Sunderland honors Magarian with playground dedication

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SUNDERLAND — The people who knew the late Dean Magarian, as a family member, a colleague or as a teacher, all agreed: He would have loved the playground that now bears his name.

Sunderland Elementary School dedicated the play structures and swings in Magarian's honor on Friday, May 12, with his wife, children and many of the children who were his students on hand for the occasion.

"Any one of us has a story they could share about the ways he changed the trajectory of their life," playground committee member Mary Ellen Monahan told the crowd gathered in front of the new swings and play structures.

There were happy memories of Magarian's annual school trips to Boston, for which he taught his second-graders how to ride the MBTA trains and find their way around the city on their own. And there were more than a few tears shed for a man who loved his job and valued the children he taught, right up until his death from cancer in 2012 at the age of 53.

"Watching the kids play it's a representation of joy," said his wife, Valerie Magarian, as she watched children play on the playground that now bears her late husband's name. "And that symbolizes what my husband brought to so many people and in so many capacities."

The playground, which features swings and multiple play structures, was a community effort spearheaded by committee members Valerie Magarian, former school principal Melody Troy and current principal Skylar LaBombard, Anna Maynard, Brenna Warren and Kim Clark., Monahan said. It was supported by former BRSU superintendent Dan French, SES secretary Katie Murphy, Dale Baker, town highway foreman Marc Johnston, Cilantro, Casella Waste Management, The Bank of Bennington, the Magarian family and Sunderland school and town community members.

"CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER"

Magarian's former students, the oldest of them now freshmen in college, spoke about how he challenged them to learn and instilled lessons that had more to do with life than academic subjects.

"The couple of years I spent with him changed my life forever," said Shaye Squillante, one of his former students. "As an incoming second grader he took me into his classroom just like I had been there the two previous years like everyone else."

"He personally challenged me to try harder," even long after she'd left his class, Squillante said.

Another former student, Niall Monahan, spoke of his personal connection with Magarian over their shared love of Boston sports teams. At the ceremony, Monahan wore a Red Sox tie that belonged to his teacher — a gift from Valerie Magarian, who gave it to him a year ago.

"When I got this tie my mind raced in a million directions," Monahan said. "I remembered him, the first day I met him when he made me feel just as home as I did at my own. I remembered our long discussions about our beloved Boston sports teams. But most of all I remember that look in his eye when he he talked.

"He came to class every day determined to teach us something and he never failed. He cared more than any teacher I had ever had."

Melanie Virgilio, whose son had Magarian as a teacher, remembered how he made every student feel special and valid.

She recalled a moment from video footage of one of the Boston field trips, in which Magarian asked the students a question, waited until every child had raised his or her hand, and then picked on the one who had raised a hand last to answer.

"I was so struck by this, because I realized that by waiting for that last student he was validating they time they took to come up with the answer," Virgilio said. "No one ever felt like they weren't good enough. ... I can promise you that his students all walked away from his classroom knowing they were valued."

She also recalled how Magarian pulled parents in for a meeting about the field trip, "laid down the law" and began the process of bringing those parents together as a community.

"No longer were any of us allowed to be bystanders in our children's education," she said. "We were now part of a new community, Mr. M's community. Which he continued to foster throughout the year."

LIFE LESSONS

After the ceremony, Valerie Magarian watched the school children explore their new play space.

"The lessons Dean inspired that were outside the classroom were just as powerful and important, and indeed the kids who spoke today spoke to that," she said. "The kids who spoke today weren't inspired as much by math and science as by the man who taught it. And that's a credit to good teachers everywhere."

Magarian, a native of Lexington, Mass., was an elementary principal for 17 years, including five years at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry, before deciding to return to the classroom in Sunderland, Valerie Magarian said.

"He got to a point where he missed the kids," she said. His return to teaching "was the happiest time of his life. It really was," she added.

Dean Magarian died on Nov. 16, 2012 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 53.

"He was in the classroom up until October," Valerie Magarian said. "To the bitter end he wanted to come to work, he wanted to teach the kids."

In her remarks, Virgilio, who said she lives not far away from the school, said she hoped to hear children using it all summer long.

"Then I will know that this community is growing in a way Mr. M would have wanted," she said.

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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