Among the collateral casualties of the Deans Mill School expansion project in Stonington was a magnolia planted in the spring of 1989 in memory of Louis Mitchell, an 11-year-old fifth-grader who died in his sleep during the winter vacation in early 1989.
Earlier this year, Rob Marseglia, the K-12 School Building Committee chairman, told the town that some larger flowering trees planted as memorials in front of the Deans Mill entrance had to be taken down in June because they were too big to be moved. However, the memorial plaques have been saved and a rededication with new trees is tentatively planned after the project is completed.
The work was supposed to be finished in December 2018, and should those plantings take place the following spring, it would be 30 years since Louie Mitchell’s death and the tree planting in his memory.
I haven’t forgotten Louie Mitchell. Neither has my daughter, who was a classmate of his, nor, do I doubt, have any of the other children in that fifth-grade class. Deidre Toole, then a teacher at Deans Mill and today community classroom coordinator and transition counselor at Stonington High School, loved him dearly.
She had worked with Louie for two years in special education classes, beginning in the second grade. “I watched him grow so much,” she told me, when I wrote about Louie in the days after his death. “Of all the kids I’ve had in teaching, Louie’s the one I really loved. He could raise hell, but he always did it with a smile. He was a big charmer. We fell in love with him.”
She took particular pride in helping Louie progress from special education classes in the lower grades to being mainstreamed as a fifth-grader into reading and science classes.
A rotund boy whose build was as generous as his spirit, he was also a sickly child, prone to seizures. He was often in the nurse’s office that last year, and just as often in the principal’s officet. “Louie was always getting into trouble in the cafeteria so he could take his lunch tray and sit in the principal’s office just to watch everybody come and go,” Deidre Toole said the other week when I talked to her about the loss of the tree. Conrad J. Berdeen, then the principal, “didn’t know what to do with him,” Toole recalled. “No one could be angry at him.”
I remember being in the locker room at the former Mystic Community Center with Louie, watching him struggle into his swimsuit, which, because of his frame, wasn’t always a simple task. He’d walk into the locker room with a big hello to everyone. He’d then talk himself through the maneuvers of bending and pulling to get his trunks on, lapsing into an occasional laugh.
That nature and spirit, that was Louie’s charm. His gregarious ways, though, were not always appreciated by his classmates, including my daughter, who would not usually welcome his boisterous hugs and attempts to kiss her in the hallway or playground. But she had saved the valentine she’d received from him on the Friday before he died, and later taped it to her desk at home. Louie died on Feb. 15, during school vacation, and word spread through the community despite school being closed.
As Toole described it, the tree that was planted in his memory was a “chubby magnolia,” a cheerful tree, much like Louie Mitchell himself. “The rededication,” she wrote in an email, “will be a wonderful chance to keep his memory alive.”
What has stayed with me, as much as Louie’s presence, is what she said about him when I wrote the 1989 column: “He’s the one … He’d bring you flowers. He’d bring you candy. He’d drive you nuts. We loved him.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: email@example.com