March 13, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
The fifth-graders in Room 301 at Sanchez Elementary School didn't think anything of it when the assistant principal showed up in their classroom early Monday afternoon. They assumed one of them had gotten into trouble.
But then he told them Mr. Hunt, their tutor and friend, had died Sunday of a stroke. In an instant, half the class broke down in tears. "The sixth-graders were crying at recess," said fifth-grader Melanie Sanchez. "We told them that Mr. Hunt died."
Throughout the school, it was hard to find a dry eye. Everyone was weeping - the school nurse, the social worker, teachers, parents, a fellow retiree who also tutors four mornings a week.
John Hunt, 73, was not on staff at the school in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood, but he was as much a part of the fabric of the place as any beloved teacher.
A retired vice president of Travelers Group, Hunt stood as a beacon of hope and opportunity for children who had little of either. He tutored students and conducted one-on-one mentoring sessions over the course of several years - often stressing accountability - giving youngsters the boost to rise above the limitations of poverty, turn away from the lure of the street and embrace education.
John Hunt provided more than lessons in math and self-discipline: He set up a foundation that will award 36 Sanchez students full college scholarships if they make the grade.
The man whom one mother called "an angel" started volunteering at the school when it opened in the early 1990s. A kindergarten teacher remembers Hunt buying mats so the youngsters could sit on the floor because the school didn't have any yet. And he tutored children after school in a program run by Center City Churches.
Hunt soon realized that he could be more effective working during the day helping children in their classrooms. Before long, he stepped it up to two full days. Then three. Then four.
"On Fridays, he went golfing," said Melanie, a student in Room 301.
The school had other tutors, but Hunt noticed that they avoided working with pupils on math, said Jeff Hill, a retired Pratt & Whitney engineer who tutors at the school. Hill was recruited by a retired insurance actuary that Hunt brought in to shore up the math tutoring.
The youngsters appreciated Hunt's concentration on math. "He taught us the lattice method," said fifth-grader Blessing Keaton. "It was like a short-cut for multiplication," he said, grabbing a piece of paper and eagerly demonstrating how quickly he could compute 34 x 48 by using the method Hunt taught.
Another thing Hunt was known for was the effort he made to ensure that students see clearly - literally. He noticed years ago that many students couldn't see the blackboard and didn't have glasses. He researched the state's Husky insurance plan for children and found the coverage for eyeglasses lacking. So he took it on himself to drive children to the eye doctor and get glasses for them. When they broke their glasses, he got them fixed. When the glasses needed tightening or loosening, he pulled out a kit that he carried and adjusted them himself.
Sometimes he drove two or three students to eye appointments in a single day, said Olga Gonzales, the school nurse. "He thought of the students as complete human beings - not just as academics."
"The last day he came, I gave him my glasses. They were broken," said fifth-grader Iliana Harmon. "I didn't get to say goodbye," she said, beginning to cry.
But there was another way that Hunt wanted to help Sanchez pupils see - he wanted them to envision a future for themselves, college, career and all the security and enlightenment that comes from education.
So he offered 12 students in each of three classes full scholarships at the University of Connecticut, St. Joseph College or the University of Hartford. Several times a year, he took the 36 students to visit campuses, dorms and classrooms so they could imagine themselves there.
He kept track of his 36 students as they moved through the grades, calling them at home, visiting with their families, meeting with their teachers, guidance counselors and principals. He built relationships that lasted even when the youngsters moved away.
And when he decided that some of the students needed the sheltering atmosphere of private school, he approached their parents and offered them the chance to send their children to Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford on full scholarship. Four students took him up on his offer and are enrolled now as ninth- and 10th-graders.
Maria Cruz remembers the day Hunt brought her daughter, Lyanne Gonzalez, some books to help her study for the test she would need to take to get into private school.
"I said, `This is an angel,'" Cruz said.
When Lyanne was admitted, Cruz said, Hunt took them shopping for Lyanne's school uniform and told Cruz to pick out whatever Lyanne needed without regard for the cost.
"He said, `Get her whatever she wants. Get her each color shirt.' Then he paid with his American Express."
At one point, stress had a profound effect on Lyanne when her best friend got into trouble. Her grades dropped, and she lost weight so rapidly that it frightened her mother.
Hunt went to the school and helped her sort things out, Cruz said.
Then when Lyanne began having trouble with her grade in religion class, she wanted her mother to go to the school.
Hunt stepped in and told Lyanne that she needed to advocate for herself and ask for help from her teacher if she needed it.
"He said that I'm in high school now, and I have to speak up for myself because my mom won't always be there for me," Lyanne recalled. "He told me if I have trouble in class I should go to my teachers and not be scared of them. I went to my guidance counselor and got tutoring."
Cruz worried that news of Hunt's death would set her daughter back. But Lyanne said that won't happen. She cried when she learned of his death, she said, but she's determined to do well and go to college as a tribute to the man who helped her so much. "I want to make him proud."
It is unclear whether anyone will step into the void Hunt left and mentor the 36 students he was guiding toward college.
"It will take a village" to do the work Hunt was doing, Hill said.
A group led by Robert J. Crowder, senior executive recruiter at Aetna, may provide that village. Still in its formative stage, the group of about 20 black and Hispanic professionals from Aetna, Hartford Financial Services Group and United Health Group is making plans to adopt a kindergarten class and mentor its students through college. Crowder invited Hunt to speak with the group and its members were inspired by his passion and his advice.
So Crowder said he will ask his group if they will be willing to adopt Hunt's 36 college-bound students to ensure they make it to college.
Back at Sanchez, Hunt's absence will be keenly felt. And not just by the children. Standing in a hallway, Maribel Corbett, the school social worker, wept as she remembered the day she came to work to find UConn basketball tickets and a parking pass in her mailbox.
Hunt, a season ticket-holder, left them for her so she could take her son, who she had mentioned was a huge fan.
"He always did things with little to no expectation for anything in return," Corbett said. "I rarely break down. But I loved him. I just thought he was such a special person."
Fifth-grader Nashaly Olivieri thought so, too. "I hope he is in a better place right now," she said. "He will always be in my heart."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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