Looking back to the days at the Middle School
This time of year, my two favorite Christmas movies both star an angel. In The Bishop’s Wife, 1947, sophisticated and handsome Gary Grant played an angel named Dudley who comes to earth to help an Episcopal Bishop, David Niven, find his way. In the process Dudley befriends the bishop’s lonely wife, Loretta Young. The other movie, which seems to be everyone’s favorite, is It’s a Wonderful Life. In that 1946 film starring Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart, the angel, bumbling Clarence, shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never been born.
Two enchanting angels with two distinct personalities, but with the same mission, to spread good will and help enhance the lives of the humans around them. At the Hammonton Middle School, I had a dear friend who was a little of both Dudley and Clarence rolled into one kind-hearted science teacher, Bruce Crawford.
Bruce was a shy man with a mild manner, charming sense of humor and eyes that seemed to reflect the good in those around him. I was truly fortunate to share a lunch table with him for many years. I never knew another teacher to care personally for his students as much as Bruce did, and that says a lot because the middle school as filled with dedicated teachers. I asked several colleagues to tell me their impression of Bruce and they all said that he was a devoted family man who took a personal interest in his students.
As I shared lunch with Bruce for almost two decades, we traded stories of our babies’ first steps, our teenagers dating and our elderly relatives needed care. He bragged and worried about his handsome and talented son, Joe. He also gave us details about helping his son Mikel train for the Special Olympics where he won awards for lifting. His eyes would sparkle as he spoke of his children, but his first love was his wife, Chris. They met in high school and he always smiled as he talked about their life together.
He not only told us about his beautiful daughter Shannon’s artistic ability, but he also had her draw detailed caricatures of his students as gifts. He fretted about her boyfriends and shared photos of her daughters.
Each year on his birthday Bruce would show off his new tattoo and entertain us with anecdotes of his youth. Bruce was a poet and a storyteller. As a lifeguard in Atlantic City in the 1960s, he and Chris babysat for Frankie Valli’s children. While working on the Steel Pier he helped people onto the diving bell.
Bruce loved to collect baseball cards and he often gave them to his students. He visited 7-Eleven every day where he bought lottery tickets and was phenomenal with the claw machine. He’d collect the little toys and keep them in his desk drawer until one of his students was having a bad day and he’d pull a fuzzy bunny or Batman figure out as a small token to lighten their spirits. He did the same for fellow teachers. Once he volunteered to chaperone my library aide trip to Radio City Music Hall. As he boarded the bus for the trip home, he opened a bag and gave each of the mothers and me a beaded Christmas bracelet.
Wrestling and weightlifting were a passion for Bruce, who grew up in Galloway Twp., graduated from Oakcrest High School and received his bachelor’s degree from Glassboro State College. He began his teaching career at Elmer’s Slaybaugh School where he started the first wrestling program. In the years following he was the assistant wrestling coach at Absegami High School.
He left teaching for a few years to work in Atlantic City for Caesars and Tropicana but returned to teaching at the Hammonton Middle School in 1988 and as head wrestling coach at the Hammonton High School for eight years. Bruce was awarded both Middle School Teacher of the Year and High School Coach of the Year, fondly earning his nickname C.O.T.Y.
Bruce retirement in 2011 and devoted his time to his family. He competed in powerlifting contests with his son Mikel and enjoyed going fishing and bowling. He also cherished the time he spent with his daughter, granddaughters and his wife of 46 years. His son, Joe, died in a tragic car accident in 2015 and when I called Bruce, he shared his faith in God and his assurance that he would be with Joe again.
Soon Bruce was diagnosed with cancer and left this life for a heavenly one in 2016, at the age of 69. My grandmother used to say, “Only the good die young.” She was right about Bruce, who like Clarence and Dudley, improved the quality of our lives through his compassion and generosity.
Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.