Remarks by Mayor Neil O'Leary P'19
Photography by Robert Falcetti
Speaker Mayor Neil O'Leary
Parent of Maggie '19 and Mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut
Taft parent Neil O'Leary was invited to give the school's Commencement address. Here, we share excerpts from his talk.
I wasn't much older than those of you graduating when I joined the Waterbury Police Department in 1980. The city of Waterbury is one of the most diverse cities in New England. In the 1800s, people immigrated to Waterbury from all over the world to work in the brass factories which operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week for decades.
Working the streets of Waterbury, I learned more than the geography of the city's neighborhoods. I learned about the families who lived in those neighborhoods and the people who worked in those neighborhoods. I saw the unique character of those neighborhoods, many of them enriched with a strong, hard-working, blue-collar culture; others unfortunately stained with crime and generational poverty. I witnessed firsthand the disparity of resources which led to the lack of opportunities and, in some cases, prompted poor choices that resulted in lifetime consequences.
I spent the first 20 years of my career working major crimes. In carrying out my job and investigating those crimes, I focused on making sure that the victims and their families would be afforded justice. It was small consolation in some cases.
After we would carry out investigations and gather enough evidence, we would make an arrest. Although we always tried to arrest outside the presence of children, sometimes that wasn't possible. I can still vividly remember the looks on kids' faces watching me or other officers put their father or their grandfather or their neighbor in handcuffs as we took them away in police custody. Those kids were scared and they were confused and most of all, they were sad. Some of those who were taken away in handcuffs would not see their children or family members for years.
For some of those kids, there were generations of their family in prison, and it was a cycle that could easily repeat itself. There were many years that I struggled with that, often thinking about how the Waterbury Police Department could help those kids in a meaningful, life changing way.
When I became chief of police in 2002, I began researching Police Activity Leagues (PALs) across the country.... [Waterbury's program] fell by the wayside in the '60s due to fiscal constraints. The goal of PAL organizations is to bring together at-risk youth and local police departments through various community programs and activities, in order to foster relationships between the two by providing educational, athletic, and life skill opportunities to local kids.
I learned as much as I could about the PAL organizations that existed at that time, and after doing so, I knew with certainty that Waterbury needed to start its own Police Activity League. The community needed it and the Waterbury police officers who served the community needed it.
Later that year, Waterbury PAL became a reality. Although it started small, serving just about 100 kids, Waterbury PAL now provides educational, athletic, and community programs and initiatives to more than 4,000 kids in Waterbury each year. Waterbury PAL is amongst the largest in the country now and has been recognized as a national model.
Our community partners helped to build out a dedicated PAL facility, including a school, sports fieldhouse, five-acre park that was once a brownfield, greenhouses, and community gardens. All of this has advanced the PAL mission by offering more opportunities to local at-risk kids, by forging relationships between the Waterbury Police Officers and the community. Over the past 16 years, I have watched Waterbury kids thrive in PAL's programs and within our community as a direct result of the opportunities PAL has been able to provide them.
The Taft School has come to be one of PAL's most important community partners. In 2006, as chief of police, I went to visit Mr. MacMullen to talk about The Taft School and the city working together. What has happened since has been amazing.
Working together in close collaboration, here are examples of some of the programs: Starting in 2009, The Taft School six-week overnight summer school program, which includes two Waterbury PAL rising eighthgrade students each year. In 2011, The Taft School/Waterbury Police Activity League summer enrichment academy for rising eighth-graders. This is an annual six-week day program which mentors, tutors, and prepares up to 85 city students for high school. In 2013, after-school programs began in which Taft students go to city schools to teach and mentor third-grade students in reading and writing. Also in 2013, The Taft School started the Global Leadership Institute. This is an amazing two-year program in which 12 sophomore Taft students partner up with 12 sophomore city high school students who then work together on national and global topics, followed by presentations in their second year as juniors.
Of course, the success of the PAL programs also hinges on finding philanthropic donors as well. One of our most significant supporters is Mr. Burt Albert and the Albert family. In addition to being loyal supporters of Waterbury PAL, the Albert family has an intimate connection with The Taft School: Burt and Sylvia's three children, Eric, Debbie, and Jonathan, as well as their five grandchildren, are Taft School alumni. In fact, Jonathan has been a Taft School trustee for the past 20 years and is also a member of the PAL board of directors.
During a visit with Mr. Albert 10 years ago, Burt explained that he wanted to provide opportunities to enrich the educational experiences of PAL kids and to afford those kids the privilege of a Taft education. I am proud to tell you that as of this year, 11 PAL kids to date have attended The Taft School, changing their lives forever.
Burt Albert and his family embody the values that define the Taft experience and the school's motto, Not to be served but to serve. As a very proud Taft parent for the past four years, I have had the honor of meeting and observing a team of the most talented and dedicated faculty imaginable. [And so,] graduating Class of 2019, I can tell you that my involvement with the Waterbury Police Activity League remains one of the most important and meaningful experiences of my life. There is no greater personal satisfaction or reward than to provide a child an opportunity for a better life.
In that regard, The Taft School has prepared you well, and I encourage each of you to take this exciting next step in your life committed to the principles instilled in you here.
Be good citizens and remain devoted to serving your local communities. They need your innovation, your compassion and your energy. Regardless of the path you pave, pursue it with purpose and integrity. Don't be afraid to stumble...to fall... and even to fail—from those experiences you will learn humility and perseverance, and those are invaluable qualities.
Thirty years from now, you may not remember what score you got on your SATs or what your graduating GPA was at the end of high school. You will, however, remember the experiences that helped shape your values and the people who left indelible imprints on your character, many of whom are here with you today.
Neil O'Leary has served as mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut, since 2011. In 1980, he joined the Waterbury Police Department and rose through the ranks, becoming chief of police in 2002. He retired from that position in 2009 and was later hired by the town of Wolcott to modernize its department. Admired by many for his optimistic and resilient cando attitude, he has written an extraordinary record in community collaboration and growth.
Sadly, Burton Albert, mentioned in these remarks, passed away on May 31.