The following is an obituary by Jeff Mallaber for Jim Dollard, former Principal of Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School and much loved friend and mentor to many. You can follow Jeff’s posts at rokk.thoughts.com.
Jim Dollard expected the best from people.
That was because he SAW the best in people. Never mind the screw-ups, the tantrums, the ego, or any of the other human failings that we tend to display in public. Jim Dollard looked past all that, looked THROUGH it, and found the part of you that maybe even you didn’t see. He found the good in you. He let you know he saw it, and that he expected you to live it. For lack of a less trite and hackneyed way to say it, he BELIEVED in people.
Mr. Dollard (he will always be MR Dollard to me) passed away Wednesday night, after a long fight with dementia and circulatory problems. In passing, he joins his beautiful wife, Anne, who died two years ago. That they might be together again is a notion that is purely and simply right. Their love was as beautiful and enduring as any I have ever seen.
To the public, he was the long-time and absolutely legendary Principal of Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School. The HF-L football field bears his name. The alumni made him an honorary inductee in the HF-L Hall of Fame, though he did not attend school there. Former students speak of him in the hushed and reverent tones typically reserved for religious figures.
My good friend, attorney Adam Militello, is an alumnus of HF-L. When I found out he had graduated there, I mentioned that we had a common acquaintance and told him that I had grown up across the street from the Dollard family home. His eyes shot open as if I had told him I had been touched by divinity.
“You know JIM DOLLARD?” he asked with some level of awe in his voice. “That man was like a GOD to us.”
To the kids who grew up around his house, he was a granite pillar placed squarely in the center of our little world. The idea of the “Gentle Giant” is no myth. He lived across the street from me. They moved in some time around 1971 or ’72. I think I was in fourth grade. He was 6-4 or 6-5, which, to a 9-year-old, might as well have been eight feet. We were in awe of him from the very beginning.
No man I’ve ever met was more clearly placed on this planet to educate children. A prominent figure in Section V athletics, he was instrumental in making me understand that being involved in sports didn’t necessarily mean that you had to be ignorant. He challenged you, and it began with listening. He heard what you had to say, and then he required you to reason it out, support it with facts, and stand up to some scrutiny.
He was a Kennedy Democrat, and I was, for a time, a Reagan Republican. Never once did he belittle my views or tell me I was wrong. We had long debates about any number of subjects and I always walked away feeling as if he had listened to me despite the fact that we disagreed. I know FOR SURE that I listened to him as if his words were being carved in stone as we spoke.
His family was a big sprawling Irish Catholic archetype. There were six children (five boys and one girl). Throw in the various friends that those six kids brought home, including me, and there was a certain level of chaos to be had at virtually all hours of the day. I never saw him strike anybody, and I cannot remember him raising his voice beyond a simple “Hey, cut it out. NOW.” He didn’t need to yell. You did what he said, just because he said it. Not from fear, but from respect. Well, maybe a little bit of fear too.
His capacity for forgiveness was remarkable. With six of his own, and dozens of occasional visitors, there were always shenanigans going on somewhere, and we didn’t always cover ourselves in glory.
I remember the day that a cache of old record albums was discovered in the attic of their giant stone-castle house. They were boxed and stored, never played, and probably never going to be played again. But they were his. He kept them for a reason.
Unfortunately, they were wax, not vinyl, and wax shatters. It may come as a surprise to you, but teenage boys like to watch things shatter. Before long, albums were being flung from the attic window like Frisbees to watch them disintegrate on the pavement below.
I don’t know how many albums got destroyed, but quite a few. I don’t know what we were thinking, but I will say that there was no malice in it. Did we know that it was wrong? Sure. But I say with absolute belief that we were not trying to hurt him. Things just got out of hand.
I can’t imagine how angry he was when he discovered our stupidity, or how disappointed. But I know this. He did not ban us from his home, as many would have (and justifiably so). He did not go door to door through the neighborhood, telling our parents and demanding punishment and restitution. He just made it clear that the wrath of God would come down if anything like that ever happened again, and he let it go. I hope it goes without saying that nothing like that ever happened again.
Something about him made him understand that boys screw things up from time to time, and it isn’t the end of the world. I guess maybe he felt like we were more important to him than the records. But I also think he knew that just the fact we had disappointed him was worse than any yelling or screaming could ever be. I can tell you for sure that the lesson lasts longer his way. As I read what we did, I have difficulty believing it, and the shame is still right there.
He had a dry laconic sense of humor, and the ability to make us feel like we were on his level somehow. I can remember sitting on his couch, in his TV room, a whole bunch of us, watching a Knicks-Celtics playoff game at Boston Garden. He was a Knicks guy, and I was a die-hard Celtic man. There was a controversial call, and a Celtic fan of some girth came on screen, standing up and berating the officials.
“Ahhhhh, sit down ya fat Bostonian!” Mr. Dollard bellowed.
After we paused to figure out what a Bostonian was, we laughed until we could barely breathe. Not because it was that clever a put-down, but because it was Mr. Dollard who said it. For that moment, he was one of us. It was something special to feel like he saw you as one of his guys.
To the community, he was a big open-hearted friend for anyone in need. If a kid was having trouble at home, and needed a place to stay, he came to the Dollard house. Both he and Mrs. Dollard were key figures in the local chapter of Catholic Charities. They just always seemed to be doing something for somebody else who needed help.
But, for me, the true nature of him was in his determination to find the positive aspects of everyone and to do what he could to draw that out into the light. At various times in my life when I had lost sight of whatever decency there is in me, he always seemed to come along and remind me that he expected me to be better. He never came out and said, “You’re better than that.” He just somehow let you know that he knew it.
There are a thousand different ways to motivate people, but they can all be boiled down to two basic approaches. You can motivate someone by telling them they CAN’T do something. Basically, you’re forcing them to prove you wrong. Mr. Dollard went the other way. He let you know that he was positive you COULD accomplish great things, implicitly demanding that you prove him RIGHT.
It is impossible to tell how many lives he touched. Literally thousands of children passed through the halls at HF-L during his tenure, and I am confident that very few of them left school without having their lives improved in some way by his influence. If each of them went on to pass that kindness on to someone else, it staggers the imagination. Knowing him, and having him in my corner, is an honor and a privilege that cannot be adequately described here.
Take away all the pomp and circumstance that necessarily attend the passing of a prominent person, and you are left with something as basic as this. Jim Dollard believed in you. It’s hard to give up on yourself when you know that someone like him feels that way.
Rest well, Mr. Dollard. We’ll keep trying to see, in ourselves, the things that you saw.