Jim Kenyon: Norwich Honors Longtime Coach, Teacher John Girard

  • Marion Cross science teacher John Girard charts the results of an experiment as his students listen in Norwich, Vt., on Feb. 14, 2012. Girard started teaching at the school in 1966. (Valley News — James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

  • Hanover coach John Girard speaks with his team during a timeout in Hanover, N.H., on Dec. 10, 1991. (Valley News - Medora Hebert) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

  • John Girard started teaching at Marion Cross school in Norwich in 1966. Girard teaches sixth grade science on Tuesday, February 14, 2012. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. jpatterson@vnews.com photo@vnews.com James M. Patterson

Published: 8/23/2018 12:13:58 AM
Modified: 8/23/2018 12:13:57 AM

John Girard would have turned 80 on his next birthday. Still, Girard, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident earlier this month, died too young.

After retiring (at age 73) from nearly a half-century of teaching at Norwich’s Marion Cross School, Girard still was contributing to his adopted hometown in more ways than many realized.

“He didn’t want any kind of attention,” said Rob Snyder, a Norwich builder who coached a youth baseball team with Girard this spring. “He just quietly did his thing.”

That meant Girard driving his Chevy Impala to the far edges of town to pick up kids who didn’t have rides to baseball practice because their parents couldn’t get off work. He made sure they got home, too.

“He’d drive all over the place just to make sure a kid wouldn’t miss out,” Norwich Recreation Director Jill Kearney Niles said.

If Kearney Niles needed a referee for a youth soccer match in a pinch, she just picked up the phone. “John was always willing to step in where he was needed most,” she said.

During basketball season, Girard often was the first person in Marion Cross School’s Girard Gymnasium (yes, it’s named after him) on Saturday mornings.

If not coaching, Girard would be on the court with a whistle. The youth games he officiated tended to last a bit longer. In Girard’s way of thinking, stopping a game to explain a moving screen to a fifth-grader was time well spent.

“He was one of a kind,” said Kearney Niles, the town’s recreation director for 25 years. “He’s really an irreplaceable saint.”

Talking with folks in Norwich this week, I got the sense that people have yet to grasp — I know that I haven’t — what Norwich is going to be like without Mr. G, as he was known to the more than 2,000 kids he taught or coached over the years.

His death came as a shock.

On the afternoon of Aug. 4, a Saturday, Girard had headed out — like he did a few times a week — from his home on Jones Circle for a ride of 10 miles or so on his aging 10-speed Trek.

He told his wife, Cathy, that he’d be home in time to watch the start of the Red Sox game at 4 p.m. No way he’d miss a pitch of his beloved Sox against their archenemy, the New York Yankees.

Cathy checked her watch. From experience, she knew the ride north along Route 5 took her husband 1 hour and 15 minutes. When he hadn’t returned in the allotted time, she gave him another 10 minutes — just in case he had stopped for a water break — before getting in the car to look for him.

No luck.

A passer-by already had discovered Girard, who was wearing a helmet, on a flat stretch of Route 5, a few miles from home. An ambulance was called.

Motorists who had come upon the scene told Norwich police that it appeared Girard’s bicycle had slipped on a patch of wet pavement, which caused him to fall. When Norwich police arrived, Girard was still on the ground, but was “conscious and alert,” according to the officer’s report.

Cathy Girard reached Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center shortly after the ambulance. She rushed inside to see her husband, who remained conscious. A few minutes later, however, he lapsed into a coma.

Tests showed that he had sustained a traumatic brain injury. Doctors told his family that it could have been the result of his fall or he could have suffered a sudden medical emergency — a brain hemorrhage, perhaps — that preceded the fall.

Girard, who never regained consciousness, died on Aug. 12.

Girard grew up outside of Boston in working-class Somerville, Mass., where his parents owned a neighborhood bakery in Ball Square. As a kid, John pitched in at the bakery, but his dad wanted him to “explore something else,” Cathy Girard said.

He was getting ready to leave for the Peace Corps when his father became ill and he was needed at the bakery. He kept his promise to his parents, though, graduating from Boston University and later earning a master’s degree.

Cathy, who came from the other side of Somerville, met her future husband through a Catholic youth group. “We had lots in common,” she said. “We had the same interests in sports and music. We came from similar blue-collar backgrounds.”

After starting his teaching career in Seabrook, N.H., Girard was hired in 1966 to teach mathematics and science at Norwich’s elementary school.

After a couple of years, the couple bought a small house on Jones Circle, not far from the school. Her husband “wanted to walk to work and carry a lunch,” she said.

He’d get to school before 7 a.m. and rarely leave before 5 p.m. Students who needed extra help were welcome in his classroom before the school day started. In the summer, he’d meet students at the school for tutoring sessions. Parents who certainly could afford it would offer to pay. Girard wouldn’t take a dime.

“He was never off the clock,” said Dan Fraser, who was one of Girard’s students in the 1970s and later worked as an education assistant at Marion Cross. “He’d give up his lunch period to work with a student.”

Fraser, who now runs Dan & Whit’s, his family’s general store in Norwich, had Girard for science in fifth and sixth grade. “He taught us things that you usually didn’t get in elementary school,” Fraser said. “He taught us some chemistry and physics. He had us doing experiments.”

Mostly, students learned by doing in Girard’s classroom. They worked with microscopes and built truss bridges. They discovered the magic of chemical reactions when different liquids are mixed together. “There was a lot of bubbling and fizzing going on,” Fraser recalled. “It was always hands-on.”

The back driveway to Marion Cross, which leads to the gym and where buses drop off and pick up students, is named Girard Way for a reason.

Afternoon bus duty — making sure the right students get on the right bus at the end of the school day — is not something that many teachers volunteer for. Girard, however, didn’t mind.

In fact, he looked forward to it. In his retirement, he continued the duty, walking over to the school in all sorts of weather to send kids on their way. It was a chance to stay connected with kids, to learn who might need a ride to the next practice or game.

In 2012, a few months before he retired from teaching, the Norwich Women’s Club presented Girard with its inaugural Citizen of the Year award. In a Valley News story, Girard talked about when he arrived in Norwich in 1966. He “somehow got a key to Tracy Hall” and started a basketball program. Soccer followed.

In the early 1970s, he was instrumental in starting Norwich’s summer sports camp. Along with being a godsend for working parents (I recall it costing about $25 a week in the early 2000s, when my kids were in elementary school), it was — and still is — a chance for kids just to be kids.

Girard had them playing dodgeball and capture the flag on the town’s green and at Huntley Meadow. In his driveway, he set up a couple of basketball hoops that he lowered so kids could feel what it was like to dunk.

When they played soccer or kickball, teams were always coed. “It was mixed from the get-go,” said his daughter Lauren Girard Adams, who had her dad as a teacher and a coach. “He didn’t separate the boys from the girls. Everyone had the same opportunity.”

The Girards, who were married for 53 years, raised two girls and two boys, but that wasn’t the only reason the family owned a station wagon, recalled their oldest, John Jr. His father coached Norwich’s Babe Ruth baseball teams in the summer, and “you could pack 12 kids in a station wagon and drive to Claremont for a doubleheader on a Sunday,” he said.

“The games were seven innings, and my dad’s rule was that every kid played at least three. It didn’t matter how good you were. Everyone knew they weren’t going to sit on the bench the entire game,” he said.

His father officiated high school basketball and adult league basketball games to “help make ends meet,” John Jr. said. He also coached the Hanover High School boys basketball team for a while in the 1990s.

But in retirement, he devoted his time to working with Norwich’s elementary school-age kids. Snyder, the Norwich builder who coached fifth- and sixth-grade baseball with Girard this spring, acknowledges that in the beginning he wasn’t sure it would be a good match.

“John was old-school and pretty set in his ways,” Snyder told me.

By the end of the season, however, they’d already made plans to coach again together next spring. Snyder marveled at Girard’s energy and devotion. On Saturday mornings, other coaches and parents would arrive at Girard Field to rake the base paths and put down chalk lines before games.

“John would have half the work done before we got there,” Snyder said. ” I don’t know where he got the battery power.”

After Girard’s sudden death, parents in Norwich began phoning, emailing and texting their adult children scattered across the globe with the news.

“He had so much excitement (for) teaching and made us feel so special,” Augusta Niles Kelman, who lives in the Boston area, wrote back to her stepmother, recreation director Kearney Niles. “There were generations of kids whom he inspired well beyond his classroom. He really was an amazing teacher and person.”

Derek Rozycki, who is in his 40s and works for an investment company in the United Arab Emirates, still remembers playing for Girard.

“The focus was always on having fun,” said Rozycki, who was home visiting his father, Alan, last week. “He had an incredible impact on so many generations of kids in this community.”

In recent days, Rozycki exchanged text messages with Scott Nichols, who grew up in Lyme but recalls playing against Girard’s Norwich teams. “He was such a caring guy. He coached like all kids were his own.”

On Saturday, Girard’s funeral will be held at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover, starting at 10:30 a.m. Later in the day, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., a picnic and “celebration of John’s extraordinary life” is scheduled at Girard Field on Turnpike Road. A youth baseball game also is planned.

In lieu of flowers, Girard’s family is asking donations be sent to the Norwich Recreation Department, which has set up a “John Girard Fund.” Dan & Whit’s General Store is contributing its ice cream stand’s proceeds on Saturday to the fund. A Norwich couple, who asked to remain anonymous, is matching the amount that Dan and Whit’s raises dollar for dollar.

Girard’s family hopes some of the money can go toward providing rides to kids who can’t get to practices and games. “That was important to him,” Cathy Girard told me. “He wanted every kid to have the same opportunity.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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