Scores of people gathered at Tokeneke School last Wednesday to join Darien Public Schools Superintendent Donald Fiftal for his retirement party. The celebration fell on a special occasion for the man who will be retiring later this month after a 42-year career in education: Gov. Jodi M. Rell declared the day "Don Fiftal Day" in Connecticut; it was also his wife's birthday.
Current and former members of the district's Board of Education spoke, along with elected officials, volunteers and parents. But while there was applause and laughter throughout most of the afternoon event, it wasn't until Fiftal took the podium that several sets of watery eyes could be spotted in the elementary school's atrium.
Fiftal told those in attendance that in order to acknowledge a person's achievements, one must acknowledge the legacy the achievements belong to. We are all a part of something much bigger than ourselves, he said.
For him, his achievements would not have been possible without his parents, he told the audience.
"My father, who came as an immigrant, at 11 years old to this country, and at that time he spoke no English. In his bag of garments were clothing and shoes that were taken off of the dead bodies of war dead during the first World War. They were that poor, and they were that desperate, anxious to leave war-torn Eastern Europe," Fiftal said.
Fiftal's father, Adam, enrolled in school when he arrived to America, where he was placed in a first-grade classroom, and had to sit with his knees up to his chin to fit into his desk, the superintendent said.
"I think I was about 14 or 15 years old when he first told me about his humiliation he felt," Fiftal said. "And that humiliation led him to only stay in school until he was about 14 or 15."
Fiftal told the crowd that he mentioned his late father because "what he couldn't have in the way of education, and the unfulfilled possibilities in him, because he was probably the most brilliant member of our family ... was one inspiration."
Fiftal's second major inspiration as an educator was his mother, Sophia, who he described as a woman from Poland, just trying to make a better life. She began her own department store in 1940, and was the only female business owner in their neighborhood, according to Fiftal.
"I was in high school ... I came home one day, and my mother was in tears, looking at a piece of paper at the kitchen table," he said. He asked his mother why she was crying. She was holding her high school transcript.
"In the Depression, she had to leave high school in the 10th grade, and she was looking at her transcript of straight A's, and she said, `Donald, I could have been the valedictorian of that high school, but I had to leave and I had to work,'" he said. His mother told him she was going to sell her business and go back to school to be a teacher; she held true to both promises, Fiftal said.
Fiftal's mother earned her high school diploma, followed by a bachelor's and master's degree. She began to teach, but was stricken by cancer and died at a young age, he said.
"Her dream was never fulfilled, but she was so proud of the fact that I was an educator. So proud of the fact that she almost made it," he said.
His mother and father, as well as his wife Lois, who is also a teacher, and the other educators present "really are the driven passion in me that I share with me in this room, because every one of you has a story that brought you to Darien, a passion for why your children mean so much, a passion for why this school district means so much.
"It goes beyond just your children as to what we do to contribute to the legacy ... There is something much, much larger than any of us is and it feed the very fabric of who we are as human beings, and it's that, I guess, that I would like this afternoon to represent," he said.