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SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED and flags are flying at half staff today in Lackawanna in memory of Dr. Thomas F. McDonnell, the first professional educator to head the city's school system.

McDonnell, 53, died Sunday, two beeps away from a liver and kidney transplant that could have given him a good shot at life.

Of the beeper he carried that would notify him that matching organs had been found, McDonnell told his secretary last week, "If it should go off, I think I'll also need a new heart."

McDonnell took over the broken, demoralized school system July 1, 1984, and in six years, did for it what medical doctors could not do for him: restored it to robust health.

"When he first came, he wrote an article for our school paper," recalled Aldo Filipetti, principal for administration. "I told him I didn't think the people of Lackawanna would be able to understand the big $50 words he used because not everybody in the city owned a dictionary."

McDonnell replied: "One of our first objectives will be to make certain that everybody in Lackawanna will have a dictionary."

During his tenure, McDonnell spearheaded construction of the school system's modern Secondary Center, developed a prekindergarten program, added language courses and wrote grant applications that raised a lot of money for advanced programs.

For the gifted, McDonnell personally hustled funding for scholarships, principally from his alma mater, Pennsylvania State University.

In a school system where the dropout rate was mirrored by Bethlehem Steel's cyclical demand for hiring, McDonnell developed courses designed to encourage high school students to graduate.

At the time of his death, McDonnell was pushing for an in-house nursery so that single parents could continue to attend school and earn their diplomas.

In time, McDonnell also brought the school system back into Western New York's education mainstream, joining its various professional organizations and reaching out to exchange ideas.

For at least two decades before McDonnell's appointment, the Lackawanna School District had been the state's "bad boy."

Ruled by political bosses and corrupt politicians, the School Board made history in 1972 when five of its seven members were jailed for stealing. When they got out, the board hired two of them for its staff.

It is the state's only school board that was mandated to have a state-appointed "watchdog" observe its meetings.

One superintendent seconded a driver-education car for his own use. Another slept in his office because he drove a truck at night inside Bethlehem.

When, in 1983, a superintendent wrote himself a juicy new contract with unlimited travel as a fringe benefit, William Jaworski, board president and brother of National Football League quarterback Ron Jaworski, decided that day to even the playing field.

His was the board's swing vote, and he used it that night to fire the superintendent and to set out on a broad search for an educator.

Sitting in a restaurant that afternoon, Jaworski declared, "Enough's enough. It's time we gave the schools back to the people."

Up from the Scranton, Pa., area came Dr. Thomas F. McDonnell.

At the turn of the century when the old Lackawanna Iron Works became Bethlehem Steel, hundreds of steelworkers from the Scranton area rode the railroad coal cars to Lackawanna in search of jobs at the new plant. They came in such numbers that even today, people in Lackawanna are still identified as "Scrantonian Irish."

McDonnell, erudite and superbly qualified by education, cheerfully accepted the "Scrantonian Irish" tag.

"But he was far from living out the image," said Tom Vanderlip, McDonnell's best friend. "He's the first guy from Scranton, Lackawanna, or South Buffalo that I've ever met who could tell a joke or make a point without using profanity."

Still, says Vanderlip, McDonnell had an understated Irishman's sense of humor.

"Before he died, doctors told Tom to build himself up for the transplant operation. He told me that if he died, to write his epitaph, 'He was in perfect health,' " Vanderlip said.

McDonnell's ashes will be scattered today on the playing field of Penn State University.

But his legacy will live on in Lackawanna schools where, against insurmountable odds, he purified a sick system and gave hope to today and tomorrow's child.

For he had the gift of teaching, and he willed the gift of learning to them.

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