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Notably Norwich: Remembering 'The Bull' on World Teachers' Day

At this writing, it is Columbus Day, but did you know that it is also National Angel Food Cake Day and International Newspaper Carrier Day? Be sure to give your paper boy/girl a bigger tip this week.

Various special-interest organizations throughout the world have created annual observances — special days, weeks and months — to recognize everyone and everything from the most traditional like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to the more, um, creative.

For instance, everyone knows that Jan. 1 is New Year’s Day, but did you know it’s also Polar Bear Swim Day in honor of all those brave/crazy souls who conclude their distance run with a bone-chilling dip into an icy body of water? I’ve never done it, nor will I ever, no matter how much I had to drink the night before. The next day is National Science Fiction Day, another example of something light-hearted that special days commemorate.

Then there are other observances that are designed to call attention to more serious causes, such as National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and International Parity at Work Day, both of which fall on Jan. 11. Like the less weighty topics and causes, these special days are intended to call attention to and raise awareness of their various causes — with varying degrees of success.

One that I took note of recently was brought to my attention by my friend, Dr. John Sullivan, an esteemed educator, administrator and fellow golfer, who mentioned earlier this month that Tuesday, Oct. 5, was World Teachers’ Day, established in 1994 by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) “to celebrate all the teachers around the globe.”

John wrote proudly on Facebook: “Happy World Teachers’ Day to all with whom I have shared this noble profession.”

It got me thinking about how blessed I was to have had some great teachers during my formative years.

Oh, sure, like police work, the profession I wrote about two weeks ago, there are some who are in the wrong profession. However, those are the exceptions, and if those teachers were in a bad mood back in the day, that probably had more to do with the antics of my classmates and me than with the teachers themselves.

Enter Robert “Bob” Demars — The Bull.

Mr. Demars, as I knew him back when I was a student, had the distinction of being my least favorite teacher when he was a long-term substitute at Kelly Junior High School in 1967-68 and my favorite high school teacher the following school year at what was then St. Bernard Boys High School in Uncasville.

Well aware of my need for more discipline, my parents enrolled me at St. Bernard for my freshman year. I was not happy about this, even though it was a logical step given my misbehavior and mediocre academic performance the two previous years at Kelly Junior High.

St. Bernard was an all-boys high school at that time where we were required to wear ties and blazers and where faculty and staff were permitted to employ corporal punishment when necessary. And they did.

When my regular eighth-grade teacher at Kelly, Loretta Higgins, was taken ill for an extended period, Mr. Demars was her substitute. And we all know how school kids — especially teenagers — treat substitute teachers.

Mr. Demars was my teacher for homeroom, language arts, reading and study hall, which meant we spent a lot of time together each day, not including the detentions he occasionally assigned.

We tortured the poor guy, and if you’ve ever met Bull Demars, you know he didn’t hide or disguise his anger.

On several occasions, he shared his wish that we were in a private school, where he could mete out real punishment, perhaps anything from a good, swift kick in the pants to a smack to the back of the head. However, we reminded him just as often that we were in a public school and he couldn’t lay a finger on us. Nyah, nyah!

On my first day of school the following fall at St. Bernard, I examined my class schedule as we sat in homeroom: first period was religion with Brother James, second period gym with Mr. Hayes, third period was English with — wait, what was this?! — Mr. Demars? It couldn’t be the same guy, could it?

A wave of panic came over me. Fourth period was history with Brother Phillip Ryan, fifth period was science with — were they kidding?! — Mr. Demars, followed by math with Mr. Crotty and band with Mr. Brouillard,

Sure enough, the teacher in third-period English class was none other than Robert “Bull” Demars. A short, stocky, muscular man with a crew cut, he smiled deviously as he read the names of two other students who had given him trouble the previous year at Kelly Junior High.

A minute later he read my name, very slowly. Then he chuckled.

“Oh, this is gonna be good,” he said menacingly.

Surely, I would not live to see the end of the first day of school.

After taking attendance, he went through a description of the course, homework assignments and his expectations. Near the end of the class, he asked the two other Kelly alumni and me to stay after class.

I expected him to beat all of us for all of the previous school year’s shenanigans.

Instead, he showed mercy, though just a little, and it was conditional. He said he’d start us all off with clean slates. Do our work, be respectful, and behave in class, and there would be no problem.

Get out of line just once, though, he said with clenched teeth and a penetrating stare, “and I will break you.”

“Any questions?” he asked.

Nope. That worked for me. I had been scared straight, and was grateful for — and surprised by — his show of compassion.

I was determined to show him that I had turned it around by working hard in both English and science classes, earning a B average in both. All the teachers made us work hard, and my overall grades were better than ever.

Mr. Demars noticed the improvement, and by the end of the first semester, he and I were getting along well. In fact, everything from his daily encouragement to our frequent discussions about sports established him not only as my favorite teacher, but — dare I say it? — a friend.

As the freshman coach, he encouraged me to try out for the baseball team that spring. There were other freshman players like Mike St. Louis, Tim Ryan, Billy VanMameren, and Chuck Appleby who were better, though, and I played poorly in the tryouts, so he cut me, as he should have.

Knowing my disappointment, however, and my love for baseball, he invited me to be the team’s manager, taking care of equipment before and after practices and games. He acknowledged it wasn’t as good as playing for the team, and would understand if I declined. I accepted, though, in part for his giving me a second chance at the beginning of the year, but mostly because I had come to really like the guy.

As the season progressed, we would travel together to scout other high school teams, and the chatter between us about sports, school and life in general was non-stop. With Mr. Demars’ encouragement, I earned better grades than I had in years, especially in his classes.

Despite improved grades and better attitude after a year at St. Bernard, I wanted to transfer to Norwich Free Academy, which was co-ed and didn’t require ties and jackets, and where most of my longtime friends were enrolled.

In hindsight, I should have stayed at St. Bernard, which was what mom and dad wanted and which probably would have been better-suited for my disciplinary and organizational needs. I had excellent teachers at NFA, too, but Mr. Demars had known how to motivate and encourage me.

His were life lessons I never forgot and took with me to college, where I finally regained academic traction and pulled the grades back up to a B average just before graduation. I even made the Dean’s List in my final semester of college.

It took a special teacher with an open mind and a firm hand to right this student and probably hundreds, maybe even thousands more during his distinguished 40-plus-year career in education and coaching in eastern Connecticut.

I never told Mr. Demars how much his faith, motivation and encouragement meant to an insecure, undisciplined, under-achieving boy who had been told over and over that he could do better.

Thankfully, he is still around, so hopefully this message comes better late than never: Thank you, Mr. Demars, for believing in me and making a great, positive difference in my life. I’ve never forgotten it.

Bill Stanley, a former vice president at L+M Hospital, grew up in Norwich.

 

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