Joyce Andrade shared the story Sunday afternoon, following burial services for former School Superintendent Robert J. Shapiro.
Andrade, who was a member of the school committee at the time, had been visiting Vets and was in the school’s back parking lot when she spotted a gathering of students. She had no idea what had drawn them together, but assumed it was innocent until fists started to fly.
She grabbed her cell and hurriedly called the schools administrative office. But before anyone could race down the length of the school, a car pulled up and Shapiro jumped out.
“I’ve never heard Bob yell like that. And you know how big he was. He stepped right into the middle of them and it was like they parted,” she said, throwing her hands open. The brawl was over before it began.
Shapiro’s ability to quell contentious situations, to make people feel they were special, to promote education and so many other attributes are remembered as the community mourns the loss of a man who devoted 50 years to Warwick Schools. Shapiro died Thursday morning at Miriam Hospital. He was 81. In recent years, he bore a series of ailments that slowed him down but were never a source of complaint. On Sunday, more than 500 people, from the governor, mayors past and present, teachers, school administrators, former students, friends and family turned out to bid him goodbye at ceremonies held at Temple Sinai and at Sinai Memorial Park in Pawtuxet.
He made each and every person feel they were the most important person in the world, said Rabbi Peter Stein, opening the service. He said Shapiro left a world transformed through his leadership.
Also speaking were his sons Andrew and Steven, who gave insights to their father; and Mayor Scott Avedisian, who spoke of Shapiro’s life as a public official.
“One of his extraordinary talents was that he genuinely saw good in everyone. He truly believed that everyone had something to contribute,” said Avedisian. He said, Bob “collected people everywhere he went,” adding that he believed in people pursuing their dreams and that Shapiro was like a “sponge soaking up information and ideas.”
Shapiro’s collected people were enriched by him.
It seems that everybody has a Bob Shapiro story.
President of the New England Institute of Technology, Richard Gouse’s first encounter with Shapiro came in the 1960s when, in addition to teaching at Warwick schools, Shapiro taught a course as part of the Master of Arts and Teaching program at Brown University. Gouse was under the gun to complete a paper for the class and in desperation posted it Special Delivery to meet the deadline. It arrived at night at his home, but Shapiro didn’t hold the interruption against him and Gouse received the top grade in the class. It was only many years later that he realized that Robert Shapiro, the NEIT trustee, was that teacher.
Robert Dooley, who served more than two decades as Warwick’s school finance director, recalled that, after budget deliberations, Shapiro always asked the same question.
“His bottom line was always, ‘How is this going to affect the students?’”
Shapiro lived for Warwick schools. He attended school sporting events, ceremonies and open houses. His son Steven said Shapiro went to 38 proms, just as a principal, and was the first principal of Toll Gate High when it opened in 1972.
“He couldn’t help himself on prom night,” Steven said, revealing that his father kept attending proms even after he became an administrator. Steven went on to say during the service, his father never gave up in a kid and that, “My father believed in that and, if you want to honor my father, remember that.”
Shapiro’s son Andrew said he was genuine and open with everyone and believed in sharing with people, and that the first impressive quality of his father was to connect with people. Edward Quinlan remembers Shapiro from his 10th grade at Pilgrim High School.
“Bob was top of my list,” he said. “He connected. He would take the most arcane history lesson and bring it alive. He made you feel like you were the only student … He was not just in the classroom. He was in the corridors. You always saw Bob.” Colin Kane affectionately remembers another, more mundane side of Shapiro – his characteristically baggy pants. Kane graduated from Toll Gate in 1984 and called Shapiro a “mensch” who, on one side was very serious, but had a “heart of sunshine.”
Shapiro’s pants also made an impression on Joseph Crowley, former director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, who remembers Shapiro’s days on the tennis court. Shapiro joined Toll Gate faculty in a Saturday morning tennis league that continues today.
“He was waist-challenged,” Crowley reflected with a laugh. “He played with one hand for his racquet and the other for his shorts.” Even with that handicap, Crowley said Shapiro was competitive and played to win.
As a former Toll Gate cheerleader, Tammy Flanagan recalled boarding a bus after an away game and students from the losing school pelting the bus with rocks. Shapiro rode the bus with the cheerleaders. For years later Shapiro, when crossing paths with Flanagan, would always introduce her as the cheerleader he “got stoned with.”People also shared their stories and feelings on social media.Walt Mossberg, who now works for the Wall Street Journal as technical columnist, took to Twitter on Friday to pay a public tribute to his former high school teacher.“I mourn the death of Bob Shapiro, the R.I. [high school] teacher who inspired me and thousands of others,” wrote Mossberg. “His career proved great teachers matter.” Bob M. Macaux shared his memories of Shapiro on Facebook.“I remember Dr. Shapiro when I was in high school for the first time back in 1999 and before I left in 2003 at Toll Gate High School,” he wrote. “He was a great man at his prime than [sic] and he was present at my graduation, he was a great man and I sure do miss him.”Scott MacKay, Rhode Island Public Radio’s political columnist, called Shapiro a “distinguished educator” and an “even better man” via Twitter.Sue Stenhouse Tweeted that she enjoyed working with Shapiro over the years. “He left such a remarkable imprint on Warwick Schools,” she wrote. David Preston extended his gratitude for the late Shapiro on Twitter.“Grateful to Bob Shapiro and his colleagues at Toll Gate High School for laying the foundation for what I have been able to achieve.”Even after his retirement as superintendent, at the age of 76, Shapiro remained a force in education. For several years he worked at the Brown University admissions office, screening applicants. He was vice president of the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon and the guiding force in the foundation that was started in his name following a retirement party at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in 2007. The Robert J. Shapiro Foundation supports high school theater performances. Shapiro believed strongly in the ability of school performances to build self-esteem, develop lifelong skills and appreciation of the arts and was dismayed by widespread cuts in funding for the arts.
Up until the last year, when his failing health made it impossible to attend every meeting, he remained active with the New England Institute of Technology.
There was also another constant in his life – his wife Audrey.
They met on a blind date and soon became inseparable.
Apart from those proms that she eventually gave up attending, she was always by his side, and more so than ever in the last five years.
Donna Izzi put it best as the line of mourners stretched outside Temple Sinai: “His wife is his rock.”
Rabbi Stein aptly concluded the services with the assertion that, “Bob hasn’t just left a legacy, but ensured a future.”
With reports from Kim Kalunian