If the size of the crowd at a memorial is determined by the size of the heart of the man remembered and the extent to which he gave that heart to others, then last Monday night Mattlin Middle School was filled to capacity.
Friends, family, students, and community members gathered last week to honor the memory and legacy of technology teacher William Swanson, who passed away in October 2002 at the age of 47.
A teacher at Mattlin since 1995, Swanson was known as a popular teacher not only to many students, but also to many colleagues. He was the heart of the high school robotics team, the soul of several special education programs, and unlike so many professionally successful men, more than anything else Swanson was both the heart and soul of his family.
"He really was someone that everyone he knew, he had a relationship with," said Stacey Richter, a senior at Plainview JFK High School and former student of Swanson's. "He always treated the kids as if they were adults, talked to them without any superiority, and he was the greatest person for doing that. And it wasn't that he was trying to be a nice guy. He just was. There's really nothing else to say. He was an amazing person that he touched so many of us."
Nearly 50 people turned out for the event, the focus of which was the dedication of a mosaic sign in the Mattlin stairwell to Swanson. The idea for the colorful mosaic came from Gene Ferrara, a Mattlin math teacher who filled in for Swanson following his sudden death. The sign itself used to stand at the entrance to Mattlin, but when Ferrara saw it being thrown away, he had it fixed up and decorated by Swanson's seventh and eighth-grade students.
"This sign will be a constant reminder of who Bill was and the terrific work he did," said Mattlin Principal Donald Gately.
The evening, however, was about far more than the dedication of a sign. Several people who spoke at the ceremony echoed a similar sentiment: this dedication was just one event in the forever ongoing memory of Swanson. And as Principal Gately pointed out, the true legacy and memory of Swanson lives on in the countless number of people he touched and the lives he changed.
"Bill Swanson took with him to heaven the love and respect of hundreds of students and friends," Gately said.
Following the dedication, the ceremony continued in the Mattlin cafeteria where students, friends, teachers and parents mingled with laughter, smiles and tears, all telling their own Swanson stories.
"I am truly, deeply touched. This was always a family for us, and it was always a family for him," said Patty Swanson, Swanson's wife. "Even today, people are coming up to me and telling me different stories. Oh, he did this, or about the benches out in the courtyard. And to me, it's just so amazing to see that his memory is forever."
Also in attendance were Swanson's mother, Marga; Patty's mother, Ann Fitzgerald; Patty's sister, Karen Fitzgerald; and Swanson's two sons, Brian and Kevin.
At the ceremony, Plainview JFK Business Department Chair Joseph Gennaro recalled Swanson's passion for his work. Plainview JFK graduate Tedi Setton and current student Ross Iosefson each spoke about Swanson's ability to tap the hidden potential within students that no one else could see, and then make those students believe in themselves.
"There was no can't with him," said Sara Gershon, another former student of Swanson's. "I can't do that? That wasn't allowed. Everyone could do everything."
Several parents and students highlighted the interest in technology Swanson generated for girls. "Yes, he got the boys involved because they were expected to be involved," said Stacey Richter. "I mean, I'm a girly girl, and he let me use power tools because he had confidence in me, which gave me the confidence to be able to do stuff like that. What he did for everyone, it's amazing, that he was one person and he affected everyone."
As she did when hundreds of people turned out for Swanson's wake and funeral, Patty Swanson compared the scene at Mattlin Monday night to her husband's favorite movie, Mr. Holland's Opus. At the end of that movie Mr. Holland, a music teacher who has been working on a musical opus all his life, discovers when he retires that his true opus is the symphony of lives and the chorus of people he touched so positively during his long career.
Tragically, Swanson's life and career was cut far too short by the heart from which he gave so much to everyone else around him. But there is no questioning the continued influence of the opus Swanson conducted during his eight years in Plainview.
"I think his memory will be here forever," Patty Swanson said. "And it will be in our hearts."