By JOEL CUTHBERT
OBSERVER Lifestyles Correspondent
Education is the key.
OBSERVER Photo by Joel Cuthbert
Retired Silver Creek Elementary School teacher Shirley Drozdiel (left) and Elementary Principal Scott Rudnicki (right) stand on either side of a plaque dedicated to the memory of Drozdiel’s father, Felipe E. Carrasquillo. The plaque, which reads “Education is the key,” hangs on the stairwell in the Silver Creek Elementary School lobby and commemorates Carrasquillo’s life-long pursuit of learning.
Retired Silver Creek Elementary School teacher Shirley Drozdiel said those are the words her late-father, Felipe E. Carrasquillo, lived by. And now, those same words - made inspirational by Carrasquillo's legacy - adorn the lobby at Silver Creek Elementary and serve as a constant reminder to students of the power of education.
"The type of man he was is the kind of thing I want our students to emulate, the character traits and values they should have," Elementary Principal Scott Rudnicki said.
"And so it's really a centerpiece of our lobby now," he added, referring to an embroidered American flag and inscribed plaque dedicated to Carrasquillo's memory and displayed for students to see as they enter the building each morning.
The flag was given to the school by Drozdiel in honor of her father - a man with a voracious appetite for learning - and accepted by the SCCS Board of Education this past June. Both flag and plaque bear the words he exemplified in life: Education is the key.
"I thought what better place for the flag to be than in a place of education, because he valued it so highly," Drozdiel explained.
Presented to Carrasquillo's family by the United States Department of Veteran's Affairs at his passing in 1989 in recognition of his military service, the flag has been hanging in the lobby at Silver Creek Elementary for years. At the June school board meeting, however, Drozdiel officially donated the flag and shared the story of her father's life.
Despite humble beginnings and childhood tragedy, through the Great Depression and a World War, while supporting his sisters and later a wife and children of his own, Carrasquillo used education as a way of improving his life and providing a better life for his family.
He was born on a farm in Puerto Rico in 1907, one of six children and the only boy, to "a very, very poor family," Drozdiel said. His father died when he was only four and his mother when he was 16, leaving him to support his sisters.
But even at such a young age and facing such overwhelming responsibility, Carrasquillo's mother had already cultivated in him a strong commitment to education.
He would sit beside his mother doing lessons while she worked in the field, Drozdiel said. And if he hadn't studied enough and gave a wrong answer, she continued, his mother would bop him on the head with his primer and scold him for not trying hard enough.
"His mother instilled in him and in all of his sisters that education was very important," Drozdiel explained - that education was the key.
This drive to learn saw Carrasquillo through college to an undergraduate degree in political science in 1929. But it was his early education which ultimately saw him and his sisters through the Great Depression, when a lack of work forced Carrasquillo to use his seventh-grade woodshop skills to pick up odd jobs as a handyman.
"Even though he had his high school diploma, his bachelor's degree, he was working as a carpenter," Drozdiel said, "and that education he had from seventh grade was what helped him and his family make it through the depression."
Carrasquillo later worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, according to Drozdiel, where he helped develop the rainforest- El Yunque - in Puerto Rico. And though he held a position of respect and responsibility, she said "he always had dreams of going back to college and becoming a lawyer."
That dream was put on hold when he moved to the United States at the start of WWII to enlist in the U.S. Navy. But his pursuit of education was not on hold for long.
Carrasquillo returned from serving in the pacific and began pursuing a Law Degree at Fordham University. He had married during wartime and his first child, Drozdiel, was born in 1947. But when a second child came along, supporting both his family and a full-time academic life became too difficult. Carrasquillo once again looked to his seventh-grade education and became a union carpenter.
"But he never gave up the dream," Drozdiel said. "My father believed so strongly in education, he loved learning, that he went to school at night."
In 1960, Drozdiel said her father earned his Master's Degree in Education and became a Spanish teacher. He taught Spanish and English for the next 18 years at both the high school and college levels, and in New York State correctional facilities.
And, Drozdiel claimed, he never stopped learning - from the time he was a young boy completing his grade-school lessons while his mother worked the fields to his death when he was only a few credits short of his doctorate.
"He really just loved to learn, and he taught me that," Drozdiel said, calling her father a consummate teacher.
Drozdiel, who taught at SCCS for 34 years before retiring in 2009, credits her father's love of education with encouraging her own passion for learning and decision to become an educator. It also inspired Drozdiel's daughter, Kathryn, to become an educator.
"He knew, just as his mother knew, that with a good education you can lead a good life, a successful life, a happy life," Drozdiel said. "And he was always looking to make a good life for himself and for his family, and education was the key to that for my father and for all of us."
For Drozdiel and her family, the flag now hanging in the elementary school lobby embodies the spirit of her father's commitment to learning and serves as a reminder of the power of education to transform lives.
"Every time I walked by that flag it helped inspire me to keep living that dream and to keep enjoying learning," she said, "and I still do."
That is the legacy Carrasquillo left and, ultimately, what Drozdiel has gifted to students at Silver Creek Elementary. She hopes, as students see the flag and learn the story of her father, they will internalize the message and live it.
"I think it's really a point of aspiration for the students," Rudnicki said. "And knowing his story, I think that you can have many different paths but you always want to strive for better and try to instill better in others as he did his children and the people around him."
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