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Article Published July 3, 2019
Longtime Volunteer Honored for Community Work
Aviva Luria, Staff Reporter

In fifth grade, Steve Mazeau took up drums at school. But he was so shy, he couldn’t bring himself to participate in his first school band concert.

“I didn’t want to get in front of the people,” he says. So he quit.

Now, Steve is Vice President of Education for the Niantic Toastmasters Club. He’s a bell ringer in several church bell choirs—an avocation that requires him not only to perform regularly, but to read music, which he’d never done before. Since 2008, he’s been a volunteer mentor for Children’s Community Programs of Connecticut. And he recently surpassed his goal of reading to 250 children at Westbrook’s Daisy Ingraham Elementary School.

But it’s square dancing that helped him transcend his shyness, he says.

“My family, we were never huggers,” Steve says. “My wife’s family, every time you go to visit... everybody gets a big hug. But we were not like that; Mazeaus aren’t like that.”

“In square dancing, it’s a lot of touching, and dancing, and swinging,” he says, “and I think I became—there’s still the introvert in here, but I can fake it as being a bit of an extrovert when I want to.”

Square dancing also brought Steve and his wife, Jan, together. Steve remembers the date: March 24, 1996. Jan was living in Plainfield while Steve was in Old Saybrook, and their instructors brought their square-dance groups to the senior center in Cranston, Rhode Island.

“She’s a civil engineer and I’m a land surveyor, so her instructor paired me up with her,” he says. “And it worked out. We’ve been married 22 years.”

Now 60 and semi-retired, Steve worked full time as a licensed land surveyor for 30 years, starting at the age of 19. “I did that until 2006,” he explains. “I had been working for a company for 27 years and the partners all decided to retire. The company got sold, so I’ve been kind of bouncing around since then.”

He works occasionally, but “I can’t jump over the fences like I used to,” he says.

Daisy Ingraham Elementary School Principal Ruth W. Rose and the Westbrook Board of Education recognized Steve at its June meeting. Each child he read to at the school (as well as several teachers) signed their names with different colored markers on a white lab coat he wore—it has “The Daisy Reader Challenge” and “250” emblazoned on the back.

Sometimes Steve would bring along a friend: a three-foot, three-inch ventriloquist’s dummy with huge eyes, a wide mouth, and red hair.

Steve bought the dummy in 2011, teaching himself ventriloquism by borrowing a videotape from the Westbrook Public Library.

“It was kind of a how-to video for being a ventriloquist,” by Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist and comedian who had his own television shows in the 1950s and ‘60s. “So I was able to pick it up just by watching the video and just by practicing,” Steve says.

He practiced with stories from issues of Jack and Jill magazine that he had saved from his own childhood, assigning roles to the dummy. Then Steve videotaped the routines so he could review and improve them.

“I let the kids name [the dummy],” he says. “One year he was Billy and another year he was Norberg.”

That’s right. Norberg.

“I always tell them, as soon as you name something, then you’re responsible for feeding it,” he says. But he acknowledges the kids got off easy. “He doesn’t eat much.”

Steve, whether alone or with Billy/Norberg, evokes smiles from students, teachers, and Principal Rose. But it was tragedy that led him there.

“My daughter, Marie, was born premature in 1998,” he says. “She was one pound, one ounce—she was a preemie, so she was about the size of a squirrel. And we spent a lot of time in the hospital.

“We liked to read to her—very involved parents. It was great,” he continues. “But she had a swimming pool accident. She died as a result of the accident when she was in third grade.” Marie was nine years old.

“So you go from a fully involved parent of a third grader on Tuesday to empty nesters on Thursday,” Steve says. “I think it’s a transition everybody has to go through eventually, but for us, it was very abrupt.”

Later that year, Jan Mazeau and Daisy Ingraham kindergarten teacher Mrs. Powers were working together on a quilt to raffle off, part of an effort to raise money for a scholarship in honor of Marie—the Marie Mazeau Scholarship is offered each year to a Westbrook High School senior through the Westbrook Foundation. Steve took the opportunity to ask Mrs. Powers a question.

“‘Gee, I kind of miss reading to Marie. You know, she’s not around anymore—would it be okay if I came in and read to your kindergarten?’

“So I read to Mrs. Powers’s class for six or seven years and then Mrs. Powers retired,” Steve says. “And after Mrs. Powers, I did Mrs. Blackwell’s [kindergarten] class.”

When Mrs. Blackwell remarried and moved away, Principal Rose suggested that Steve make the rounds among all the grades, not just kindergarten.

“Years ago, when Marie was a student at Daisy, they had what they called the 100 Book Challenge,” he explains. Parents and teachers would sign off on a list of books that the children had read with the goal of reaching 100. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we take that idea and turn it on its head, so I’ll read to the students and then... they sign my lab coat.’”

Steve’s love and devotion to his daughter also led to other volunteer efforts. Marie, who had mild cerebral palsy, took horse riding lessons at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Center in Old Lyme. Rather than sit and watch his daughter’s lessons, Steve trained to volunteer as a sidewalker, walking astride the horse to make sure the rider follows directions, focuses, and—most important—doesn’t fall off. He continues to do not only this, but also assists with High Hopes’s carriage driving program, as well as working for the Connecticut Valley Driving Club.

He has never ridden a horse himself.

“I try not to be bored,” Steve explains. “When you start getting older it’s important to be relevant, especially the way I had been working so steady all those years.

“And losing my daughter—what do you really have to be alive for? I mean, if I was to just disappear, would anybody really miss me?

“It’s important to be relevant. It’s not just me—it’s that way with everybody,” he says. “It’s important for people to have a purpose.”