn’t need to be told to rake the leaves and was game to climb on the roof to fetch a ball that went astray at recess.

He had a way about him that made students and teachers feel good and important, Frye said.

“He had this wonderful way of connecting with the students,” Frye said. “Not in any deep way, but someone they really looked forward to seeing when they saw him in the hall.”

One year, students and teachers showed their appreciation for Hatch through an assembly in which Hatch was the star, and each class thanked him in some way. Wendy Thompson’s third grade class made a trophy of sorts using a bucket, a broom and a mop all painted gold.

Another year, third grade teacher Cam Cross wrote a “Thank You Song” to thank administrators for their hard work at a time when the school was going through an elaborate renovation that included the line, “Thanks, Mr. Hatch, what a peach of a guy.”

Hatch also had a vast license plate collection that included plates from every state, every Canadian province and many European plates. The plates still line wooden boards in the basement of his home. His grandchildren would gather license plates for him while they were on vacation, and Cross said he would give his old license plates to Hatch or look for plates at yard sales that he could give to Hatch.

There are still colorful hand-made cards from students hanging in Hatch’s kitchen, some of which thank Hatch for bringing license plates to school.

Hatch had a strong connection to the area, being born in Fairlee and growing up in Thetford and attending a one-room school house in the Stevens District in Thetford.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in World War II and served with the military police and the Corps of Engineers from 1943 to 1946. He spent time in Germany, France and the Philippines, and when the war was over, he had the job of going into the mountains in the Philippines and notifying Japanese soldiers, who were entrenched in caves, that the war was over.

It was a frightening job because the Japanese were prepared to fight and they came at Hatch and his colleagues with swords. He lost one of his best friends in that encounter, according to Hatch’s sons, who described his military service.

When he came back from the war, he married Carolyn, whom he had met before he was drafted. The couple had two children, William and Richard, and they bought a modest yellow house off Route 5 in Norwich in 1954.

Acquiring the job at Marion Cross School was important to Hatch because he had previously been laid off from Cone-Blanchard in Windsor in 1959. Hatch had to sell his new ’59 Chevy and the family almost lost its home. He soon was hired and did short stints at Miller Construction and Twin State Fruit Co., but the job at Marion Cross provided security and benefits, his son Richard said.

Besides World War II, Hatch rarely traveled outside New England. The family would travel to the White Mountains and to surrounding states for family vacations, but Hatch rarely showed interest in leaving the Upper Valley.

“He was like an old time Vermonter, this was his home, this is where he lived and he stayed close to it,” William Hatch said.

After his wife passed away in 1990 and after retirement, Hatch found companionship among his neighbors, especially Roger Blake and his wife, Ellen, their two children, Emily and Peta, who considered Hatch an adopted grandfather. Hatch became a regular at their birthday parties and neighborhood gatherings.

Hatch’s house was always open to the Blakes and on Sundays, Hatch would have Roger Blake and maybe another neighbor or two over to his house for pie and tea and to watch Patriots football.

Hatch remained independent until the end of his life, but the companionship of Blake and his family allowed him to live at home until December. Blake would mow Hatch’s lawn or trim his trees and take him to doctors appointments with him, and in return, Hatch would invite Blake, a former selectman in town, out for lunch.

In the last moments of Hatch’s life, Roger Blake was in the hospital room with Hatch at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center as his family said goodbye.

“I was really part of their family. I had taken that on, not as an obligation — he had become a friend,” Blake said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.