“I am writing this letter to you because I know how much you miss your husband (Mr. Wirth). I’m just letting you know how much I miss him too.”
- Fifth-grade student to Diana Wirth
Dan Wirth was uncommonly special to the kids at McKinley Elementary School in Elyria, Ohio.
He was, said fifth-grade teacher Dawn Neely-Randall, the person salting the walkway and stopping to wave to students as they started their day.
He collected their breakfast wrappers and mopped the floor while youngsters lined up for lunch. He scrubbed away bathroom graffiti, and when students who were nauseated raced to the bathroom, he cleaned up their vomit.
At day’s end, he held a walkie-talkie, alongside the principal in the parking lot, to coordinate departure and get the children safely on their way home. Every morning, he talked with Principal Jen Fitch about their respective families.
“He was a constant in their lives” at a troubled moment in the community’s history, Neely-Randall said.
The opioid epidemic has hit the area hard, and industries, one after the next, left in recent years. A large majority of the students in the Elyria City School District come from low-income families.
But it wasn’t only the students who came to rely on Wirth. Adults at McKinley, too, depended on the former steelworker and owner of an electronics store who had become head custodian.
“If I asked 40 students or staff, each of us would use words that go back to the same term: Remarkable,” Fitch said in her eulogy of Wirth.
“He was part of my dream team, my right-hand man, my marigold. You see, most people think a principal runs a school, but the truth is that it takes a team. Dan was part of that team and will always be a part of that team. Every morning, Dan and I would talk about our families. I would talk about my boys and he would talk about his grandkids and wife. We would talk about the day’s events and how we would lean on each other when needed. Dan made work easy. He taught me to fight for my students and staff. To not back down, even when others pushed back or told me something wasn’t doable.”
The Wirth family has close ties to the Elyria school district. Wirth’s daughter, Amy Higgins, is the district’s communications director, and one of his granddaughters attends first grade at McKinley. Diana Wirth, Dan’s widow, worked in the district’s administrative offices, too. (Wirth’s family also includes two sons, six other grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a brother.)
Before the recent winter holidays, Wirth was diagnosed with cancer. Students sent him get-well letters - hundreds of them, his daughter said - but they did not realize how aggressive the disease was.
When the children returned to school, they were stunned to learn that Wirth had died. He was 63. “That constant male figure in their life was yet another hard loss for some of them to endure,” Neely-Randall wrote.
Counselors went to classrooms to talk about students’ feelings, and teachers helped students express their feelings by relating to literature and poetry they had read, including the novel “Walk Two Moons,” which Neely-Randall’s class had recently read and which prompted students to react with sorrow when one of the characters died.
More than 500 people from across the district attended his funeral, Higgins said, and the letters that the children had written to him when he was ill were hung all over the walls of the funeral home for his service. “My dad would never have believed the impact he’s had on so many, but as his family, we sure knew how special he was,” his daughter said.
Teachers and students wanted to honor Wirth and the important place he occupied in their lives, and classes devised projects to do that. A third-grade class, for example, designed a “memory tree” for him. Neely-Randall’s class decided to write letters to his widow to offer condolences and reminders about how much he had touched their lives.
“The letters came from the students’ hearts,” Neely-Randall said. “They represent all levels of students from gifted to special ed, and they are first-draft handwritten copies, because I wanted this correspondence to be personal between Dan’s wife and them. I wanted them to just sit and get their raw, innocent, children’s thoughts on paper, which would add to their own healing.
“I gave some general guidelines for a friendly letter and told them they could add a favorite quote or two and before you knew it, they were all scouring the internet reading compassionate quotes and thoughts about grief, which also, I believe, helped them to process his loss a bit more while they were trying to help Mrs. Wirth process her own.”
Following is the eulogy that Fitch, the principal, delivered at Wirth’s funeral, which, she told colleagues, was “by far one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.”
Principal Fitch’s eulogy of Dan Wirth:
“Dan Wirth was a remarkable man. By definition, the word “remarkable” means worthy of attention.
“If I asked 40 students or staff, each of us would use words that go back to the same term. Remarkable.
“You see, Dan was this man who made coffee every morning for the staff. It wasn’t part of his job description or duties, it was just something that made him ‘Dan.’
“On a miserable weather day, he would be waiting at the back door to help you in. He was a text away to others when they needed help setting up for plays or PTI events. He was ‘Dan the Man’ to anyone who needed an extra hand with some of the crazy activities we were doing on the fly. He was first in line for potluck luncheons, but last to leave when there was work to be done or help that was needed.
“To parents, he was the man that made you follow the car-rider line, but he was also that man that kept every kid safe in that parking lot. Most people never knew that Dan never missed a McKinley music concert. It wasn’t because his own kids were in the performance; he was there because his McKinley family was there.
“To me, personally, Dan was so much more. He was part of my dream team; my right-hand man; my marigold. You see, most people think a principal runs a school, but the truth is that it takes a team. Dan was part of that team and will always be a part of that team.
“Every morning, Dan and I would talk about our families. I would talk about my boys, and he would talk about his grandkids and wife. We would talk about the day’s events and how we would lean on each other when needed. Dan made work easy. He taught me to fight for my students and staff. To not back down, even when others pushed back or told me something wasn’t doable.
“Because of Dan’s inspiration, McKinley will continue to fight for our children. We will continue to spread acts of kindness, no matter how small. We will climb mountains, even when they look to be way too steep. I thank Dan’s family for sharing with me one of the most remarkable men I have ever met.”