Surprise On The Third Floor

Principal Mary SuroweickiPrincipal Mary Suroweicki was in a meeting Wednesday talking about how well her students behave, when secretary Maria Moore broke in. Come quick, Moore said: There’s a fight upstairs

Suroweicki, the 63-year-old principal of St. Martin DePorres Academy in the Hill, ran up all three flights of steps. She burst into a hall crowded with her students — behaving themselves just fine.

She found all sorts of guests there, too. Something was up.

One of the guests, Paul Wessel, took the floor and starting talking about “unsung heroes.” He, and then his mother Irm, spoke about a man named Dan Perrotto who gives free bikes away to kids. Perrotto, a Yale School of Music custodian, started doing that 10 years ago; he has since put 1,600 bikes in the hands of local kids.

The Wessels were giving Perrotto this year’s Morris Wessel Fund “Unsung Heroes” award, New Haven’s version of the Nobel (or as Morris Wessel’s daughter-in-law Sandy Malmquist put it, “Noble”) Prize.

Then the Wessels announced the second award winner. Everyone in the room had known who this would be, and kept it a secret. Everyone, that is, but Surowiecki. By the time she came to the front of the room to accept her award amid thundering applause, she had tears in her eyes.

The award honored her for helping to found and now lead one of New Haven’s happiest education stories of late: the rebirth of St. Martin, a parochial school primarily serving low-income children in New Haven. The school moved into its Columbus Avenue home this year. (Click here, here and here for some Independent stories about the great things happening there.)

wp%20crawford%20and%20will.jpgSuroweicki, modest and overwhelmed, credited lots of other people for St. Martin’s success. She singled out one of the school’s prime organizers and board members, John Crawford (pictured with Will Ginsberg of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, which administers the Wessel Fund).

Click on the play arrow to watch Surowiecki’s tear-filled acceptance speech.

wp%20perrotto.jpgDan Perrotto had a touching tale of his own to tell. This remarkable bike-donor grew up without a bike of his own on the streets of Fair Haven. But that didn’t stop him from riding. He and his friends picked up tires and other parts from junkyards. “We had a buddy who was a welder,” he recalled. The buddy put together functioning wheels for the crew.

Perrotto, who’s a young-looking 62, started his donor quest 10 years ago. He gave a used bike to a boy who’d just lost his dad. He got into it after that, and began collecting new bikes for kids at Fair Haven’s St. Rose of Lima Church and Farnam Neighborhood House, as well as North Haven’s ACES Temple Street School.

wp%20morris.jpg The Wessel Prize itself is a living testament. It’s named after beloved local pediatrician, author and activist Morris (pictured), who just turned 90. His family set it up after his retirement to bestow honor in his name while he was still alive to take part.

wp%20sandy%20irm.jpgHis family is filled with people considered unsung heroes in New Haven. At Wednesday’s ceremony Morris’s wife Irm was singled out for quietly helping St. Martin’s develop its social work program. Irm is pictured here with daughter-in-law Malmquist, who runs the Connecticut Children’s Museum. Son Paul, the emcee, is an organizer with the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.

wp%20mary%201.jpg In a world with enough sad news to fill 24/7 news channels and websites, it was a day of high hopes inside a new school in an old building in the Hill. Or at least a period of high hopes. After less than an hour, Principal Surowiecki dismissed the kids, grade by grade, to return to class. But not before sharing a parade of hugs.

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posted by: John Padilla on November 14, 2007  8:36pm

Bravo!  Outstanding story reminding everyone of the fine human being Dr. Wessel is —he has meant much to many in New Haven.  Honoring Mr. Perrotto and Ms. Surowiecki is icing on the cake.  Congrats to all!

posted by: Sandy Malmquist on November 14, 2007  9:33pm

Will Ginsberg deserves the credit for coining the phrase ‘the noble prize’—his turn of phrase sums up the spirit of the Morris Wessel Prize!