The school year’s first day began with a moment of silence for Michael Doran.
The principal, whom many saw as the heart and soul of Wootton High, normally would have greeted students as they climbed off their buses, joked with them in the hallways, pilfered their french fries at lunch, dropped into their classrooms. But he was gone, an unexpected blow at a high-performing Maryland school that already had endured its share of recent losses.
As Maryland’s largest school system kicked off a new school year Monday, Wootton remembered Doran and tried to find its footing without its principal of 12 years. Doran died Aug. 19 at his Bethesda home due to a previously unknown heart problem, according to a family spokeswoman.
The loss came as the latest in a series of heartbreaks for the Wootton community, which has seen five students or recent graduates die during the past few years, two in suicides and three of injuries from car crashes. It was Doran who brought an anguished community together to grieve and heal.
“He always knew what to say, he always had the best hugs,” said Sophia Teicher, a senior who recalled Doran’s comforting presence at vigils following a June car wreck that left two Wootton teenagers dead. “He was very powerful with his words, and if he said something it meant something.”
As students gathered in their homerooms Monday, the acting principal, Kimberly Boldon, spoke of the longtime principal during morning announcements. Doran was 64, remembered as a spirited, empathetic and witty leader who wanted his school to be the best and had no plans to retire.
“Dr. Doran loved Wootton, and he loved you, the students of Wootton, especially,” Boldon said. School counselors and grief counselors were on hand to help students who need support, she said.
“I truly believe he would want us to be the best we can be by supporting each other, by learning a lot, and by getting involved in our community,” Boldon said. “I believe greatness can come from this tragedy, and it is up to all of us to make this the best year possible.”
The PTSA bought red rubber bracelets that said “#woottonstrong” on one side and “Do it for Doran!” on the other that were given to students. Many students wore the bracelets throughout the day.
“He really was the glue that kept the school and the community together,” said Karen Whitesell, a mother of two who noted that many parents appreciated that Doran was not focused on only the most successful Wootton students, but on all students.
The return to classes at Wootton came as Montgomery County projected a record enrollment of 156,514 students in its 202 schools, an increase of 2,662 since last year. School officials and elected leaders gathered at an event in the Wheaton area to highlight the need for more school construction funding and to outline other district goals.
Schools also opened Monday in Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia, with other districts in the Washington region starting last week or next week.
At Wootton, the return to classes followed a service Aug. 21 that brought an estimated 3,000 people to the Rockville school’s athletics field to celebrate Doran’s life and impact. The night was a blend of humorous recollection and deeply emotional tribute, mingled with performances that included “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for the Irish-born educator.
Doran, who taught in Montgomery for 18 years and in Fairfax County schools for a decade, was remembered for his playful humor and British accent, the sincerity of his connection to students and staff, and his immense pride in all things Wootton. His school regularly ranked among the top high schools in Maryland for its SAT scores, graduation rates and Advanced Placement performance, district officials said.
Doran displayed his intensity at athletic events, occasionally howling at a referee’s call during a soccer game. Win or lose, he liked to tell each player exactly what he appreciated about their performance, said Doug Schuessler, the boys varsity soccer coach. “There was no mistaking when he was at the games,” he said.
Doran also showed great enthusiasm for theater shows, orchestra concerts, whatever his students chose to do. He watched the live stream of the national finals of League of Legends, a multi-player online video game, “even though he had no clue what was going on the entire time, just to cheer on the Wootton kids,” said Chris Hechler, a senior.
“He was so proud of every single achievement that we all made,” Hechler said. “He showed us what it looked like to be so supportive, no matter what.”
For many, it was the tough times in recent years that especially stood out.
“Dr. Doran has been the rock for all our tears and pain,” Melanie McLean, president of the Student Government Association, said at the service. “He has been our leader and he has been our home base. He has always had more than exactly the right words to heal us.”
Thinking about what he would want, she said: “He would tell us to come together as a community because there is no other way to get through it.”
Many seniors said they were sad that Doran will not be at the graduation for the class of 2016, saying they had looked forward to him handing them their diplomas and delivering the Irish blessing he gave at every such ceremony: “May you have warm words on a cool evening, a full moon on a dark night, and a smooth road all the way to your door.”
But since Doran’s death, Wootton’s sports teams have been working on an effort to get a patch made for athletic uniforms that will memorialize the popular principal.
Al Mirzania, a senior and co-captain on the soccer team, said it would be difficult not seeing Doran again. But he said the principal would live on in spirit at Wootton games. “It seems like he’s here in our hearts and watching over,” he said.