Don Fiftal's eulogy for Paul Engemann
The following is former Schools Superintendent Donald Fiftal’s prepared eulogy for Paul Engemann’s funeral on Monday, Nov. 8. Mr. Engemann, a Darien school administrator for years, died at 47 last week.
Good morning. I am Don Fiftal, recently retired Superintendent of Schools for the Darien Public Schools, Paul Engemann’s workplace for much of his professional career. This morning I am incredibly honored for Amanda Engemann to have asked me to speak at Paul’s funeral, although only a little part of me standing before you is Don Fiftal.
Instead, I speak to you from the heart of the Darien Public Schools and from the soul of the entire Town of Darien. The words that I will share with you this morning are the words and sentiments and remembrances of scores of people with whom I have spoken since Paul Engemann passed from us on Nov. 3.
Through my voice this morning, I am the chairs of the Board of Education and the members of the Board of Education; I am other Darien superintendents with whom Paul worked; I am the central office administrators and staff; I am Paul’s secretary and his Assistant Department Leaders; I am the school building principals and their assistants; I am the Director of Athletics; I am the Special education administrators; I am the PTO representatives and the grateful parent community; I am the citizen neighbors of the various Darien schools; I am the Selectmen; I am the Board of Finance; I am the Planning & Zoning Department; Police chief and his department; Recreation Department; Youth Services; Fire Marshal’s Office; Emergency Services; Director of Public Works; School Building Committee Chairs and their members; I am the professional and support staff of the Darien public schools; I am the workers in Paul Engemann’s maintenance and custodial departments. My voice brings to this memorial service the sentiments, recollections, and accolades that I have assembled from the grief-stricken educational and public- services community of Darien, Conn.
To Amanda Engemann, Paul’s wife, and to Paul and Amanda’s children, Kelton and Andrea, to the Engemann extended family and to all the friends and colleagues of Paul Engemann . . . these thoughts and words are Darien’s tribute to the man who built and sustained all the facilites of the Darien public schools as they exist today. The Darien public schools are, quite literally, made up of the houses that Paul Engemann built.
• • •
Paul Engeman’s Professional Competence.
Paul was first hired into Darien as the assistant director of public works in 1987 on the town side of public service. Not too far removed from his college degree at Michigan State, he came to Darien young, bright, eager, and budding with potential that members of the interviewing committee said they immediately recognized and he had a personality to which they immediately warmed. Professionally, he had a clear vision of his career goals in his field of facilities management. He was fiercely independent though he had no clear vision of what his personal life could have in store for him other than he lived frugally and made the most of his socialize life with friends and co-workers. He immediately hit it off in Darien. Early on, he showed an uncanny knack for winning over people, such as the mostly older guys in Public Works who reported to him. From the outset he continued to reveal, as many recall an uncanny ability to transcend the stereotypical groupings into which people find or place themselves. Paul Engemann could engage everyone on an equal footing.
He excelled in his work and within five years, in 1992, the Darien public schools lured Paul away from Darien public works to fill the newly vacated position as head of buildings and grounds for the Darien school district. And by this time, Paul’s vague and conflicted personal aims came into sharply meaningful focus when he met and then married Amanda, the girl who brought out a side in Paul others had not seen and brought Paul to look at his life with new significance. Everyone who worked with Paul in Darien began to see a new side to him emerge. His devotion to his work career now began to share an equally important place with an evolving family life. These were the years during which Darien and Paul rebuilt all five elementary schools, and as one of those instrumental in hiring Paul has said - Paul’s ability to be articulate, accurate, and strategic about the big picture while also attending to the details produced an outcome where all five school were successfully expanded, renovated and upgraded. These five were the first of the school houses that Paul would build for Darien.
By this point and moving forward, school and town officials both became sold on Paul’s abilities and he began to bring remarkable credibility to himself and his position. Accolades like incredibly dedicated work ethic, great depth of knowledge, really- really good at whatever he did, nothing done halfway, always a can-do attitude, always tried his best and would not complain. Paul always got things done.
“You have a need? I can solve it,” was the Paul Engemann approach. And then he would always go above and beyond the expectations of others. So Darien felt sharp pangs of loss when later in the 1990’s he moved on to the University of Bridgeport as their Facilities Director. The Darien community of driven, success-oriented residents understood, because the University of Bridgeport job seemed an apparent step upward, although his departure left an immense vacuum. And when Paul subsequently took a job in his hometown of Fairfield, Darienites sort-of understood because, at heart, Paul had an affinity for a local community, the influence of his Michigan roots and Midwestern upbringing. But Darienites never wrote Paul off and kept in the back of their minds their memory of the man whom the Selectman’s Office called a man of rock-solid reliability who looked for solutions instead of focusing on problems.
So in 2002 when Darien faced the most ambitious public building project in the history of the community … a $72 million dollar plus commitment to build Connecticut’s finest high school facility … Darien immediately approached Paul Engemann about returning to his former position, which was being upgraded as a reflection of the important educational direction Darien was heading. Town and school officials cooperated closely in convincing Paul to build on the mutual admiration between Darien and Paul Engemann. Paul’s return could not have been better timed. He had an amazing base of knowledge about structural integrity, about heating and cooling systems, about roofing, about health and safety systems, about landscaping, architectural design, and on-and-on. The little he didn’t know he researched through experts in the field. On the surface, he would never be perplexed over anything. He would just go out and get the job done. Outside vendors and contractors were equally in praise of Paul. Of all the school facilities directors one vendor had encountered, he offered that Paul was the best, the nicest, the most accommodating, the most knowledgeable. And so during the next eight years, Paul’s construction management skills kept contractors accountable and on budget, while his organizational skills kept projects on time and supportive of the best possible environment for students. His skills produced cost saving of tens of thousands of dollars for taxpayers. His efforts brought the completion of the stunning new Darien High School, a public educational facility unsurpassed in Connecticut.
He also shepherded the finalizing of the punch lists for the middle school additions and renovations, along with significant further upgrades to middle school air conditioning and space utilization. These were accompanied by gargantuan improvements to athletic playing fields and the upgrading of every elementary playground in the school District as well as important capital projects such as roof replacements and boiler replacements. His final major project was the construction and opening of a new Tokeneke Elementary School to replace the old one. The new elementary school was a vintage Engemann production. In two days, on a Friday and Saturday over Christmas vacation, Paul and his crew moved and installed hundreds and hundreds of pieces of furniture, equipment, and boxes of materials from the old to the new school, so that it could open as Paul promised, right after the New Year. By 2009, the buildings of the Darien Public Schools were truly the educational houses that Paul Engemann built. Our entire modern-day school district facilities have benefitted from the skills and influence of Paul Engemann.
• • •
Paul Engemann’s Human Competence.
But as immense and important as his professional competence was, his knowledge base is really the lesser part of Paul Engemann’s story in Darien. It is the human side, the people skills side, of Paul Engemann, that is the most enduring memory for all of us and the real reason Darien feels such grief at his passing. The stories of Paul’s humanity abound.
Person after person attests to Paul’s ability to connect with and build bridges with all people. He could make highly professional presentations to the Board of Education, meet with legal counsel and speak their language, talk construction talk with contractors, engage his own men in comfortable dialogue, banter with administrative colleagues, connect with PTO moms and sports dads, discuss complaints and concerns with neighbors, win the confidence of Town Officials. He was an “everyman” in his ability to communicate effectively with everyone.
He didn’t play politics and he never avoided tough challenges. And he was unfailingly honest. “Who’s the idiot on the construction crew who moved those beautiful rhododendron bushes from the front of our building to some spots along the side fence?” quizzed an obviously irritated school principal? “I did,” admitted Paul with his usual straight forward honesty.
And then he went on to explain that he did it to resolve a concern that neighbors had about their view of the loading area at the back of the school. As always, Paul had a reasonable justification for his decisions. New bushes could always be purchased at a later time for the front of the building, but good relationships with the neighbors needed to be addressed right away. He was always concerned about and responsive to the impact of his decisions on the reasonable concerns held by others.
• • •
First and foremost in Paul’s priorities, though, was the relationship between Paul and the crew in his department. They, more than anyone, felt the strong family orientation that Paul shared with them. He was demanding of his men, sometimes tough, but if one of them had to take care of a family need, Paul always would give his crew significant latitude to take care of their family issues. And Paul didn’t just talk-the-talk. He walked-the-walk, such as when the head custodian of one of his schools was facing a tough battle with cancer. Paul regularly drove the man to his chemotherapy treatments, stayed with him during the unpleasant procedures and brought him home to rest.
Or during every lunch break, Paul would unfailingly join his men for lunch and good-natured card games and camaraderie. The men’s respect and liking for Paul was deep. Eating was a part of his relationship with the men. The feasts that filled the maintenance area periodically were a testament to the that brotherhood of food. And if you’ve never tasted a Paul Engemann-made quiche, you have missed a real treat. But they also found great pleasure in teasing him as if he were their big brother. One time they put some rocks in the hubcaps of his old Ford pickup. “I think there’s something wrong with one of my wheels,” Paul complained at lunch. “No, it’s okay,” his men reassured him and then broke into laughter. Or the time they took his truck, rolled it unseen into the large main receiving room and then concealed it under a tarp covered by a pile of cartons of materials from a recent large delivery of school supplies. Paul spent his entire lunchtime scouring the property trying to find his truck, again to the delight of his crew. Or the painful time that Paul had to inform a beloved subordinate that his position was being cut for budgetary reasons. Paul struggled to find some right words as he broke the news with tears obviously welling up in his own eyes. The loyal employee, sensing Paul’s anguish, leaned forward and patted his boss on the top of his hand. “Paulie” he said with a thick accent, “Done worry. Its be awright. My wife think I should retire an I couldna make decision. Theese is a goot thing. Theese make decision for me. Its awright Paulie,” the employee said, feeling the caring of his boss and wanting to show caring and respect back to Paul Engemann. There is so much caring that went back-and-forth between Paul and his men.
And perhaps just as deep as Paul’s caring for his men was his caring for the students of Darien. It was his department’s main goal, he would insist, to provide the best possible environment for the education of the students of Darien. If a building were experiencing heat or water supply issues, Paul would be there in a flash. He would start his workday often well before 6 am by stopping in each building to be assured that all the building HVAC systems were functioning and the human comfort of students and staff was assured. When snow threatened, Paul would be awake by 3 am assessing the feedback of his plowing crew. By 4 am he was on the road into Darien. And by 4:30 am he would be at his desk in detailed, serious discussion with the Superintendent to assist the decision as to what should be both a sensible and safe course of action.
Paul took great pride that our schools always displayed their best foot forward. One Principal likes to tell the story of the inordinately wet spring when the mowing and weeding of school grounds was a near impossibility, as one June rainstorm after another descended on Fairfield County. At this Principal’s school, weeds at the front of the building aggressively grew to 1 and 2 feet tall, creating an unsightly and scraggly border. “We’ll take care of it,” Paul promised, as the day for the end of year awards ceremony drew closer and closer. “We’ll have it looking good for the kids and their parents.” But the relentless rains stretched Paul’s crew thin and time drew short. And the Principal felt discouraged when on the morning of the awards, two hours before the ceremony, Darien was experiencing an absolute downpour and the weeds remained. Yet Paul was true to his word, because at 7 am a crew from Paul’s department arrived and weeded the entire front of the school, as torrential rains pelted them. And by 9 am, when parents and students began arriving, the front of the school looked trim, neat, and proudly groomed, just as Paul had promised.
His relationship with the Board of Education was simply amazing. His can-do optimism and his unfailing expertise would constantly win great credibility in their eyes. It was Paul’s intelligence, clarity, honesty, and indefatigable spirit that won them over. With Paul, jobs that actually were inconvenient, he would tell the Board were “easy.” The very difficult jobs were always “do-able.” The downright impossible tasks he simply said would “take a little extra work.” And whenever the Board pressed him as to costs or details of concern, he would get a distant look on his face, do some rapid in-his-head calculations, shift his weight to the other foot, and with a reassuring smile announce slowly that “it could be done.” Board of Education chairs refer to Paul Engemann as a prince, a class act and felt he had an air of nobility about him. They trusted, admired, and adored their Director of Facilities, Construction, and Operations, as did each of the school superintendents that he worked for, as did the entire Darien community.
Paul Engemann always considered the impact of his work on kids, and he never had an angle other than what was best for kids. For instance, he had sincere empathy for children with special needs and always moved quickly on projects for them, sometimes with as little as 24 hours notice. He loved the presence of all the kids in the school district, and he lovingly referred to them as his “job security.” And whether it was students or adults, Paul liked to see people succeed and he felt his greatest success was when others found success. This philosophy was clearly a driving force in both his professional and personal life. A number of people have used the toasted marshmallow analogy when praising the nature of the man. Sometimes he could be a little crisp on the outside, but when you poked at the exterior he was just soft and gooey on the inside. This leads me to the comments made most often in Darien about Paul . . . his constant talk to everyone about his family.
All of us in Darien knew how much Amanda meant to his life and the pride they took in raising their children. His love for and passion about raising Kelton and Andrea was a constant topic in any conversation with Paul anywhere in Darien. Activities of Kelton and Andrea’s scouting, their sports, their schooling were an ever-present part of Paul’s conversations with all of us in Darien. He communicated the intense joy and fulfillment that Andrea, Kelton and Amanda brought to his life. And he spread this message throughout Darien. Yet it’s likely that the joy they brought to Paul’s life was simply a reflection of the joy that Paul Engemann brought to the lives of others, especially all who worked with him in Darien. How often, in any community would you hear a longtime Board of Finance chair boast that the happiest years of his life as a public official in Darien were the years he worked with Paul Engemann. Such is why the reputation of Paul Engemann, the man who gave Darien a tangible legacy of the school houses he built, will echo for decades to come.
And isn’t it a beautiful irony that the last and most important facilities project for Paul was the building of a beautiful new house for his family in Fairfield? And to this beautiful man Darien must say farewell much, much too soon. To Amanda, Kelton, Andrea and the entire family, Darien says the most heart-felt thank you that we have been able to share Paul Engemann together. He was the best and Darien will miss him mightily. And to Paul Engemann, the man who built the school houses of Darien, I share as a final thought words passed on to me by one of his many buddies in Darien . . . a tribute from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF” - - -
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a man my son!