Smiling students, parents, administrators and teachers surprised three longtime Westhampton Beach Elementary School employees on Friday with a heartwarming goodbye on their last day before retirement.
The group gathered just outside the school’s side entrance on Friday morning, applauding and holding yardsticks up as a bridge for kindergarten teacher Eloise Carter, third-grade teacher Debra Hanff-Mazzio and secretary Nancy Cummings to pass underneath as they exited the building.
“I was so deeply touched,” said Ms. Cummings, who has worked at the school for the past 10 years. “I don’t know how they pulled it off. It was amazing.”
Ms. Hanff-Mazzio, who was brought to tears by the surprise, said she felt honored. She has taught in the district since 1981. “They gave way more to me than I could have ever given to them,” she said of her students. “They really did. My heart is heavy.”
Ms. Carter, who is retiring after 30 years at the school, said she enjoyed teaching the little ones because of their enthusiasm and how much they love to learn. “That’s the biggest thing I think I’m going to miss—seeing their faces and then seeing how much they grow,” she said. She added that she was overwhelmed when she saw the gathering outside the school on Friday.
Ella Donneson, 9, said Ms. Carter, her former kindergarten teacher, always brightened her day. “She would just always make the day fun,” she said. “When I was sad, she would cheer me up.”
Luke Donahue, 9, and Lucy DiBenedetto, 15, remembered playing kickball and foursquare in Ms. Hanff-Mazzio’s class. Lucy added that Ms. Hanff-Mazzio was even known to perform headstands for her students.
“These are a unique breed of women,” said parent Maria Cunneen, who helped organize the goodbye event to show the three retirees how much of an impact they have had on their students. Ms. Cunneen has four daughters—Mara, 23, Lauren, 12, Carley, 10, and Elena, 9—and she said she got to know Ms. Hanff-Mazzio well over the years while her daughters attended the school.
She described Ms. Hanff-Mazzio as a devoted teacher and a powerful woman, who served as a role model for many. “She was just the type of woman that I would hope that I could be,” Ms. Cunneen said.
“Every parent wants that type of teacher and fights for her,” she continued. “She opens her class every year with an introduction to the family that says, ‘I’m here because I want to be here.’ She wants to make a difference in your child’s life.”
Ms. Cunneen described Ms. Carter as a very caring teacher. “Kids loved her,” she said. “It was a very easy year for kids going into her class.”
The parents who gathered to bid the three retirees a warm farewell said it was always a relief to hear Ms. Cummings’ voice on the line when they called the school office. “Having no children of her own, those children in the school were hers,” Ms. Cunneen said of Ms. Cummings, adding that she could handle any task or trouble presented to her.
All three retirees said it has been a privilege to work in the district, which has an exceptional faculty and staff and wonderful children. “I have a ton of memories to take with me,” Ms. Cummings said, adding that she hopes to move to Virginia with her husband, Richie. She currently lives in East Moriches.
Ms. Hanff-Mazzio, who lives in East Quogue, said her daughter, Jaime, is a graduate of Westhampton Beach High School. She said the district has been important in her life.
“That was my second family,” Ms. Hanff-Mazzio said, of the elementary school faculty, staff and families. “Everything else could be falling down around you, and when you entered that school, everything was alright in the world again.”
She said she hopes to spend more time with her grandchildren, Jaiden, 8, and John Michael, 5, now that she has more free time.
Ms. Carter, who grew up in the area and graduated from the school district, said she, too, hopes to spend time with her newborn grandchild and travel with her husband, Keith. “I would never live anywhere else,” she said, of Westhampton. “It’s a wonderful place to live.”
To ease her adjustment in August, while all the teachers are returning to the schools to prepare for the new year, Ms. Carter said she hopes to help her replacement set up the classroom—a form of therapy, she explained.
“They have had a profound impact on our students and the entire school community,” Westhampton Beach Schools Superintendent Michael Radday said of the retirees. “To say that they will be sorely missed would be an understatement. We wish them well in their retirement.”
He added that Tom Raynor, a physical education teacher at the middle school, also retired this June after 25 years, and Karen Frano retired after 15 years as a teacher aide at the high school.