New England remembers 'teddy bear' Shawn Flaherty
Shawn Flaherty never had kids of his own. He didn't need to. If you were to ask the parents of the kids he taught, they'd say he had a whole school full of kids.
Those kids and their parents packed the gymnasium of New England Public School where he taught fourth grade, to celebrate his life, Monday — days after he was killed in a car crash in Dickinson.
"We’ve got this sad thing, but also it’s a celebration, too, because of the time he spent with us. We can reflect on the good times we had with him while he was here," said Superintendent Kelly Koppinger.
Reflect they did. Family, friends, community and students shared their favorite Flaherty stories with the packed room.
While friends shared their favorite memories of Shawn on stage, Michael Flaherty was finding out that his brother had shared a few of his own.
"One of the things I can’t get over is these children are giving me notes, and (Shawn) talked about things that he and I did when we got in trouble, and they just loved hearing these stories. It’s just blowing my mind," he said. "They were recalling things he and I did that I’d almost forgotten about. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored. It was emotional but it was also funny."
Michael recalled one of the stories the kids had written.
"We were out late at night, and this guy thought we were going to roll (drape toilet paper over) his house," he said. "He was a really big guy. There was like four or five of us together and I’m the oldest and the biggest, so he comes over to me and … he goes, ‘I’m going to make you eat that roll.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to eat that roll.’ Then he started counting 1, 2, 3. I started stuffing toilet paper in my mouth."
Fifth-grader Ty Wolf said Shawn's stories were one of his favorite parts about having him as a teacher. His sister, Carly, shared one of her favorite stories with The Press.
"When they were trick-or-treating, they would have several costumes," she said. "One time there was a house that had full-sized candy bars, and they just changed into different costumes. And then they ran out and they started giving out money, so they had full-size candy bars and money."
A dedicated teacher
Parent Kory Doe said Shawn wasn't "just a coach phoning in as a teacher." He was dedicated to his teaching, too. He told the community about the last time he — and possibly anyone — saw Shawn.
"He wanted to me stay after school to talk about … Kelsey. She was being disrespectful to him, so I thought it was about that. I went in expecting that, and it wasn’t about that at all. She had a C+ in his class, and he felt she had the potential to have an A. He cared that much that he wanted me to push her a little harder so she could get that A that he knew she could get. . . . Any other teacher, he could have just threw his hands up and said, ‘You’re going to get the C … I don’t care.’ He took the time to contact me."
Doe said he thinks he might be the last person to have seen him before he died.
"We visited, we shook hands, and we talked about drills and skills (basketball clinic). I said, ‘I’ll see you Saturday,’ and he patted me on the back. I went out the door, and I happened to look back for whatever reason, seeing that he had his jacket on going out that east door. That was the last time he ever went out of the school," he said.
Parent Kayla Kouba said Shawn had a big impact on their family and never had a bad word to say about her daughter, Jaylynn.
"The biggest thing was if she was struggling with something, he would work with her one-on-one, and I’ve heard that from a lot of parents that he did that with the kids, which I think is very important instead of parents constantly getting calls like at our old school where, ‘Your kid’s just a troublemaker.’ She’s ADHD so she’s always all over the place and likes to talk. He always found something constructive for her to do and keep her out of trouble," she said.
'A big teddy bear'
Standing more than 6 feet tall, friends described Shawn as a big man with a big personality and a soft spot for kids.
"He was larger than life. A gentle giant, a big teddy bear," Koppinger said. "He could always sense when somebody needed to be lifted up. He walked down the hallway, and he could see a student that might need a little support, might need a pat on the back. He could recognize that; he was very intuitive. He was a good man."
Principal Lori Fitterer said although it wasn't his job, Shawn greeted every kid each morning.
"It was just something he did," she said. "The kids on the east side of the building would come in from recess, and he’d open the door and he’d greet every single one of them and wish them a good day or give them a high five. It just set the tone for the day for the kids. It was just something absolutely wonderful to watch."
His kids loved him, too. Laughter of recognition rang out when friend Jim Haussler talked about their affection.
"When he walked down the hallway, they couldn’t reach up to hug him, so they’d just hug his leg. Shawn always got leg hugs. Everybody was hugging those calves. He was a tall, tall man," he said.
"The little kids would literally just crawl all over him," Fitterer said. "It was just the sweetest thing. He had such a big, tough voice, and then to see him with the little ones … it was just so sweet and endearing and melted your heart when you saw that."
She said Shawn often talked about looking at kids with 'fresh eyes.'
"Especially after he had to deal with anybody that maybe got into trouble in the classroom, he had to discuss with them different things that he wanted them to do, he would just say, ‘I’m looking at you with fresh eyes.’ … Just to give them another chance, to know that the bridge hasn’t been burned. That was one of my favorite things to hear him say," Fitterer said.
The fourth quarter
Shawn Flaherty could take a moment and turn it into a life lesson.
"Like this, today, he would find a way to reach out to kids and relate that to a learning experience. He was very good at that. He would take a thing that kids really thought mattered and turn it into a life experience that they could learn from," Koppinger said.
This moment's life lesson?
"Live life to its fullest and make each minute count. You never know when your time is called. It’s scary to think that life could change in the blink of an eye … I think that’s the message he would have too, life goes on. Pick up and move on, learn from it and become better," Koppinger said.
Shawn pushed his kids to persevere.
Shelly Wolf, whose husband had Shawn as a coach in the 1980s, said: "To this day, he (her husband) can still hear him saying, ‘It’s the fourth quarter; push yourself.’ When we remodeled the house, and we would be tired at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, he would say, ‘It’s the fourth quarter; push yourself.’"
With Shawn Flaherty being laid to rest, the school must face its own fourth quarter — without its coach.
"If you knew him, you loved him," Haussler said. "I do regret I never did tell Shawn that I loved him. I regret it. It’s just not something that people from Wheaton or North Dakota do. … What he taught the kids and probably what he taught all of us here is woven in our lives and will go on. I will really miss him. What is true is Shawn, we do love you, and I wanted to say goodbye."
Counselors and clergy have been visiting with students in the wake of the accident.
"We will continue to do that as well," Koppinger said. "Life has changed, and hopefully we can utilize the resources we have put in place to get past this moment and move forward."