STONINGTON — The saying goes that “neither rain, nor snow, nor hail, nor hail” will stop the postman from his route. Those elements won’t stop 80-year-old Hugh McGee from greeting children outside Deans Mill Elementary School every morning.
The longtime Stonington Public Schools volunteer, an 80-year-old father of three and grandfather of eight, was honored Wednesday with the prestigious Friends of Distinguished Education Award. This award is a coveted statewide recognition that is given annually by the Connecticut Association of Schools to deserving volunteers who have made a big difference in the community. He was presented with the award by CAS representative Mike Rafferty, a retired Old Saybrook school administrator.
The humble McGee will be the first to tell you he’s just a “simple volunteer,” but that isn’t the description the school’s administrators and staff gave Wednesday.
“When I was first hired, I didn’t really know what I liked about Hugh,” Mill Principal Dean Jennifer McCurdy said with a smile. “The supervisor at the time came up to me and said ‘my neighbor wants to do something after Sandy Hook.’ Since that day, I joke that he is our most reliable unpaid employee.”
McGee was surprised by family, friends and fellow volunteers Wednesday morning when he read to his youngest granddaughter, Elsa McGee, and her fifth-grade classmate Daniel Barth, just one of the many ways staff say she has made a difference over the last decade.
A retired Connecticut attorney and longtime resident of Stonington, where he lives with Pam, his wife of 57 years, McGee began working with the district shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting in late 2012. Concerned for the safety of the children, he stepped forward and asked to the district how he could help.
Deans Mill Assistant Principal Thomas Bousquet said McGee was determined to make a difference, and before long they had given him the official position as superintendent of the school’s “kiss and drop” area.
Since that day, with the exception of maybe one week of vacation per year, Bousquet said McGee has been a normal, happy face to greet students day after day – and he has done so for 10 years, even when it was below zero, in snow or under the sun on a 100 degree summer day in early summer.
“Hugh has made a difference from day one,” said Bousquet. “During the school renovation project, he was always looking for ways to improve traffic and make students safer.”
McGee graciously accepted the award, followed by his son Jamie and Jamie’s wife Jenna, Elsa’s stepmother; First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough, School Superintendent Mary Anne Butler and Assistant Inspector Tim Smith, former Stonington Police Chief Dave Erskine and current member of the Stonington Police Department, and other city officials.
For McGee, the goal of his ministry was not to earn honors or recognition. A decade after first stepping out to monitor safety in the morning, he says it’s the school community and students that have motivated him to come back, day after day, for years.
“When the kids come in the morning and get out of those cars — some are very serious and others are laughing and goofing around — it’s the best part of my day,” says McGee. “I am delighted to have the opportunity to be here.”
McGee was quick to praise the staff and other volunteers, saying he believed there were many others more deserving, but McCurdy and Bousquet said there was a reason he was nominated. In addition to routine monitoring duties, they said he was instrumental in helping to redesign traffic flow and his advice had “greatly reduced the danger” of children potentially being hit in the parking lot.
However, its influence extends far beyond the parking lot. He was known for his jokes—an element that quickly became a popular part of every day’s lunch.
When one of his grandchildren was young, McGee started telling jokes every day. Then when he started getting on the bus, he would hang the jokes in the window for his grandson to see and, before long, start giving the jokes to bus drivers.
Word of fun spread, McGee explained, and soon there were plenty of drivers wanting the daily joke. He eventually started producing enough for all the students and distributing it at lunch.
“We had to get rid of that, with COVID and not being able to share and stuff, but it’s something I want to do again,” he said.
Elsa McGee, who said she kept the secret for nearly three weeks, said her favorite part was surprising her grandfather. It was a rare opportunity for him to catch him off guard, he said, and his grandfather had always been there for him. He said he really deserved the award.
However, when it comes to his graduation, it may not be the end of the road for Hugh McGee at Deans Mill. In fact, he says he had “good years,” as long as school afforded him opportunities.
“I will probably be here next year. I’ll probably be here as long as they let me,” he said with a smile.