Longtime Ledyard teacher, administrator, friend made his mark

Ledyard - Though he never married nor became a father, those who knew Robert Donovan will tell you he had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children - just not by blood.

As assistant principal of Ledyard High School, Donovan built a legacy of mentorship and generosity - and an uncanny ability to suddenly, stealthily materialize at the exact spot a wayward student was playing hooky.

"He really gave his whole life to the kids that he worked with, and they know it," said Town Councilor and former Ledyard High School Principal Lou Gabordi, who was 15 years old when he met Donovan during his first year as assistant principal. "There are hundreds of stories of specific, extraordinary ways that he helped them."

Donovan died Saturday, several months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was 74.

Born in Willimantic, Donovan graduated from Providence College in 1960 and joined the Army as a second lieutenant. He earned a master's in education at the University of Connecticut and spent the next 33 years as a teacher and administrator.

Better known to his charges as "Mr. D," Donovan began his Ledyard career as an elementary school teacher before moving to the high school's history department.

When he became assistant principal in 1970, he promptly set a remarkable standard. On students' first day back - after studying the file photographs of every incoming freshman - he greeted every single one of them at the front door by name.

This gesture was more than just a stunning display of memorization. Ledyard High School Principal Amanda Fagan, a student during Donovan's assistant principal tenure, said he always referred to students as Mr. or Miss - a respectful, somehow affectionate way of connecting with troublemakers, slackers and overachievers alike, making "everyone feel like the most important kid at Ledyard High School."

But he was also the disciplinarian, she said, striking fear into the hearts of every student when he appeared at their classroom door, clipboard in hand, summoning them with a curled index finger.

"You wanted to earn his respect," Fagan said, "and you wanted to be the kind of kid that he would be proud of."

Outside the classroom, Donovan opened his home to his students, who frequently dropped by to play chess, listen to music, enjoy Donovan's baking or just hang out. It was the town's de facto community center, Gabordi said.

But Donovan often made an even bigger impression. Bill Patsiga of Waterford has Mr. D to thank for his marriage: He met his wife at Donovan's house 38 years ago.

A member of the Ledyard High School class of 1975, Patsiga briefly attended the Coast Guard Academy until he realized he wasn't cut out for the gig. With no money and nowhere to go until the fall semester began at his new college, Patsiga spent the summer at Donovan's home.

Patsiga had already enjoyed Donovan's benevolence in a big way: When Patsiga was 15 years old, Donovan - who knew the boy's family could not afford a summer getaway - took him and another classmate to visit relatives in Massachusetts. They spent several days playing tennis and lounging on the beach.

But their lifelong friendship appeared to be sealed the day Patsiga's future wife - then a Ledyard High School senior - stopped by the house to visit.

Donovan lent Patsiga his car to take her on their first date. They were married five years later; Donovan was a guest then and later at their children's birthdays.

But Patsiga knows his story is not unique. Save names and details, it's a story that played out over and over again throughout the lives of fellow students.

To his three nieces, Donovan was Uncle Bob, the "cool uncle" who would take them for rides in his convertible and never missed a holiday.

Even after the girls grew up, Donovan always made time for them, said Karen Mongello. Now, instead of toys, he would give them washing machines.

"He was always there to provide us with a leg up on life," she said.

Mongello first got an inkling of the presence her uncle had when she tagged along with him to work one day. Walking the halls, student after student greeted Donovan with choruses of "Hi, Mr. D!"

But his nieces didn't fully grasp their uncle's impact until news of his illness spread. In awe, they witnessed a deluge of well-wishes. After his death, alumni Facebook pages filled quickly with messages of grief, gratitude and love. In tribute, many have changed their profile pictures to their high school yearbook portraits.

"We were overwhelmed, and had no idea how many lives that he touched," Mary Thompson said of her uncle.

On a recent day, as Mongello trawled her uncle's computer for contact information, she noticed a sheet of paper torn from a memo pad. Under "From the desk of Robert J. Donovan," he had handwritten a to-do list - a document Mongello said sums up everything a person would need to know about her uncle:

"Count my blessings. Practice kindness. Let go of what I cannot control. Listen to my heart. Be productive yet calm. Just breathe."

"This is my uncle," she said.

a.isaacs@theday.com

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