With Rod, it was always about the kids.
A lifelong educator — teacher, guidance counselor, principal, and superintendent — Rod McElroy saw the promise and potential in everyone he got to know. First through his work at Mount View High School, and later, in retirement, through his irrepressible need to reach out and make new connections. Rod seemed to know half of Waldo County. He made time for people of all sorts, from old to young. But the young sparked his greatest interest. He loved kids.
When Rod died last week, I lost more than a dear friend. I lost a man who was constantly teaching me important lessons about how to live. Rod was the opposite of an angry old man. He saw people for what they could be. He knew people so well — knew details about their whole lives. He often knew their siblings and parents and friends just as well, so he could put someone’s life into broader context. And he remembered specifics. He remembered the prank one played as a sophomore and the tears another left on his shoulder at graduation. He knew who married who, who was happy and who wasn’t, who had financial struggles and who drank, who had a new baby or a new job. He knew so much about so many people that it’s hard to imagine why he didn’t pigeon hole folks — label them as such and such — even if just to help him organize all the information in his head, in the same way he sorted those piles of old clippings in his study.
But he didn’t. He didn’t imprison people with his opinions. He was always open to learning more about someone, willing to update his view more favorably. No, he wasn’t unrealistic. He was too insightful about people to have the wool pulled over his eyes; but it was clear to me that he would apply new evidence as it came forward, believing that — even if we fall — we can pick ourselves up, we can change.
Rod taught me to be more open and forgiving, traits not commonly associated with old men. He taught me — a man thirty years his junior — to behave like a younger man.
I did not meet Rod when I first moved to Unity, because by the time I ventured into community activities, Rod had retired as superintendent and had moved for a few years up north, doing training at Great Northern Paper in Millinocket. But I clearly remember the day — perhaps twenty years ago — soon after he returned to Unity, when he cornered me at a Comprehensive Plan Committee meeting. In his absence, I had become engaged in local affairs — and I was someone he was going to meet.
I didn’t know what to think of Rod at first, but soon he had joined the committee and we became friends. A few years later, he joined the board at Unity Barn Raisers — a local improvement group that I helped found and which I served as volunteer executive director. It wasn’t long before Rod was chairing the group and we were working together on a wide variety of projects, ranging from planting trees to building trails to renovating buildings. Through this work I realized that, for Rod, it was less about the trees or trails or buildings, and more about the people these projects engaged. He opened my eyes to another way of thinking.
Susan and I had not yet had children when I met Rod, but with the birth of Anna and then Johnny, my relationship with him deepened. Now there were kids to talk about, and later school to talk about.
For many years the kids never missed Halloween at the McElroys. Even after my mother moved to Cedar Street in Belfast — which may be one of the best Halloween venues in the world — we still, for many years, made a stop at the McElroys before driving to Belfast. The kids insisted.
When our children were young, Rod and Gloria had us up to camp at Shin Pond. I remember making a hard hike with Rod in Baxter, up a mountain with Johnny on my back. That was not so many years ago, and yet Rod was so full of energy and vigor. I clearly remember the pace he kept — and how I had trouble keeping up.
My family never visited Rod and Gloria at camp again, despite many invitations. Our lives were just too busy that there never seemed to be the time. We should have found the time.
Anna has always had a special connection with “Mr. McElroy.” She saw him at Mount View a few years ago and just felt the need to go up to him and give him a big hug. Rod talked about that hug for months.
I wish I had been around to give Rod one more hug myself. The last time I saw him was about three weeks before he died. My family recently took a vacation to Italy — a big deal for us — and I was so busy with work both before and after the trip that I had no time to visit Rod. I never thought he’d die so soon. To be frank, I was in denial that he’d die at all.
I wanted to surprise Rod with the column I planned to write for fathers’ day. My working title was “My Four Fathers.” I was going to write about my own dad, who died when I was young, but who I think about every day; a stepfather I only knew for a few years before he died, but who spent time with me as an awkward teenager; Susan’s father, a great guy who I love dearly; and Rod.
Yes, Rod loved kids. Of that there was no doubt. With Rod, children invariably came up in almost any conversation — what they do, how they think, who they are, what they can become.
Rod loved kids and what kids become. Rod loved people. His love and guidance pushed me to be a better person. His love is pushing me still. When I’m 80, I hope to be as interested in others. I want to love so deeply and be so loved.
I want to grow up to be like Rod McElroy.
John Piotti of Unity is executive director of Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.