Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Person of the Week

Keeping Current with Dave Russell


Throughout his career as a teacher and administrator in local schools, Dave Russell has kept his oar in the water as a member of the Westbrook Marine Patrol. 

Photo by Aviva Luria/The Courier

Throughout his career as a teacher and administrator in local schools, Dave Russell has kept his oar in the water as a member of the Westbrook Marine Patrol. (Photo by Aviva Luria/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Dave Russell was born in a city located at the confluence of three rivers, but it was in Connecticut that he became a boater.

After a career in the Region 4 School system capped by a 17-year stint as principal at John Winthrop Middle School (JWMS), Dave is now the de facto head of Westbrook’s marine patrol, deputy harbormaster, and a former town constable. He is also a Pittsburgh boy whose family made the trip to Connecticut each summer, staying with his grandmother and later moving into their own summer cottage.

“We would get this old, wooden row boat out of storage...and paint it all up and then we would take it over and put it in the river” behind Town Hall, he remembers.

“Well, wooden boats, especially the type that this was, they had to swell up,” he continues. “So the boat would sink [to the river bottom] and you’d leave it in the water for two or three days until the wood absorbed the water and then that made it tight so it wouldn’t leak.

“Then you’d haul it out of the water, but now it was all covered with stain and mud...and that’s the way it went through the season. I don’t know why we took so much time painting it,” he says.

His parents took Dave and his brother out on the boat until the boys were old enough to go out on their own.

“We’d chug up and down the rivers and that’s where the love came from,” he says. “We’d go fishing, we’d go boating, we’d go exploring. The outboard, as I remember, was pretty temperamental, so we’d end up having to row home a lot.”

When Dave was 12 or 13 years old, his parents bought him a new wooden boat.

“It was 10 foot long and...didn’t have to sit on the bottom, so it looked better and I got a three horsepower motor for it,” he says. “And I would chug up and down the rivers probably every day of the week that I could, just exploring.

“I made friends with other kids that had prams and dinks and we were like this little armada—we probably sounded like a bunch of bumblebees coming down the river,” he continues.

In the early 1960s, at age 16, Dave got a summer job at the Marston family’s Westbrook Boat & Engine Co., which was a “fairly large boat dealer/marina complex,” he recalls. He worked there every summer through high school and college.

“You start off painting boat bottoms when you first get into that business,” he says, but over time, he moved up into mechanical work and then sales. This work experience made him realize the “value of an education,” he says.

In the shop, “you were in an air-conditioned environment instead of being out in the hot sun, painting a boat bottom on your back,” he says. “It was a good life lesson.”

Dave studied technical education in college, graduating in 1969, and taught one session of summer school in Pennsylvania. He went on to teach in Maryland, but after two years, he applied for a teaching position back in Connecticut, at JWMS. He began his career there in fall 1971, the year he and his wife, Fran, were married. In 1985, he went into school administration, becoming assistant principal and later associate principal at Valley Regional High School. In 1995, he was appointed as principal of JWMS, where he remained until retiring in 2012.

As a new teacher in 1972, Dave approached Art Newman, the head of Westbrook’s Marine Patrol, whom Dave knew from his work at the marina. Dave asked whether he needed any help. About two weeks later, then-first selectman Roger Goodspeed called and asked Dave to meet with him. The town hired him, and Newman trained him as a marine patrol officer. He has served on the patrol ever since.

A couple of years later, Art Stickney, the town’s first resident trooper, hired Dave as a constable, sending him to a training program.

“I did both jobs for a number of years” in addition to teaching, Dave explains. “But boating was always my choice. [Both jobs] filled the need, because being a teacher, I had nights off, I had weekends, I had vacations. It was an excellent additional source of income when you had a young family” of three children.

“The town was always good at saying, ‘Give us whatever time you can,’” he says.

Once he became a school administrator, he gave up the constable job but continued on the marine patrol.

Working as a middle school principal, Dave says, was rewarding but also consuming.

“Fortunately, I lived close enough to where I worked so that I could get home to get some family time in, even if it was just dinner, and rush back,” he says. “But it is demanding and if you’re going to do it right, it’s really a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job because you’re always thinking about issues that are going on, you want to be at all the events...and have a presence so that people can talk to you and meet with you.”

During Dave’s tenure, JWMS was named as Connecticut Middle School of the Year by the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), and received the Spotlight School Award by the New England League of Middle Schools. He became active in the CAS, serving on a number of committees and ultimately ending up as its vice president before retiring in 2012.

“I was very fortunate at JWMS,” Dave says. “I had great staff, great people to work with. It was a very rewarding career.”

One of the changes Dave made was to transition JWMS from a junior high school model to a middle school model, with teams of teachers, he explains.

“The team environment is a much healthier way of providing services to middle school children,” he says. “With middle school kids, it’s all about their social feelings and views with one another, so you need to get their emotions somewhere near neutral so that the learning can take place.”

“We had two 7th-grade teams and...two 8th-grade teams, so we were really four schools within a school,” Dave says. With a smaller number of students per team, the teachers got to know the kids better and vice versa.

“If there were issues or problems, you’d meet with the team of teachers,” he explains, “and because they were so close to the problems, many times they had a much better solution than myself...Then we would follow the appropriate path to sort out any difficulties that we had.”

Working with the teachers, Dave developed a social development program to head off disciplinary issues. Once a week, the two teachers who were assigned to each homeroom would meet with their group of 8 to 12 students for around 40 minutes.

“We had a whole curriculum laid out,” he says. “How to deal with bullying, how to deal with kids who have different issues from you, how to deal with your homework or if you didn’t get along with people. We had a whole curriculum that the staff wrote. I was very, very proud of what they did.

“That allowed us to have kids who come to you with all kinds of issues going on, whether it’s a disruptive family, a dysfunctional family, death in the family—whatever those social issues are, that can just totally take them over and get in the way of education,” he continues.

“Before we had this program, we had some really difficult discipline issues to deal with,” he says. “When the social development program got in and got settled, our discipline issues went way down compared with what they had been before.”

It’s no surprise that Dave sees his job as head of Westbrook’s marine patrol as largely educational.

“The whole function of us out there is boating safety,” he says, “making sure that people are safe on the water. So we do a number of inspections, checking for safety gear. And then obviously we have to deal with violations.

“One of the nice things about Westbrook Harbor is that it has matured,” he continues. “And what I mean by that is that people that are here that have boats, a lot of them started off with little boats and in boating you keep getting a bigger boat, a bigger boat, moving up.

“So many of the people that own boats here now have been here a fairly long time and they know the rules and regulations...So everybody’s pretty good and pretty respectful,” he says.

“We have a few issues from time to time, but we try to educate<” he says. “That’s the real key to it—being an educator.”

Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at

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