Bob Shapiro was in their midst.
There was no other way to explain the feeling that permeated the Toll Gate cultural arts center that bears the name of the late teacher, principal and superintendent Friday night.
More than 300 people spent better than two and a half hours listening to stories, viewing photographs and marveling at the performance of the Toll Gate Symphonic Orchestra in tribute to a man who lived by the credo, “You never give up on a student.”
The evening got off to a rousing start with the Toll Gate cheerleaders running down the auditorium aisles, then lifting placards to spell out Shapiro and leading the audience in chanting his name.
Shapiro, affectionately known by his contemporaries in the school department as “Robert J.,” served Warwick schools for 50 years. Shapiro was named principal of Toll Gate while the “school on the hill” was under construction in the early 1970s. He quickly put his brand on the school community; ever attentive to the students, prepared to listen and meet with parents and, as speakers recalled Friday, attending every school function.
One of those parents, attorney John Lynch, had more contact with Shapiro than most.
“He encouraged people, he helped them; he boosted them up,” said Lynch.
John and his wife Pat are the parents of 10 children, all of whom attended Toll Gate. Lynch talked of those years, as did one of his daughters, Bethany Furtado, who currently chairs the Warwick School Committee and served as master of ceremonies.
Furtado shared her own “Shapiro story,” of leaving the school campus during the school day, which is strictly forbidden, and being questioned by Shapiro, who was skeptical of her story that she didn’t hear she was being paged because she was in the girls’ locker room.
“He expected excellence, but only after giving of himself,” she said.
It was a theme echoed by many speakers.
“If there is one thing he left,” said Robert Bushell, director of Warwick Elementary Education, “is that, if it is good for the kids, you do it.”
Emo DiNitto, former athletics director, called Shapiro’s love of students and the school system “infectious.” DiNitto said Shapiro was effective as a leader because “everybody was important to him” and because of his love of kids and of his work.
Julius Breit, who succeeded Shapiro as the principal at Toll Gate, called Shapiro a “treasured friend and mentor.” He remembered his colleague as a visionary with a boundless source of energy.
“This honor feels right and appropriate,” he said.
“Mentor” was also a word used by Superintendent Richard D’Agostino to describe the man he served with.
Madeline Perreault, who Shapiro named as Toll Gate principal, called Shapiro the city’s “good will ambassador.”
John Thompson, a Toll Gate graduate who went on to the School Committee and become its chair, remembered Shapiro for knowing the school’s students.
“You didn’t have to be on the football team to be known by the principal,” he said.
Shapiro retired from the school system in 2007.
As Mayor Scott Avedisian pointed out, unlike many whose value to the community is only recognized after their death, Shapiro well knew of the respect, appreciation and love people had for him. Soon after his retirement as superintendent in 2007, Shapiro was honored at a reception at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet attended by more than 500 people. Some of the stories of that evening, including tales from the early morning road checks Shapiro would make when there was snow, were shared again.
Following Shapiro’s death last September, some of those he worked with wanted to do something to memorialize his contribution to education and the people of Warwick. Toll Gate, which he shaped from the start, was the logical choice. The school auditorium and cultural arts center named after him was built many years after the school complex, which includes Toll Gate, the career and technical center, Winman Junior High School and Drum Rock Elementary School, was dedicated in 1972. The suggestion to rename the high school was dismissed because Shapiro had had such a large role in naming the schools. Early this year, the School Committee unanimously approved the renaming of the Toll Gate Educational Complex for Shapiro.
At the conclusion of Friday’s ceremony, Shapiro’s widow Audrey, assisted by their sons Andrew and Steven, joined Andrew Medeiros, the Warwick Area Career and Tech Center student who designed it, in unveiling a sign at the complex entrance on Route 117. A bronze plaque, featuring a sculpture of Shapiro by Toll Gate’s first art teacher, Billy Montella, was also unveiled.
Andrew Shapiro remarked that it was the feeling with which the great things said that made it such a meaningful evening. He also noted, bringing a laugh, that “new ground was broken” with Shapiro’s cheerleaders’ tribute.
Andrew called the event a “perfect tribute” with music, food and the many memories of his father.
Reflecting on the evening, Steven Shapiro said his father would have been most excited by the students’ performances.
“He was a humble person,” he said. “He would have been humbled by this.”