In the end, it was the heart of Alphonse “Al” Swekla that ended his life.
But he is remembered by thousands in the city for his big heart and endless service, both as a lifelong educator and an elected official.
The educator who worked 39 years for Gloucester public schools, and gave another decade of civic involvement to the City of Gloucester, died Wednesday night at the age of 86.
Swekla, a native of Nashua, N.H., was as much a Gloucester native son as those who were born here, according to his colleagues.
“He was a born educator,” said Natalie Daley, a retired teacher of 43 years. “He was a hard worker and he had a heart. He had his standards and he never broke from his standards but those were standards that the kids could follow.”
Reflecting on his life in his final weeks, he confided to his wife, Lee Swekla, that he hoped he made a difference in the lives of others.
“He said ‘I think I kept a lot of kids out of jail —and I think I did OK by a lot of people,’“ Lee Swekla recounted Thursday.
Karen Cunha, who has worked in the school administration office for decades, confirmed the late educator’s hopes.
“Over the years, there has been a steady stream of people who stopped by the office wanting to thank him for changing the course of their lives,” she said. “He was well liked and respected. He dedicated his life to the City of Gloucester.”
Lee Swekla said she already got a call from someone who shared with her how Swekla — known by everyone as “Al” — had changed his life.
“He was such a mentor to so many people. He’s going to be really missed by a gazillion people. He showed by example and he was the comeback kid. People would count him out and he’d prove them wrong. He had an amazing will and he was holding onto life in both his hands,” she said.
Swekla began work as a Central Grammar School science teacher in 1952 and moved up to become principal there by 1965. He was principal of the new O’Maley School when it opened in 1973. In 1981, he became assistant superintendent, and became superintendent in 1985. But in 1988, he retired after a serious heart attack and the doctors told him that his working days were over.
Swekla, however, found other ways to give to the community he cherished.
He continued to serve the city on the School Committee, including holding the post as chairman, and later the City Council, including holding the post of president. He also worked on the city’s World War II Memorial Committee and served as president of Addison Gilbert Hospital Citizens Fund.
But over the last year his health took a turn for the worse.
“When we got the news that his condition was deteriorating last June, we cried and we talked and he decided he’s not ready to go,” recalled Lee Swekla. “He was saying ‘I don’t think I’m done yet.”
He lived a month longer than doctors expected.
Swekla’s path to Gloucester came through his first wife, Jean Firth, the daughter of a fishing captain whom he met while both were students at the University of New Hampshire. Swekla attended college after serving in the Navy during World War II.
Swekla also was known for his athleticism. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame at UNH where he was an all starter on the football team. In high school, he played football, basketball and baseball. During his years as an educator, he coached a Babe Ruth baseball team and he was assistant football coach under Nate Ross for nine years.
His efforts were noted by many, and he even earned the respect of the students.
In 1970, when he was principal at Central Grammar, he was named “Personality of the Week” by the seventh-grade social studies class of Sam Chiancola.
Then-class secretary Dawn Galante wrote: “The boys and girls of Division 7-A understand your deep interest and concern in trying to provide the best in quality education for all the students in our school ... We wish to express our admiration for the manner in which you have dedicated your life to serving the youth of Gloucester.”
City Councilor Bruce Tobey remembered first meeting Swekla about 45 years ago when he was a student at Central Grammar around the age of 14.
“Al left his fingerprints in positive ways on generations of Gloucester folk in a range of ways that never can be fully described,” said Tobey. “Swekla was the guy who was always there trying to do good and who also never stopped. He was never going to retire and put his feet up and let his life go by. He was an active participant as long as his legs were willing.”
He said the lifelong educator brought “gruff love” to the table.
“I’ll never forget the first time I met him. He made it a point to get to know everyone, and he pointed at me and said ‘I know your father.’ As it turns out, he did. But it turns out that it was also one of his lines,” said Tobey, who like many others in the city, would find that their lives would intertwine for decades.
“I met him on so many different capacities moving through life,” said Tobey, who returned to his hometown of Gloucester in 1982. “At that time he was the assistant superintendent, I was the city solicitor, and there was Al saying ‘I remember you from when.’ Then I’m on City Council and he’s superintendent; and then I’m mayor and he’s on School Committee. Then I’m on City Council and he’s on City Council.”
Brian Tarr, a longtime retired Gloucester educator, said one of Swekla’s strengths was in guiding parents.
“It was amazing how he dealt with parents in some difficult cases and he guided them on how to move the students along and even help some get to college,” he said. “He was very visible and you would always see him out and around in the building.”
Michael Faherty, a local attorney who served on the School Committee with Swekla, said he will be greatly missed.
“I’ve known him only 30 years, but I never met a man who was more honest. He was just old school and fair,” he said.
John Bell, former city councilor, council president and mayor, knew Swekla for half a century.
“I knew and worked with Al as both my eighth-grade teacher at Central Grammar and then 50 years later as city council president. He was strict, tough and a gentleman all wrapped in one. I’ m grateful for his friendship and contributions to Gloucester,” said Bell.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Swekla will be long be remembered for the integrity he brought to all he did in service to the city and its schools.
“Al Swekla loved Gloucester and we loved him back. He was a statesman on City Council and guided countless children towards productive futures,” she said.
Kim Normand, who served on the School Committee for 20 years, said she will remember Swekla for his eternally positive attitude and open-door policy. She said Swekla never let her forget that she, along with the late Harriet Webster, voted not to accept his letter of resignation as superintendent after his heart attack.
“We knew he was good for Gloucester schools and we didn’t want to see him go,” she said.
Natalie Daley first met Swekla in 1959 when she was a student teacher and he was a science teacher.
“He was the bright spark in the school,” said Daley. “He was the best principal I worked for because, for one, he loved kids and he was very good with kids. And he wasn’t afraid to tell a teacher when they were not doing the right job. But he was also a softie. He hated to come down hard on somebody but he didn’t stand for any foolishness.”
In his retirement, Al would meet his future wife when he attended a widow and widower’s support group that Lee ran with Anne “Joann” Boucher. What started out as a friendship grew into something more. Lee’s first husband died in 1988. The couple married in 1991.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.