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One of a kind: Tribute to Jack Phelan

Jack Phelan, the former athletic director at Farmington High School, had a label for exceptional athletes. The rarest of the rare. The ones who weren’t just physically gifted, but who made others around him or her better. 

He called them “one-percenters,” according to Farmington High Principal Scott Hurwitz, who spoke at a celebration of Phelan’s life at the FHS football field this summer. 

“Jack’s definition of a one-percenter was a person or an athlete who not only had the physical tools to be successful, but someone who also put the team before themselves,” Hurwitz said. “In life, one-percenters are exceptionally rare. They’re hard to come by because of their selfless grace. One percenters are willing to forgo individual accolades for the success of others. One-percenters didn’t look for recognition. They simply did the right thing because that’s what had to be done. Jack Phelan never had to let others know he was a better athlete, husband, father, grandfather, coach, friend, mentor or colleague. He just didn’t operate like that. He didn’t think like that. 

But Jack was a tried and true one-percenter. One of the rarest individuals you could ever come across. He simply dedicated his energy to elevating everyone who he came in contact with.”

Indeed, the family members, parade of coaches, school administrators, students who preceded Hurwitz all testified to the enormity of Phelan’s decency, grace, morality and love. The comments collectively painted a picture of a man who cared profoundly not just for the student-athletes under his charge, but the adults – the coaches, fellow administrators and parents - with whom he worked and kept in frequent contact.

“He was one of the first individuals to welcome me to Farmington schools,” Superintendent of Schools Kathy Greider said. “He made me feel instantly at ease. He was supportive, caring and reflected excellence all aspects of his work. He made each one of us feel special. … He taught us life is about the simple things. Love your family, cherish your friends and give your best to your work. Overall, love life. Jack loved his family above all. They represented the center of his life. … Jack taught us to spread goodness and positivity throughout life.”

“Our chats were always so uplifting,” Board of Education Chairwoman Ellen Siuta said, adding Phelan always asked about Siuta’s children and was quick with a high-five or a smile. “He was a natural confidence builder.”

Len Corto, New Britain High School’s athletic director, said he was shocked to hear his friend and colleague had died.

“I had just spoken to Jack when he was up at the Cape on vacation,” Corto said, breaking up a few times. “He had called me to ask about my trip to visit my son, who is in the Army. I said, ‘Jack it was great, we had a great time.’ I asked him how are things going at the Cape. And in a true Jack way, he said, ‘It’s great, Len. Patti’s read about 10 books and I think I finished the sports page, and Len you know how short the sports page is nowadays?’ We had a laugh, and you know that’s just the way Jack was.

“He said, ‘I’ll see you at the next AD meeting,’ which never happened.”

Corto said Phelan always raved about Farmington High’s athletes and students. But he also was quick with a call to a fellow AD to say how great one of the opposing high school athletes played or how well-behaved students were at a game.

“He would always say, ‘I’m so lucky I work with great people,’” Corto said. “He loved those coaches. He was always honoring them. … He had a love for the game, but he had a love for those kids. He loved his Farmington athletes. … We are all better people because we have known Jack Phelan.”

FHS Assistant Principal Russ Crist, who coached the girls basketball team to a state title in 2013, said being called “coach” is one of the greatest honorifics one can have.

“Jack was my coach and mentor for the last 17 years and I’m a better coach, husband, father and son because of him,” Crist said.

Duane Witter, a teacher and the FHS boys basketball coach, in a recorded message said Avon, Canton and Simsbury had 14 athletic directors in the last 17 years.

“Farmington has had one,” he said.

Witter noted that Phelan was one of the toughest and talented athletes in Connecticut history - Phelan was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as coached men’s basketball at the University of Hartford, leading the transition from Division II to Division I.

“He was a master storyteller and a great listener,” Witter said. “He cared about our stories. He cared about us. Coach Phelan was most generous man I ever met: generous with his time, generous with his energy. … He will be dearly missed.”

Girls volleyball coach and teacher Laura Arena said volleyball was not in Phelan’s wheelhouse 17 years ago. But Phelan made the effort to learn the lingo and strategy and, more importantly, communicate with the players and Arena.

“He was always there for all of us coaches and his student athletes,” she said. “On behalf coaches past and present, ‘Thank you.’ We are better coaches and people because of you. Thank you Jack for not only being an incredible boss but for being an incredible friend.”

Two FHS alumni and a current student read comments from a current or former member of each team at the school. The main message was, like Phelan, consistent: he encouraged them to be better. He was passionate about sports. He gave high-fives. So. Many. High-fives. Most importantly, he cared.

At the end of the celebration, the lights at the field were turned off and people in attendance turned on their cellphone lights and hold a moment of silence for 55 seconds to honor Phelan one last time.

A quiet and decent gesture for a giant of a man. VL

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