It may have taken 42 years of work, but Superintendent of Schools Don Fiftal has finally had his day. Literally.
Dozens of family, friends, coworkers, and well-wishers turned out to honor Fiftal at Tokeneke School Wednesday, a date officially dubbed "Don Fiftal Day" by proclamation of Gov. M. Jodi Rell in honor of his retirement.
Fiftal, who has held the superintendency since 2005, announced in January that he would hand over the reins, allowing him to spend more time with his family in Atlanta. Fiftal and his wife, Lois, are the proud grandparents of four.
His successor—Stephen Falcone, current Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Secondary Education—was appointed Tuesday night by the Darien Board of Education. Falcone officially assumes the post July 1.
Treated to refreshments and a stringed accompaniment by Darien High School musicians, the crowd mingled about the building's lobby until the program—a paean to Fiftal's educational accomplishments—was underway.
"I can't tell you how much this experience means," Fiftal told the crowd during a frequently moving valedictory. "Thank you so much."
Fiftal's time as superintendent is merely the capstone to a long career in education. He began as an English teacher in 1968 at Litchfield High School, departing in 1982 to become the assistant principal of New Milford High School.
In 1986, he moved across town to Schaghticoke Middle School, where he served as principal before assuming the same position at NMHS in 1997. In 2001, Fiftal was hired as Darien's Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Secondary Education, a role he filled until he was appointed to the district's top spot.
Darien Board of Education chair Kim Westcott emceed the event, introducing a long but glowing queue of stakeholders from Fiftal's time in Darien.
Carolyn Langelier and Julie Martens, co-chairs of of the Council of Darien School Parents, had only kind words for Fiftal.
"I've seen you so many times over the previous years approach issues, even the thorniest issues," Langelier said. "You come to them with this wonderful moral compass."
"No matter what, you brought us back to the importance of educating our kids and what we're trying to do here in Darien," Martens said.
To toast Fiftal's impending move to Georgia, Martens and Langelier presented him with a "southern boy starter kit," a basket containing a peach pie, grits, and The Complete How to Speak Southern guide.
The reception also drew a bevy of former superintendents and board of education chairs, all of whom Fiftal interacted with during his time in Darien.
Darrell Lund, who served as superintendent from 1998 to 2002, recounted the experience of hiring Fiftal in 2001 to serve as Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Secondary Education. Lund joked that he had attended the reception merely to assume responsibility for recruiting Fiftal.
"Whether you're a teacher, or a principal, or a superintendent—particularly after you retire—you thought back on those things that you were involved with that were especially satisfying. ... Our assessment of what you had the capacity to do, you've more than met," Lund said.
Mary Jo Kramer, superintendent from 2002 to 2005, praised both Fiftal's administrative accomplishments and his character.
"We have experienced Don's fairness and decency, his kindness and compassion, his intelligence and vision, his grace under pressure," Kramer said. "All of these are sparkled with his wit and great sense of humor. He is a true gentleman in the finest sense of the term."
Sallie Raleigh, chair of the board of education from 1997 to 2005, highlighted Fiftal's work on advance placement and special education inclusion programs, new graduation performance standards, classroom technology, bullying prevention, and the Darien-Shanghai exchange program.
"I will remember you always as a great team player. Your calm, caring, and cheerful demeanor always kept things on an even keel and expedited the resolution of ticklish issues and situations," Raleigh recalled.
John Boulton, Raleigh's successor from 2005 to 2009, told the crowd that the easiest part of his job had been working with Fiftal.
"His legacy, in many ways, will be the people in this room. It'll be Steve Falcone. It'll be all the other administators. It'll be the teachers," Boulton said. "Don is going to leave a wonderful legacy of recruiting, mentoring, and keeping some of the best people in the business."
In an amusing interlude, Westcott read some verse written for the occasion by former Darien High School principal Jerry Auclair, who was unable to attend in person. The poem, "Ode to a Homegrown Philosophy," referenced a story Fiftal had told several years earlier at a teacher convocation, ending each stanza with "Donald, eat your peas!"
Except for the last line.
"Donald, for once, pass on those damn peas!" Westcott read with a hint of glee.
Two speakers also brought official recognitions with them. David Klein, President of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, presented Fiftal with a proclamation from CAPSS honoring his achievements in education.
"Of the superintendents that I've known and worked with during the past 10 years, I can tell you there's not a finer, more honorable man," Klein said.
State Rep. Terrie Wood, meanwhile, delivered two proclamations: one from Gov. Rell establishing Don Fiftal Day, the second from the Connecticut General Assembly applauding his achievements and wishing him well in retirement.
Wood fondly recalled serving with Fiftal on a committee for the construction of the new Darien High School building.
"I could tell right away he was calm, he was rational, thoughtful, smart—all the things you want in someone you're working with," Wood said.
The last spot in the lineup was reserved for Fiftal himself. He initially joked with the crowd about his fruitless attempts to brag over Don Fiftal Day but quickly pivoted to singing the praises of his wife, an educator who travels widely around the country to train teachers in music. (Wednesday also happened to be her birthday.)
After a long list of recognitions and thank yous, Fiftal summed up his hopes for the occasion of his retirement, drawing on the experiences of his immigrant parents to underscore an educational legacy "much larger than any of us."
His father, the poor 11 year-old who wore clothes taken from casualties of World War I and who was forced to study English with first graders. His mother, the Polish woman who became a pioneering small business owner—then sold it off to recapture deferred academic dreams.
"She was so proud of the fact that I was an educator. So proud of the fact that she almost made it," Fiftal said, alluding to her untimely death.
"The Don Fiftal Day represents a passion and a desire for what's best for children, for everybody's child—going back to whenever the first schools in Darien began, with people that had the same hopes and dreams—and will continue on the same way," he added.