Whittier school in D.C. honors aide killed in Metro crash

By Michael E. Ruane
Thursday, January 7, 2010; B03

The principal needed a box of tissues as she stood on stage talking about Dennis Hawkins.

The school psychologist, whom Hawkins befriended when she moved from Kentucky, could scarcely speak of him through her tears.

His family was overcome with emotion in the auditorium as the fifth-grade girls sang of him, "when a hero comes along, with the strength to carry on . . . "

Hawkins, the beloved administrative aide at the Whittier Education Campus in Northwest Washington, was remembered there Wednesday, seven months after he and eight other people were killed in the June 22 collision of two Metro trains.

The school, where Hawkins, 64, mentored teachers, students and staff members for three years, dedicated its newly stocked library to him and unveiled a plaque commemorating him on a wall outside the library.

In the auditorium of the stately brick building at Fifth and Sheridan streets, Hawkins was recalled in song and story as a sterling educator and elder statesman of the Whittier community.

And when the ceremonies were over, a delegation of students and educators stood in a blustery wind in the schoolyard and released strawberry-colored balloons as a final salute. They quickly vanished into the wintry sky.

The day was, among other things, a chance for students to mourn, Whittier Principal Nicole Clifton said. "They never really got an opportunity to collectively mourn because it happened over the summer," she said.

Hawkins, who never married and had no children, had just left the school on the day of the crash and was heading by Metro to teach vacation Bible school at church, Clifton said before the ceremonies.

Clifton said she, too, had just left the school when she heard about the crash on the radio and phoned Hawkins at the school to see whether he was all right. There was no answer, Clifton said, but she didn't worry. She figured he'd call the next morning "and life would go on with him. Unfortunately, we have no control over what happens to any of us in life, in certain aspects."

"A loving, dedicated staff member," Clifton said. "He did everything, from holding classes, to disciplining students, to talking to parents, to working in aftercare."

"He meant the world to the school," she said. "He meant the world to the students, to the staff, to me. . . . He had such a great relationship with kids from kindergarten all the way to eighth grade. He was like a grandfather, a father, everything, a counselor."

As the students assembled for the auditorium program, instructional coach Sanjay Singh was helping to set up the folding chairs. "He was one of the kindest individuals I've seen" in the school system, Singh said.

In his work with adults, "he was able to get some of the most riled up parents calmed down," Singh said. "They'd come into the school very upset, whether the child got in trouble or something like that. And by the time they left, they were smiling, they were happy, they were much more content."

After the auditorium program, Hawkins's brother, Kenneth, said: "This was him. This was his life. . . . Education and the children."

Near the auditorium door, school-based psychologist Sara Tick stood off by herself. Tears filled her eyes as she spoke of Hawkins. He was the first person she met at the school when she traveled from Kentucky to interview for the job. "He was just magnificent," she said. "Drove me to the subway to take me home. We connected. He loved bad kids. I love bad kids. We had a real strong connection."

Outside on the wind-blown playground, Clifton assembled about a dozen children and distributed the balloons.

"On the count of three, in honor of Mr. Hawkins," Clifton called out. "You're going to release your balloons, and [they're] going up and he's going to receive them."

"One! Two! Three!"

The balloons were whisked away by the wind, and the children yelled with delight.

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