Saturday, September 18, 2021

King Reilly: A Treasured Gift From Our Hometown

“Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, calibre, and future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.”

-- Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, 11th president of India, 2002 to 2007

Amy and I drove around Colonial Park a few times before we found the right gazebo. When we couldn’t find it immediately, my sister wanted to head back to Del Boca Vista, but I insisted we persist. In the end, we were glad we did.

In the gazebo, we met Eileen and Kathy, Mr. Reilly’s daughters, and one of his granddaughters, Kristen, as well as Chuck McCook, a fellow Franklin High School alum from the Class of 1980. Lovingly placed on the seats around the gazebo were the King’s FHS yearbooks from the 70s, 80s, and beyond, together with snapshots of students his daughters told us they’d found on the bookshelves in his basement “man cave.”

Immediately, Amy spotted me in the array of photos—wearing the same pink velour turtleneck I’d worn at my Sweet 16. We quickly identified others, rattling off their names as though we’d walked the high school’s halls with them just yesterday—Tommy Kimball, Carolyn Holmes, Carrie Hamilton, Andrew Schofer, Julie Goldman, Jimbo Allegro, Amy McGovern, Cory Nass, and Adam Weintraub. There were others, too, familiar as the backs of our own hands, but four decades have elapsed since the photos were taken, preventing us from whipping their names from the recesses of our middle-aged minds.

To the pictures and the yearbooks, we added our own reminiscences: the antics of “Reilly’s Raiders” and the classmates who participated;” hanging with King Reilly in his classroom until the “late bus” took us home; the outline sketch of the 13 original colonies on the chalkboard that began many an early American history lesson; hosting the King himself for dinner at 12 Webster Road on back-to-school night; and knowing, without anyone saying so, that Reilly’s classroom was a safe haven, long before that even was a thing. The kids who smoked in the courtyard, the hallway cacophony between classes, and our love for a school that, at the time, had a less than stellar reputation all made cameo appearances in our conversation.

From his daughters, we got a bit of the King’s prequel and sequel to our own high school years. He began his college career as a business major. However, after he was drafted during the Vietnam War and spent time as a file clerk in Korea, he changed his major to education upon returning home. Even though the switch meant lost credits and more time in school, his wartime experience had taught him that business and office work weren’t for him—and to our benefit, he acted on that knowledge. Kathy told us how, eager to get out of school for the day, she accompanied her dad to an early iteration of “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” only to find herself in his classroom all day, listening to him tell the story of Hugh Glass’ mauling by a bear—not once or twice, but eight times during the course of the school day. He was good at storytelling, she said, and no one was embarrassed or thought the tale was dorky or dumb.

Following his retirement in the mid-1990s, he spent precious time with his family; the Palmyra High School Band Parents, who, thanks to him, added “and Grandparents” to the organization’s name; and the people of Ireland, whom he met when he backpacked and hitchhiked across the country from Galway to Dublin. All of them, like Amy, Chuck, and I, along with countless other Franklin students, are better for having crossed paths with King Reilly—and now members of his family—and will carry his life lessons and his indomitable spirit in our hearts always. They are among a trove of treasured gifts from our hometown whose value—and our appreciation of them—only increases with time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Reilly.

P.S. One the the High Holiday sermons I read this season connected me to this NPR story from 2005. Although this wasn't a funeral, Amy and I were honored to share this special time and fond memories with King Reilly's loved ones.

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