Windsor Park Stories

Irish Teachers festival 2002

A Very Special Night in Windsor Park

By Melissa Sgroi

The personal philosophy of Doc and Kitch Mussari, the one they share in the classroom, is powerfully simple: "We are only worth what we give away." The couple lived that philosophy once again by hosting the Irish Teachers Festival on August 1st at Windsor Park.

While this is an annual event, it was noticeably different. Yes, a group of visiting Irish teachers whistled, danced, and learned about life in down home America. Yes, friends and neighbors sprawled out on blankets and lounged in lawn chairs while they enjoyed the musical performances. Yes, people laughed and clapped and remarked to each other how much the children have grown in one year, and how the Coreopsis and those unusual, tropical looking trees with the mammoth red flowers ("Oh, look! We just have to plant those!") add so much happy color to Windsor Park.

Doc and Kitch presented gifts to their friends, too, as they often like to do. They gave a painting by Sue Hand to John McKeown and his wife, Peg, in honor of the couple's 60th wedding anniversary. It was John who organized the Irish teachers visits since 1974 and enabled Doc and Kitch to have the festival. Another painting went to friend and neighbor Jim Lehman, who is moving away.

While Doc and Kitch did make some noteworthy additions to the festival, the most striking difference was its sameness. Music and dancing in the early evening sun seemed that much warmer, precious almost, since our world--and our humdrum sense of security within it--changed last September 11th.

Of course, few of us can imagine the suffering the victims' family members must endure. The family of Leonard Snyder, who died while working in the World Trade Center, attended, too. Dr. and Mrs. Leonard Snyder Sr. lost their son that day, and Jeannine Marquet Snyder, her husband. "When I found out (they) would be joining us, I thought to myself, 'This is wonderful. They will know that in their pain they have not been forgotten.' They will never be forgotten here at Windsor Park," Doc says.

The Celtic music of Ceol Mor helped to underscore that fact, Doc says. A chance meeting with a former student and band member led him to arrange for the group's performance. Its music, he believes, was a perfect match to the tone of the evening. "Having spent a good deal of time trying to tell some of the lesser known facts about 9-11, and having an awful feeling of sadness all year about the horror of that day, I wanted to have something at the festival which would remind us of the significance of that day," Doc explains. "The sounds of the pipe and drum band were just right."

To share those lesser-known facts, as well as the lessons found within them, the Mussaris held a special screening of Windsor Park Stories. Doc chose to show "What is America?" and two segments from another Windsor Park Story that looked into the harrowing experiences of children in a New York City elementary school.

Windsor Park Stories often examines the lives and stories of people who may appear ordinary at first glance, and shows us how the simplest things speak the most profound truths. This fact was not lost on Harry Knox, one of the visiting teachers. He says his most striking lesson came from a young girl working in a local shop. "The young people are open and don't hide their talents under a bush," Knox observes. "We like the positive attitude in the US. We come from a culture that may not be as positive as that."

The festival, originally designed as an educational experience for the teachers, and Doc's personal gift to Kitch, is always a celebration of art and the way we can use it to share the language of the soul. "For me, the joy this gift brings is in sharing it with others," Kitch says. The silky sounds of Diane O'Malley's harp brought the audience's neighborly conversations to a whisper. While it was her first appearance here, she has been playing the harp for 15 years. Her performance included selections of Celtic music and a song she composed, titled "All in a Day". "It came to me all in a day and it has many different emotions in it," she explains.

Twelve-year-old Michael Brennan hasn't been a musician nearly as long as O'Malley; he's been a drummer with Ceol Mor for only two years. He's grateful for the opportunity to play and Windsor Park. Music, he says, is helping him to learn a great deal. "I'm learning more responsibility, like when I'm getting ready. If I make them (the band) late, oh no." The girls from the Butler School of Irish Dancers, many of whom are even younger than Brennan, returned to the festival this year with at least three costume changes and a mix of high energy dance routines, some set to traditional Celtic music and others to a funky rock beat.

The dancers even offered an impromptu lesson to volunteers selected from the audience. Seven-year-old Rachel Madeira and her 10-year-old sister, Laura, delighted in the experience. Laura believes it really is one of those things that looks deceptively easy. "It was hard to keep up and remember the steps," she said.

Rachel is already looking forward to next year and another opportunity to dance with her partner. "She said, 'You're good. You're going to be here next year and you're going to be my partner.'" Doc and Kitch are looking toward the future, too, but for now, they need a rest. Preparing for the festival requires a lot more work than simply organizing the performances and mailing invitations. There's pulling weeds, rearranging gardens, ordering refreshments, chairs, and Job Johnnys. There are overnight accommodations to be arranged for guests, ice to be purchased, and requests to be made to borough officials to allow the street to be closed.

And that's without considering the six-inch water main break that required extensive repair work. "It included rebuilding and paving a 70-foot storm drain, resetting stone walls, replacing tons of 1b red stone and topsoil and mulch," Doc recalls. "We had to build a more effective irrigation system and we had to replant some of the gardens."

While they worry they may require help in the future, they want to use their own sweat equity to create a gift for others. Kitch says a handwritten note she received reminds her. "The writer wrote, 'The festival was fantastic. It was enchanting and spellbinding to every member of our family. Thank you so much.' Notes like this make all of the time and work worthwhile." Perhaps even more so this year. A free festival in the middle of a suburban neighborhood is a novel idea even during good times. But maybe it shouldn't be. "The interchange between performers, neighbors, guests, and the Irish teachers is one way to bring people together for a celebration of everything that is positive about America," Doc says."

Photoes by Carolyn Bulford and Bobby Zampetti

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