Richard Brooks spent his decades-long career at Mattituck High School engaging his earth science students with the local environment and ensuring they remember his teachings. Based on how a recent social media post regarding one of his lessons garnered thousands of reactions and national media attention, he was surely successful.
Each year, Richard Brooks, who died from Alzheimer’s disease last September at age 83, gathered his students to release messages in glass bottles into the Atlantic Ocean. On Friday, Adam Travis, a resident of Southampton’s Shinnecock reservation, found one such bottle in the Shinnecock Bay while out in the marshes where he enjoys looking for waterfowl. He said he often finds empty bottles and uses labels and numbers on them to look into their history. This time, history was inside the bottle, which contained a letter dated October 1992.
“Dear Finder,” the note reads, “As part of an earth science project for 9th grade this bottle was thrown into the Atlantic Ocean near Long Island. Please fill in the information below and return the bottle 2 us. Merci, gracias, danke, thank you.”
The reverse side lists a return address for then-students Shawn Magill and Ben Doroski, as well as “Mr. R. Brooks.”
Mr. Travis posted photographs of his discovery to the Mattituck High School alumni Facebook group, which reached thousands of users, hundreds of whom recalled their experience casting their own messages out to whomever may find them.
“It’s local, so I thought it would be cool to see if the people are still here,” Mr. Travis said. “It’s kind of like local history.”
Among the teacher’s former students who remember this activity is John Brooks, Richard’s son.
“It was so cool to see the impact that he’s had on literally multiple generations of students,” he said of the volume of comments on Mr. Travis’ Facebook post. “He’d have kids, and then he would have their kids.”
Mr. Brooks said his family has been “reeling” these past few months. A few weeks after his father died, his youngest sister, Heather, also died. He said the bottle’s return, which his sister Amy described as “a hug from heaven,” lifted the family’s spirits, including those of his eldest sister, Lori, and his mother, Sharon.
“This whole thing has just turned into a huge breath of fresh air and good vibes and positive energy,” Mr. Brooks said. “I was talking with my mom last night on the phone and she was crying, but for the first time in a few months, her tears were actually happy tears instead of grieving tears. This couldn’t have come at a better time for our family.”
In 1939, Richard Brooks and his future wife, Sharon Lellmann, were born in Greenport only a few days apart. Their courtship began at age 14 and they married at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport at age 21. They celebrated 62 years of marriage in August. During his decades-long teaching career at Mattituck, he served his local fire department and coached girls volleyball, track and started the sailing team. After his retirement, Mr. Brooks said, his father served as a substitute teacher and exam proctor.
Mr. Brooks remembers his time in his father’s class fondly. He explained that the message in a bottle activity, part of a lesson on ocean currents, was one of many his father designed to get his students’ hands dirty and their minds engaged. He said his dad would have students shake dirt and water in bottles to learn how sediment layers form and “sing a little song, or do a little dance, or tell dumb jokes or whatever would get through us through that lesson that he was teaching.”
The Mattituck native, who now resides just outside of Dallas, Texas, said his favorite memory from his dad’s classroom was the sediment activity. He and his lab partner shook their jar too hard, causing it to shatter, and his dad to smack his own palm to his forehead. He also recalled that his father’s concern for his students extended beyond his earth science course, which he taught for more than three decades.
“My dad started what he called the Lunch Club,” Mr. Brooks explained. “He would eat his sandwich in his classroom instead of the faculty room, and he brought in a ping pong table from home that he would set up on one of the lab tables. Any kid who wanted to come in and either just eat lunch or play ping pong, or whatever, was more than welcome. He did that for years.”
Mr. Brooks said he spoke with Mr. Travis by phone after his much-discussed discovery. Mr. Travis said intentionally broke the bottle after he attempted to extract the note with tweezers and worried it would tear. With the letter still intact, Mr. Travis intends to send it to the Brooks family.
“The cool thing is this wasn’t just some ninth grade project,” Mr. Travis said. “This is more like helping close a chapter for that family … It’s touching.”
“I’m just so grateful,” Mr. Brooks said. “His discovery has given my dad some time in the limelight and some recognition that he never sought out and was always uncomfortable with. Even now, he would just nod and smile and say, ‘I’m happy for Shawn [Magill] and Ben [Doroski],’ the kids who wrote that specific postcard. This comes at a time when my family really needed an infusion of positivity.”