By COLIN A. YOUNG Day Staff Writer
Waterford - On the heels of a change to the long-standing policy barring the Board of Education from naming school facilities after people, the town will formally name the high school's field house today after a man who many view as the patriarch of the school's athletics program: Francis X. Sweeney.
"He taught us so much, he respected every student and he knew them all by name," said First Selectman Daniel Steward, who graduated with the Class of 1968. "He taught respect ... he taught you the right way to do things."
As its first athletic director, Sweeney, who died in December 2012 at the age of 86, was integral to the foundation and development of Waterford High's athletic department. For 18 years, he coached basketball at the school, but he coached nearly every sport at the school as well.
"Fran Sweeney has been the face of athletics in Waterford, from an education perspective, for 60 plus years," Steward said. "He did so many different things, but he was truly the originator of the athletic program in Waterford. Every sport that came about, he would have his hand in setting it up for the school."
And though he was an exceptional basketball coach, Steward said, Sweeney knew when to bring in expert help, like hiring Gerry Rousseau, who led the high school's baseball team to five state championships.
"He brought in experts to do the jobs that he probably couldn't manage," Steward said. "He recognized where he could do things and where he couldn't."
During a ceremony between the girls' and boys' basketball games this evening, town officials will unveil a plaque and portrait of Sweeney painted by A. Vonn Hartung, a member of the Class of 1960.
Hartung, along with Steward and former Board of Education member Tom Passaro, spearheaded the effort to name the field house in honor of Sweeney. The Board of Education, which in September changed its policy regarding the naming of facilities, unanimously approved the name for the field house on Oct. 29.
A native of Maine, Sweeney came to Waterford as the physical education teacher for the elementary schools in 1951. When the high school opened in 1956, Sweeney became that school's physical education teacher, but he also taught math, science and health. On the sidelines, "Doc" Sweeney doubled as a coach and athletic trainer for the high school.
Outside of the classroom or field house, Sweeney served on the town's school board and Recreation and Parks Commission. After retiring from his nearly three-decade long teaching career in 1979, Sweeney graduated from nursing school and began a career that included stints at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and The William W. Backus Hospital.
Sweeney stayed active with sports, too, coaching women's softball and men's squash at Connecticut College, and officiating softball games.
"Some people get high on foreign substances, but my thing has always been Waterford High School," Sweeney told the graduating Class of 1979 upon his retirement, The Day reported.