By Diane Curtis
When school starts this fall, the halls of St. Raphael will be sorely missing a familiar face, Dr. Paul Dezarn, or Dr. D, as his students and staff lovingly nicknamed him. His sudden death on June 16 has left a void at the school where he dedicated four decades of his life.
DeZarn had just retired from the school before the 2014 Christmas break, and in the months that followed had tried to focus on his family and health. There had been a number of farewells and celebrations, and the month of May had been a whirlwind of tributes, videos, and letters written by students.
In late May, DeZarn had returned to the school to surprise the eighth graders on their last day of school, hugging each one as they walked the hallways one last time. It had been one of his deepest desires to see this current group of eighth graders graduate.
It was an especially important goal to him, as his oldest grandchild — and his first to graduate from St. Raphael — was part of the Class of 2015. His own children had graduated from St. Raphael, now his granddaughter continued the tradition.
There had been many heartwarming moments with DeZarn in the last several months. In December, when his health said it was time for a much needed break, he ended that bittersweet day by reading “ ‘Twas the night before Christmas” to students, as he had done at St. Raphael for 40 years.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of current and former students lined up to “clap him out,” a tradition at St. Raphael that happens at the end of each school year when the eighth grade students leave the school for the last time.
Sitting just outside his office, Dr. D, was to high five each student, but instead hugged each child — everyone, kindergarten through eighth grade, was in tears. At the time, DeZarn told reporters that he had been blessed beyond words, “I’ve watched them grow, almost 7,000 (students) over the years. As the Bible says, ‘May you live long enough to see your children’s children’ … I have. What a blessing.”
Not only was he a kind, compassionate and well respected leader, he was also an intellect and an innovator, having earned his doctorate later in life from Spalding University, and having been nationally recognized as an outstanding educator. DeZarn had numerous degrees, he was a graduate of St. Thomas Seminary, St. Meinrad Seminary and Indiana University Southeast.
In 1975, when the position of principal became available at St. Raphael, DeZarn was a teacher and basketball coach at Trinity High School. He had to be talked into applying for the position.
He never looked back.
During an interview just a few months ago with The Record, he spoke about his ministry at St. Raphael and the goals he had set for himself and the school. He emphasized that he couldn’t have accomplished all he had set out to accomplish without the help of Jean Ann May, his trusted long-time assistant principal.
“I had the vision, but she knew how to put it together,” he said. “We were a great team.”
May shared, “He wanted the school to be a comfortable place where students and teachers would learn and work together as a community. He worked tirelessly to make it happen and he really did build a community here at St. Raphael.”
One of DeZarn’s last letters to the parents, staff and students echoed that sentiment: “Let it be the primary aim of parents and teachers to prepare our children to live intelligently, freely, with a sense of responsibility and an awareness of one’s own needs and the needs of others.”
As parent of a newly graduated eighth grader, I can attest to the above words in action, almost from day one. I remember the day my family decided to become a St. Raphael family. My husband had popped in at St. Raphael to find out more about the school — this kind gentleman, a grandfather type, greeted him and offered to give him a tour.
As they walked from room to room, the kids ran up and hugged the principal, and in the cafeteria the students jockeyed to sit next to him. For my daughter, it was love at first sight. With my own father ill, DeZarn filled a hole in her life and heart.
He did that for many St. Raphael families. At a celebratory Mass in May, a student from last year’s graduating class returned to give DeZarn a St. Raphael School (SRS) shirt that meant a great deal to him. The student wanted his former principal to have it, saying Dr. D had changed his life, had believed in him.
A video was also shared in which every student at St. Raphael said goodbye or read a portion of a letter they had written to their principal. A seventh-grader spoke of how Dr. D had been principal of the school when her grandfather, mother, aunt, and uncle had attended. Now she and her cousins were students there.
In the hours following the announcement of Dr. D’s death, I thought of the many kindnesses he had shown so many students and families — how I was always moved by him being outside when students were dropped off in the morning and how he knew the name of every child, and said hello as they stepped out of their car. How he challenged the children to memorize poems and come to his office to recite them.
How kind he was to our family as both of my parents became ill. How he was among the first people to reach out to me upon the news that my dad had collapsed and died at home on the last day of school.
An especially touching image to me is one of him clambering to find an umbrella when the skies had opened up so he could walk each child to their parent’s car when school let out — the child holding his hand, tucked under the umbrella next to him. It was just such a sweet and caring gesture.
Generations of SRS families could go on and on about the profound impact Dr. D has had on our children, on the school, on the Catholic Church and on the community. Within hours of the announcement of Dr. DeZarn’s passing away, dozens of current and former SRS families shared their memories and condolences on Facebook.
The outpouring of love and affection stunned DeZarn’s family. During Dr. D’s funeral, his son thanked those sitting in the packed pews saying he knew his father had been a good man, but in the last days he had heard stories from countless people reiterating that sentiment.
He asked everyone in the church to close their eyes and to remember their favorite moment with his father, and to hold that moment, look at Dr. D, smile and then watch him smile back. He suggested they keep that image with them in the days, weeks and years to come.
He asked those present to join in the SRS Code of Conduct, which DeZarn had authored decades ago. It is the code students recite at the beginning of every school day:
As a St. Raphael student, I will show respect for all things, for myself, and for others at all times. I will contribute to the learning environment. I will follow school and classroom procedures. I will show integrity and honor in all my accomplishments. I will treat others with kindness and help others to grow in love as a child of God.
Though Dr. D has left us and his face will be missing from the hallways when students return to school in August, this code of conduct will echo in the classrooms of St. Raphael in the months and years to come, and it will remind all of us of him. We, as St. Raphael families, will always know that our children are loved and learned to love.
Thank you Dr. D.
Diane Curtis is the mother of a 2015 graduate of St. Raphael School.