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Volunteer Spotlight: Harvey Dutil, former educator, is key part of Farmington Valley Relay For Life

By Ted Glanzer

Staff Writer

Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Farmington resident Harvey Dutil insists that he’s 80 years old, even when pressed for his real age.

He says he gets it a lot - that he looks at least 20 years younger than he really is, despite having battled cancer twice, colon cancer in the late 1990s and bladder cancer recently.

So you have to take Dutil, who was an educator in Farmington for decades, first as an elementary school principal, then as a third-grade teacher in the mid to late ‘90s before retiring, at his word.

Since his retirement, Dutil has been active as an indefatigable volunteer with the American Cancer Society, helping organize what’s now called the Farmington Valley Relay For Life, one of the biggest relays in the country.

The Farmington Valley LIFE talked to Dutil recently about his career, his health, why he moved to town and what keeps him so active within the relay community.

How are you doing?

I’m doing great all the way around. They removed my bladder, and there’s just a lot of follow up, I’ve got to have these X-rays, but I’m feeling fine and everything is all right.

Now you say you’re 80, I wouldn’t have guessed that at all.

I hear that a lot. [laughs] … I will send you a picture of my driver’s license.

Tell me about how you moved to Farmington?

I came to Farmington as principal of Noah Wallace School in 1976. I was principal there for nine years. Then I was principal at West District School for 10 years. Then my goal was to go back to my roots and go back to teaching. With five years to go before retiring, I had too much of the three Ps: parents, phone and paper. And not enough of the P that I went into the business for: pupils. So I went back to teach third grade for five years at East Farms School.

So you made the circuit in town, you only missed Union School for all the elementary schools in Farmington.

My wife [Judy] was teaching at Union at the time, so we had it all wrapped up.

Now forgive me, but do I detect a hint of a ‘New England’ accent?

I grew up in the state of Maine and I got my bachelor’s degree at what was then Gorham State Teachers College and then went up to get a master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Maine in Orono. Then after five years of doing that, I wanted to get a PhD and I was teaching at Gorham State. I had a choice to go back to the University of Maine or take an opportunity at the University of Connecticut.

And that’s what we did.

You’re not one of those horrible Red Sox fans are you?

I’m not really a baseball fan. I lost faith in baseball many years ago. I lost interest in baseball when they first went on strike.

What do you like about living here?

Farmington is a great community, great education system, a lot of nice people it’s close to Hartford for what’s going on here, and it’s close to the Berkshires or whatever. It’s a very nice community. A lot of caring people in this town.

What do you like to do when you aren’t volunteering.

I enjoy a good round of golf, but that doesn’t happen often. I enjoy sports, primarily football. UConn basketball, I enjoy watching women’s sports more than men’s sports. I do a lot of tinkering around, home repairs for my kids and friends. But to be honest with you, volunteering takes up a lot of my time.

What led you to start volunteering and is it just for the American Cancer Society?

We’ve done volunteering for other places, not so much for the last year or two, but we have a place up in Maine and we volunteer at the church up there and at the fuel bank. And here we volunteer with St. Patrick’s Church. I got involved with the American Cancer Society, I was retired and had been doing little odd jobs for realtors getting houses ready for the market. A friend who works at the American Cancer Society said you ought to volunteer. And I said what am I going to do? And at that time they ACS had these huge galas, $250-a-plate deals and the honorary chairs were Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma. He said you like UConn sports, you can maybe help out with the committee. They need someone with a logistical bent, and so I did that for five years. Then they stopped doing the gala, and from there I started doing work with a program Coaches vs. Cancer, and I traveled around the state to all the athletic directors and basketball coaches to run fundraising programs at a game or during the season.

I enjoyed that and I spent many days riding around the state in my truck by myself. Then 12 years ago, I went to Relay For Life in Farmington and I said, boy this is what I really want. This is dealing with real people, local people and it fits into my yearly plan and I can go to Maine and Florida. So 11 years ago I started with Relay for Farmington.

When did it switch over from Farmington to the Farmington Valley?

As it grew, it was Farmington then I focused on recruiting students and I contacted Avon and we got Avon High School involved and from there it went to Lewis Mills and from there it went to Canton and from there to Simsbury and we changed the name to reflect our greater participation. 

Why did you choose the ACS?

I was a cancer survivor at the time. I’ve had cancer twice. I had prostate cancer 25 years ago. My mother died of cancer. So there’s been cancer around me all my life. I was looking for something meaningful, so way of giving back to the community. So this just fit in nicely.

What’s your role for relay?

It pretty much encompasses much of the year. I’m the tri-chair, my major responsibilities are recruiting and it encompasses the whole year. When the Relay is over in May, generally, I don’t do a lot during the summer, but during the fall I start contacting principals and community organizations, setting up to do presentations to the students or organizations. In January and February, I’m putting together PowerPoints I’m going to use, and in February and March and April, I’m doing presentations for groups and after that I’m preparing for Relay.

My wife says it’s full time. It’s spread out through the year – a lot of contacts and presentations.

Where do you get the energy to do that?

I get energized by seeing people succeed. Helping a group of people, organize, raise money. … Seeing a group of people, kids or adults, get together and use some of the strategies or fundraising ideas I put out, and being successful, that’s what energizes me. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what I enjoyed being a principal. I enjoyed seeing teachers and kids be successful after something I had taught them or led them to.

How has the community responded to the Relay for Life’s efforts?

Absolutely fantastic. Ten years ago we raised $125,000 and every year since then it’s increased. In 2018 and 2019 out of 3,000 relays across the U.S. we were No. 4. In 2018 we raised $625,000 and in 2019, we raised $633,000. In the 20 years Farmington has had a relay, we’ve raised $5.18 million. The very first relay they raised $40,000. 

What do you say to the people who say the salaries at the ACS are too high or that not enough money goes to funding of research to find a cure?

Money goes to more than just an executive salary. My understanding is 78% of the money goes to programming. It’s more than research. It’s only one part of what the ACS does. They spend more money on patient services, which is providing rides and counseling for families and patients and that kind of thing. [Dutil explains the 23% of the funds raised go back into organizations like Relay for Life in East Hartford, which handles a lot of administrative tasks so other relays can function.]

The pandemic has affected virtually every event this year, Relay being no different. How do you feel about the modified event Relay held this year?

I think it was very successful. We had a drive-in style relay and to my knowledge it was the only one of the 3,000 across the country had that approach. Many held virtual relays. Our goal … was to somehow, somewhere have the event that honored survivors, recognized caregivers and honored people who worked to fundraise. We were determined to have it somewhere somehow. The only things I’ve heard were just phenomenal. It worked out real well. VL

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