Dozens of alumni and supporters filled the courtyard at Dunkirk High School (DHS) recently to unveil a plaque dedicated to former longtime principal, coach and social studies teacher, John J. Mancuso, and a Memory Garden devoted to students who passed away while attending the school.
Diane Hannum, Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation Executive Director, began the ceremony to "pay tribute to John J. Mancuso, who I am told was also known as 'Mr. DHS.' ... John's legacy is the scholarship fund at NCCF. As a teacher, principal and coach, he touched countless students in many positive ways, and that continues today, nine years after his death. His scholarship fund has the distinction of being the second largest (of NCCF scholarships), and of scholarships just for Dunkirk students, it is by far the largest at over $800,000. It pays close to half of their tuition and fees, and it is renewable for four years," Hannum said. To date, five students have received $68,000.
High School Principal Steve O'Brien said he was honored to be part of the occasion and knew Mancuso personally. "I've heard thousands of stories about John ... and never one disparaging word about him. ... The stories were funny, endearing, heartwarming, about a man who really seemed to care about kids."
OBSERVER Photo by Shirley Pulawski
Many came out to pay tribute to former high school principal, coach and social studies teacher, John J. Mancuso. A plaque was revealed in his honor in the courtyard presented by the student group, SADD. Pictured are representatives, from left, Bob “Peanuts” Wisniewski, Carol Bleck, Gunnar Bankoski, Jay Warren, Steve O’Brien and Diane Hannum.
The Memory Garden is a project initiated by the high school group, Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). Student body and SADD president Gunnar Bankoski said, "We came about the idea of a memory garden from a past SADD president when we lost students... she wanted to make it more of a happier place, to celebrate their lives and remember them in a good way."
Other plaques represent students who died while attending DHS, including six who died in a car and train accident on Halloween night in 1987, another lost in a car accident in 1982, as well as one lost to cancer and another in a car accident two years ago.
DHS teacher Carol Bleck told the crowd, "The kids came up with this idea about two years ago. They came up against constant road blocks and should give themselves more credit," for the effort involved in seeing the project through to completion. She also said her time working with Mancuso as a teacher was meaningful to her. "I have never had a better principal than Mr. Mancuso. ... When they said the courtyard... this was his baby. ... Every year, he made sure rose bushes were planted for each class. ... His office was right there and he could look right out," she said.
Ron Sievert, Mancuso's nephew, came all the way from Texas to attend the ceremony. "I was lucky to have him as a coach, a teacher and as a loving uncle," he said, and also shared some laughs and an inside joke. "Before I started school with him, I was warned to never ever call him by his old high school nickname. I don't even want to say it out loud. I'm not going to," he joked as knowing laughter bubbled through the crowd. "We used to sing that song... Day-O ... and we couldn't get the coaches to believe we just liked calypso music," Sievert mused. "But even when they sang that song, it was with respect," he reminisced.
Jay Warren also spoke fondly of him. "I had the pleasure of working with him for six years," Warren said of his time spent as vice principal under Mancuso. He told the crowd Mancuso's legacy extends beyond the scholarship program through NCCF. "He left a large donation to the library, which helped pay for their new access ramp, and to the SUNY Fredonia college foundation," he explained.
DHS graduate from the class of 1964, Bob "Peanuts" Wisniewski, who is also a retired teacher and coach, as well as Chautauqua County Sports Hall of Fame inductee, said the honor was "long overdue." He recalled many stories about sports activities with Mancuso and said, "When anything is going on here at this school, on this campus, John is going to be lurking around."
Wisniewski said Mancuso was very dedicated to students and tried to instill values in them. "There were three things he expected from students - three things. He used to talk about this with me all the time. He said, 'You have to be proud of yourself, and of growing up in Dunkirk. You have to be proud of your family, and you have to be proud of your high school.'"
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