Untimely death of teacher stuns community (4/30/09)

Myers credited for his dedication

April 30, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

“Fly Forever.”

Those two words, the motto of Swift House, have taken on a new meaning the past few days at Williston Central School. By all accounts, Swift House teacher Al Myers, who passed away unexpectedly over the weekend, embodied that phrase and inspired his students to live their lives to the fullest and highest potential.

Beyond teaching math, science, English and social studies, Myers taught his students to excel more than they ever thought they could, either in the classroom or upon the stage in the school’s musical productions. He taught lessons and left impressions that students — whether former pupils from his early days in Williston or today’s students who are feeling his immediate loss — will carry with them for a lifetime.

Yet for all the time Myers dedicated to his students, his influence extended far beyond the walls of his classroom. From the theater stage to the battleground of Civil War reenactments, from his home in Richmond to his family at church, whether he meant to or not, Myers devoted his life to inspiring others.

And for a man whose life touched so many, his death has left an entire community in mourning.

Myers died the morning of Saturday, April 25 from severe head trauma after falling off a ladder while working on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” in the Williston Central School auditorium. Students and staff found him Friday morning and alerted emergency personnel. Doctors at Fletcher Allen Health Care performed surgery before he passed away Saturday morning.

Myers was 57. He is survived by his wife, Deborah, and children, Briana Myers, Eli Myers, Meredith Gordon and her husband, Andy Gordon.

“The classroom and the theater were really my dad’s elements,” Meredith Gordon, Myers’ youngest daughter, wrote in an e-mail to the Observer. “He loved watching a student’s face when he knew that they were finally understanding how something worked. His school family was his second family and he knew each of those students as well as he knew us.”

A ‘second family’ copes

Flags flew at half-mast this week in the Williston School District, where Myers taught for more than 30 years. District Principal Walter Nardelli said grief rooms had been set up for students and staff. The school carried on as normally as possible when students returned from April vacation Monday, he said.

“Everyone is in shock at school and in the community,” Nardelli said in an e-mail. “Right now we move on one day at a time.”

Myers began teaching in Williston in 1973, fresh out of the University of Vermont, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a teaching certificate. From there, the classroom became his second home. Putting in long hours, Myers always made time for his students whenever they needed him, parents have said. His devotion earned him a special dedication in the class of 2008’s yearbook.

Seventh-grade student Allison Kahn said the past few days without Myers have been hard. She said she already misses his sense of humor and the fun-loving teaching style he brought to school every day.

“He was really funny, and I’ll probably miss his whistling down the hall the most,” Kahn said.

Myers’ death was also felt at Champlain Valley Union High School and numerous colleges and universities where former students now reside. CVU sophomore Amelia Munson said she’ll most remember the life lessons Myers taught her.

“He told me once that it’s more important to stand out than fit in,” Munson said. “I’ll probably never forget that.”

Brittany Jean, a University of Vermont freshman, said Myers’ patience and understanding while dealing with his students set him apart.

“Middle school kids can be hard to deal with, but I never once saw him lose his temper,” Jean said. “He took a lot of joy in watching us, his students.”

A dramatic life

Munson and Jean were veterans of the large and inclusive musicals Myers directed every spring. Myers oversaw classics such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and this week’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Parents have credited Myers, with his technical expertise and keen eye for directing, for producing the musicals with the highest quality. Students said Myers extended his teaching style to the stage and motivated cast members to excel in their roles. The school has plans to dedicate the Williston Central School auditorium in Myers’ honor.

CVU freshman Mikayla Morin, who played one of the leads in last year’s musical, “Seussical,” said Myers worked hard to help her find her inner potential. She said he set high expectations, but cast members were more than happy to work hard and reach the great heights Myers aimed to hit, she said.

“He was one of the most honest and open people I’ve ever met,” said Morin. “He really believed in me and I’ll always carry that with me.”

“The Wizard of Oz” will be performed as scheduled this Friday and Saturday. Swift House teacher Julie Longchamp has taken over directing duties for the play and is following Myers’ notes on the production, said parent and Observer columnist Kathy Stamper.

Stamper said the student cast has been great in rehearsals and is determined to carry out Myers’ vision.

“The play will help us get through this, but we’re walking around with a hole in our hearts,” Stamper said.

Members of the Burlington-based Lyric Theatre Company, of which Myers was a longtime member, have also helped in creating some of the special effects Myers designed for the play, she added.

Lyric Theatre Company’s Executive Director Syndi Zook said the acting troupe wanted to help finish the work Myers started. Zook said Myers had been a member of Lyric since 1976, and she’s known him since 1980. She said as an actor, he had a great voice and gave convincing performances. As a director, Zook credited Myers’ patience, kindness and leadership.

“His quiet authority was a pillar in this organization,” Zook said.

Myers was also a leader on the battlefield, so to speak. As a captain with the Champlain Valley Reenactors, Myers commanded a unit of Civil War enthusiasts during mock battles and demonstrations representing Vermont.

Mike Frisbie, a fellow reenactor, became close friends with Myers while Frisbie’s daughters were in Swift House. It was Myers who convinced Frisbie to join the Champlain Valley Reenactors. The two frequently carpooled to reenacting events around New England and New York.

Frisbie said during the mayhem of the mock battles, Myers was always a guiding force.

“He was my captain and I would follow him anywhere,” Frisbie said.

Stefan Gunlock, Frisbie and Myers’ friend from the Champlain Valley Reenactors, said the unit would carry on in Myers’ memory.

“Everybody had an unforgettable experience with him,” said Gunlock. “He was such an extraordinary human being.”

Myers was also devoted to his church, according to his daughter. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Myers frequently read during church services. Meredith Gordon said her father studied the Bible frequently and wore out many copies of the book.

Lasting memories

Family, friends and former students of Myers have taken their remembrances online to Facebook, a social networking site. Hundreds of comments are posted on four tribute pages from people sharing memories of Myers, from his guitar playing and classroom sing-alongs to his ability to recite lines and lines of Monty Python dialogue.

Stephen Mease, a friend of Myers and a freelance photographer for the Observer, created one of the Facebook pages after hearing of Myers’ death. He said he was “struck” by the hundreds of messages posted on the site.

“It’s amazing how many lives one person can touch,” he said.

Stamper said Myers was such a community presence that his loss will be felt for a long time, but those who knew him will hold onto his memory forever.

“I feel for his family because they shared him with so many people, and now he’s gone,” she said.

A celebration of Myers’ life is in the works and scheduled for noon on May 16 at Williston Central. The school is putting together a scrapbook of Myers’ time at the school and is asking parents and students for contributions. The scrapbook will be presented to Myers’ family.

Donations in Myers’ memory can be made to the Lyric Theatre Company, P.O. Box 1688, Williston, Vt. 05495, or to the Vermont Historical Society, Pavilion Building, 100 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05609.