First impressions can be jaw-dropping.
As he described it, Tom Rabbitt was a wide-eyed new English teacher at Greenport High School when he first met Ron McEvoy Sr., who at the time just happened to be dressed like an oversized leprechaun in green, riding a ramshackle bicycle around the school hallways. It was St. Patrick’s Day, 1980.
Anyone not knowing better may have wondered if this leprechaun had gone off the deep end. Not so. Actually, it was a St. Patrick’s Day tradition for years. Mr. McEvoy was a popular history teacher at the school and his way of marking the occasion was to don a leprechaun outfit, complete with top hat and vest, and glide through the school hallways to the delight — and undoubted amazement — of students who hadn’t seen this act before.
It had a magical quality to it, especially for elementary school students, some of whom had been heard debating whether the leprechaun had carried or rode the bike up and down the stairs.
Of course, the true magic was in Mr. McEvoy’s classroom.
Mr. McEvoy, who devoted 47 years to teaching (the last 45 of them in Greenport), was known for his unorthodox teaching methods as much as for his ability to connect with and get the best out of his students. The retired educator died last Wednesday at his Riverhead home. He was 76. Mr. McEvoy’s death was the result of cancer he had been battling for three years, said one of his sons, Ron McEvoy Jr.
Ron McEvoy Sr. was known for his costumes and ability to put fun into education. He had dressed up like Elvis Presley for a karaoke night that raised more than $15,000 for charity. He assumed the role of Austin Powers at a student pep rally. He was also known to have dressed like Abraham Lincoln and worn wigs for school yearbook photos.
“The classic one for me is the leprechaun,” said Mr. Rabbitt, a retired teacher, guidance counselor and administrator in the Greenport Union Free School District. “Just watching the little kids in awe, you know, literally thinking he was getting up the stairs kind of magically.”
Behind those costumes was a first-rate educator. Mr. McEvoy was selected as The Suffolk Times’ 2004 Educator of the Year. He had earned the admiration and respect of students and staff alike. A school yearbook described Mr. McEvoy as one of the “most memorable teachers because of the lively comedy he brought to class and his easy way of relating to students.”
“He was truly just a great teacher,” Mr. Rabbitt said. “Teachers take many forms … Ron was an actor, OK, but a great actor, and he looked at the classroom as his stage, but maybe more importantly, he looked at his students as his audience … He saw his classroom as a stage, and on a good day, it was pure theater; it delighted, it instructed.”
Mr. Rabbitt said students attended Mr. McEvoy’s evening Regents prep classes, and it brought results.
“His success on the Regents exam was unparalleled,” he said. “I mean, I don’t remember a year when 90 percent of his kids didn’t pass the Regents, and more often than not, you know, a great majority of them had done exceedingly well on those Regents.”
Students were unsettled when Mr. McEvoy announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2004-05 school year. He later rescinded that retirement notice, giving up a one-time $45,000 incentive to retire in order to keep doing what he loved.
“The reason I didn’t retire is the kids,” he told The Suffolk Times, explaining that the students kept him young.
At the end of the school year in 2011, Mr. McEvoy finally stepped down from full-time teaching, but he didn’t quit cold turkey, continuing to teach on a part-time basis for four more years. By doing that, he said at the time, he helped another teacher not eligible for retirement retain her job.
Mr. McEvoy found teaching uplifting. “These kids should be knowing the fun of learning,” he said in a 2011 interview.
He also made it clear he had no interest into going into administration. “There’s too much joy in the classroom,” he said. “We had a lot of fun.”
Mr Rabbitt said: “You could walk into Ron’s class and knew he was called to be doing what he was doing. It wasn’t just a job.”
The Brooklyn-born Mr. McEvoy graduated from John Carroll University (Ohio). He expected to be drafted during the Vietnam War, but that didn’t happen because nuns wrote a letter stating that he was needed to teach at Sacred Heart Church in Cutchogue, said Ron McEvoy Jr.
Mr. McEvoy spent two years at Sacred Heart before going to Greenport, which became dear to his heart.
Why is that? Perhaps because Mr. McEvoy had a soft spot for the underdog, and he viewed the small Greenport school as an underdog. He rooted for the underdog, with the exception of his beloved New York Giants and New York Yankees, it was said. That may be why he took a special interest in students who lacked confidence and didn’t believe in themselves.
“The kids who were ‘A’ students, who could learn in spite of us, he was great with those kids and those kids loved him,” Mr. Rabbitt said, “but boy, he was great with the kid who might say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can do it.’ … That was his great gift, he could literally bring the light out of those kids.”
Mr. McEvoy made an impact. Mike Sage, a Greenport High School special education teacher and former student of his, put up a Facebook post last Wednesday night of a photo of him with his arm around Mr. McEvoy, captioned with only five powerful words: “Thank you…for inspiring me.”
In an interview Monday, Mr. Sage said, “Very few people have touched that school in the way he has.”
Matt McEvoy, Mr. McEvoy’s other son, heard stories about how good his father was at what he did. “I was always jealous that I didn’t have him as a teacher because I hear all these things,” he said, adding: “He meant the world to me as his kid. I just want to follow in his footsteps, you know, try to be as successful as he was in life.”
Mr. McEvoy had varied interests, including sports, music and reading. At home, Ron Jr. said, “He always had a game on, the music up and he’d be reading a book at the same time.”
With an ever-present smile, Mr. McEvoy was a fixture in the Greenport press box for football games for years, sharing the public-address announcing duties with the former school superintendent, Dr. Charles Kozora.
Mr. Rabbitt remembers Mr. McEvoy pulling the school community together during difficult times, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the death of Greenport teacher Dr. Dennis Claire Jr. in 2004.
While spending time with his daughter, Ali McEvoy Rehm, and family in West Palm Beach, Fla., Mr. McEvoy’s final daily walk was to a corner shop to buy flowers for his wife of 54 years, Sue. Ron Jr. said his father had taken care of his own funeral arrangements two weeks before his death and had him put together a music mix for the funeral. He also bought gold charms to be presented to his daughter, wife and granddaughter.
“It was amazing how he took care of everything for my mom’s sake,” Ron Jr. said. “He really did love my mom most of all.”
Greenport was so much a part of his life that Mr. McEvoy will be laid to rest in Greenport’s purple and gold colors, wearing a school sweater, said Ron Jr.
Mr. Rabbitt was to deliver the eulogy at Mr. McEvoy’s wake yesterday. In his prepared remarks, Mr. Rabbitt wrote that Mr. McEvoy “would want you to find your own unique bike and ride down the hallways of your life with the same kind of joy and abandon he did — the same kind of joy and abandon kids at the bottom of a stairwell would call magic.”