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Sean Kirst: At St. Joe's, a warm goodbye to Mr. Scott, who shaped its soul

Andrew Krzesinski cannot make it to a dinner Saturday honoring Bob Scott for his impending retirement, a dinner so big the organizers had to move it from the gymnasium at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute to the downtown Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

Yet Krzesinski, 42, already said what he needed to say to Scott. He caught up with him at an event a few months ago in Charlotte, N.C. It was part of what Krzesinski called Scott's "farewell tour," a nationwide journey to meet alumni in many cities, an effort both to say goodbye and to raise money for the school's endowment fund.

At the Charlotte gathering, dozens of graduates showed up to shake Scott's hand. Krzesinski understood it was not the place for an intense conversation. He handed Scott an envelope, and asked if he could take a moment to read it later.

The message expressed the gratitude that swept across Krzesinski as an adult.

"In retrospect," he wrote, "I provided you with ammunition for throwing me out of the school based upon my poor behavior and not understanding the privilege to be in attendance at Joe’s."

Scott arrived at the school 47 years ago, as a religion teacher. He became assistant principal, then principal and finally school president, the position from which he will retire in June.

He never felt a need to boot Krzesinski, who was routinely ejected from classrooms for making fun of teachers, for wrestling with classmates, for throwing spitballs, for being the last guy any substitute teacher wanted to see coming.

Bob Scott, president of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, talks with Jack Westner, 17, a senior. Scott is retiring after 47 years at the school. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Today, Krzesinski understands that what drove him was a lack of self-esteem, a teenage despair he covered up with lots of noise. He has heard many teachers wanted him gone from the school. Once kicked out, he has no doubt what would have happened: His entire life, as he knows it now, might have crumbled.

"During my visits to your office, you scolded me, reprimanded me, listened to me, taught me a better way of handling situations, displayed patience, showed that you understood me, let me off easy (rarely, but you did at least once), and provided leadership to me," Krzesinski wrote.

After college at St. John Fisher, Krzesinski became a guy with a family and a career in commercial banking in Charlotte. He often wonders how the kid "who never thought I'd be anything" ended up in such a place.

Scott said his response was based on the philosophy of St. Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle, whose Christian Brothers institute of religious teachers, in 1861, founded the school.

"You don't give up," Scott said. "I believe in the inherent goodness of kids."

At 71, he is retiring to spend more time with his wife, Michele, their children and grandchildren, and to really appreciate his four brothers.

The school will soon have a new president, Christopher Fulco, and a new principal, James Spillman, a 1995 St. Joe's graduate. While Scott said, "It's time," those who know the place understand there will be a natural adjustment.

Ask Canisius College president John Hurley, and he makes a simple point: For almost 50 years, in approach and character, you could not really separate Bob Scott from St. Joe's.

Call the school, and it is his voice, his recorded message, that directs you to the right department. Hurley said he punches in that number and speaks with Scott at least once or twice a month. The connection goes back to 1971, when Scott arrived to teach religion.

Hurley was a sophomore on the day Scott walked into his classroom. He told the students he was trained as an Army sergeant "and if I have to, I'll use it." Somehow, no one had any doubts.

Still, Hurley quickly learned of Scott's much gentler gift, his way of generating lifetime connections with his students.

"I think back often on my career," Hurley said, "and I don't know if any other person had such an impact on me."

He was not alone. David Pietrowski, a 1981 graduate and president of an insurance brokerage, is co-chairing Saturday's Lasallian dinner with his wife, Mary. Once they put out the word that it was a chance to honor Scott, the response was overwhelming. They cut off reservations at 1,300, and there is a waiting list.

To Scott, all of it remains hard to believe. He sees himself as a regular guy who grew up in Tiorunda, in Cheektowaga. His father, an industrial baker, left for work at 2 a.m., six days a week, while his mother stayed home to raise their five sons.

He attended high school at St. Mary's of Lancaster, gave some thought to becoming a priest and eventually decided to be a teacher.

By 1971, after college, graduate school and the Army, Scott was ready to return to Buffalo. He quickly lined up back-to-back job interviews on the same day at St. Joe's and Canisius, the two great Catholic high school rivals.

St. Joe's was first. Brother Victor Hickey offered him a position on the spot. Something, some instinct, told Scott it felt right.

Life turns on such pivots. While Scott eventually became the first non-Christian Brother to serve as principal of the school, he said his proudest day was being named an affiliated member of the brothers.

He studied and embraced their way of thinking, the whole mission of seeing Christ "in the rags of the poor," a philosophy he tried to make part of day-to-day life at St. Joe's.

Kevin Reilly, a Rochester pharmacist who graduated in 1974, speaks of the "Rolodex Bob keeps between his ears," describing how Scott somehow remembers the name and story of every student who passes through the door.

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Scott placed an emphasis on attracting students from all backgrounds. It didn't matter, Reilly said, if you were the greatest athlete or the sharpest student or the best performer in a school production.

If you went to St. Joe's, Scott knew who you were.

Over the years, Krzesinski gradually realized how Scott understood the greatest key to education. He often hears about national educational debate, about classroom size and testing and other questions of achievement, but he said Scott knew the key to where everything begins.

"It's all about your relationship with kids as human beings," Krzesinski said. "You want them to achieve? Care about them and show them you care about them."

That demands listening. It means learning the background and struggles of each family. Many graduates recall how Scott would quietly take them aside, how he would tell them: "Your buddy over there. He's going through a hard time at home. Keep an eye on him. This is when he can use a friend."

The goal, Scott said, was to shape caring fathers, compassionate husbands, quality human beings. He saw the result of that approach at the hardest moments, when students or alumni died too young, when their funerals brought together reverent mourners from many generations in a sea of maroon.

To Scott, it was proof of lasting brotherhood, of true community, the real and most lasting point of an education.

Krzesinski, in his letter, noted that many families send their children to the school for a strong education, or for the allure of the sports teams, or for the deep array of activities and academic programs.

"Not me," wrote Krzesinski, expressing a truth lived out by countless others. "I needed St. Joe’s for Mr. Scott."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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