Tom Meehan is the kind of principal who would give a child the clothes off his back — literally.
When he saw an Edna Louise Spear Elementary School student was not wearing a jacket, the Port Jefferson principal took off the one he had on and gave it to the boy to wear home.
“He understands that it’s about the kids — that they’re the priority,” school board President Kathleen Brennan said, adding that Meehan goes “above the call of duty to make sure kids get what they need.”
For his dedication to Port Jefferson’s kids and the greater community, Tom Meehan is a Times Beacon Record Newspapers Person of the Year.
Meehan was hired for the 2011-12 school year, originally on an interim basis. District officials expected to hire a permanent elementary principal, but soon found the best choice was right under their noses.
Tony Butera, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Edna Louise Spear, has worked under a bunch of principals in his time there, but said Meehan has “a nice sense of what Port Jeff is supposed to be about.”
“He just sees it as, these are his kids,” Butera said.
Early on in Meehan’s time in Port Jefferson, there was an issue with one of the bus routes and it was running late. Brennan said the principal “got on the bus, rode the bus around the route and reassured the parents at every stop about why they were late and what happened.”
That leadership instinct is not something that can be taught, Brennan said.
“Tom has … what I call ‘horse sense’ about what school administration is about.”
One initiative Meehan started in the elementary school is a safety patrol for the fifth-graders to teach them responsibility. Among their activities, they help with dismissal, making sure younger kids get onto the school buses.
School board member Ellen Boehm, a former district employee, said it gives the kids a sense that “what they did was important.” And for the less outgoing kids, she added, “He built them up during their time as a safety leader.”
Meehan, a longtime volunteer for the Port Jefferson Fire Department, was also responsible for starting the tradition of elementary school kids singing at the fire department’s annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony. Brennan said the experience is significant for the kids who attend, and they’ve been able to see Meehan in uniform a few times.
It’s “important to see adults have other roles in the community,” she said.
Christian Neubert has worked alongside Meehan both in the school district, where he is a music teacher, and as a volunteer for the Port Jefferson Fire Department. He said the 9/11 ceremony is not the only way Meehan bridges the school and the department — he also gets firefighters involved in the school’s evacuation drills, and some high school kids now in the junior firefighter program had Meehan as a principal and look up to him at the firehouse.
Neubert, a lieutenant, noted Meehan is still qualified to fight fires inside buildings, despite being older than most guys who do that, since the physical requirements are high.
As a testament to his fitness, Meehan can be seen walking to school every morning, Neubert said, and students and teachers can sometimes catch a glimpse of him walking the school halls “in his suit and hiking boots.”
That’s not the only place they can see him. He’s at his students’ sports games and all around the village. During the Charles Dickens Festival earlier this month, Superintendent Ken Bossert said, he watched his students perform and then roasted marshmallows with them.
“He is just everywhere at all times,” Bossert said. “All the kids know him and love him.”
Well, almost everywhere: “Mr. Meehan is rarely in his office,” Neubert said, because he frequently drops into classrooms around the school.
Meehan has joined Neubert’s class a few times to share musical facts he knows, which the kids loved.
“In their minds, Mr. Meehan knows everything,” Neubert said.
That goes for sports too. A physical education teacher was once absent and a swimming class at the end of the day needed a qualified teacher or it would have been canceled. Meehan, a certified lifeguard, didn’t want to disappoint the kids, Bossert said, so he went home to get his swimsuit and taught the class.
Bossert said he was the “first principal that they ever saw in the water.”
According to a letter the superintendent wrote, nominating Meehan as a Person of the Year, “He was dry and back in his dress suit in time for dismissal.”
Meehan has helped kids on an individual basis as well. Bossert described a time when Meehan pulled some strings with the Long Island Rail Road on behalf of a special needs student who had “a fascination with trains,” and the child was able to conduct a train between the Port Jefferson to Stony Brook stations. He also brings gifts to kids during the holidays when he knows their families can’t afford them.
Those close to him said he knows every child’s name and if one needs extra attention, Butera said, “he’ll find ways throughout the day of stopping by” to check on that student.
But his subtle approach to offering that extra attention puts the kids at ease, Boehm said. She described it as, “Hey, I’m here, and we’ll take care of this together.”
Around the hallways, Meehan is also known for his sense of humor, cracking jokes with kids and dressing up as Mario for Halloween, making him more approachable.
“He has such a great rapport” with all the parents, the staff and the kids, and everyone in the community knows who he is, said Sean Leister, the assistant superintendent for business. Usually that kind of reverence comes with someone who’s been in his position for 20 years, Leister said, but Meehan’s attained it in five.
Even so, he doesn’t take credit for most of what he does.
“He’s not the kind of guy that likes any limelight or fanfare,” Boehm said. “He would never make a big deal about what he was doing.”