'Doc' Racette: The archetype of decency and substance

He would peer at you through his glasses, which often sat halfway down his nose. Always the same crewcut. White socks. Shirt tucked. And the signature hiked-up pants worn seemingly not far south of his armpits.

This was Doc.

This was the educator, wine savant, musician. The once and future advocate for New London kids. Generous and understated, always the puckish sense of humor. The unwitting — but fitting — stepfather. And the man who loved Kathy transcendently.

This was Doc, otherwise known as Rene Racette, the former Superintendent of Schools in the 06320.

Doc died last week at 77.

One of the all-time greats in the city, the archetype of decency and substance.

Where to begin? With Kathy, of course. The love of his life. And proof that Sinatra was on to something with that whole love is lovelier the second time around thing.

This was the second marriage for Rene and Kathy. Maybe they thought they'd never find their soulmates as fortysomethings. But the universe is truly magical sometimes, when kismet meets faith, producing 35 years of blessedness.

"I needed a job at night and Aggie (O'Neill, Kathy's former mother-in-law) worked at the high school, "Kathy was saying the other night. "She says, 'I've got the nicest guy to work for. The adult-ed director, Rene Racette. Easy job. Rene walks in and I saw the crew cut, a little chunky, pants up to here. Mock turtle neck. High waters, white sox and beat up loafers."

Ah, love at first sight. Or not.

"I worked there for a while. But I moved on to other things and didn't see him much. He called when he was doing his doctorate and asked if I would type his thesis. Then he asked me to be his administrative assistant.

"One day, he asked me out," Kathy said. "It was Administrative Assistants' Day and he asked me to dinner. He takes me to this fabulous place. He said, 'If I don't step up, I'm going to lose you. I need to put my cards on the table. I'd like to go farther with our relationship.' I took a gulp of wine. I didn't see it coming. I thought about it for a while. He won me over. His whole presence. The most generous man."

Kathy was uncomfortable with keeping her job in the school system while dating The Boss. Board members told her not to worry, to keep the job. Kathy's voice was creaking as she told this story:

"Rene says to me, 'I can move on. You don't have to leave if you want this job. I can look for another job,'" she said. "It's seldom that you meet someone who loves you unconditionally."

Kathy's son, Casey O'Neill — you know him better perhaps as the play-by-play voice of GameDay — was in eighth grade at the time the couple began dating. Fancy that one: Your mom comes home and says ... OK with you if I date the superintendent?

"It was 1985 and I'm in eighth grade," Casey said. "She told me about her feelings for Doc and asked if it was OK to pursue this. I went, 'are you kidding me?' Are you trying to get me killed? I'm going to high school soon!' Turns out I was looking at it all wrong. My friends all thought I had the keys to the kingdom. I could get school canceled whenever I wanted to."

Casey soon saw the very best of Doc: Champion for the kids in the city by day; husband and newfound dad by night. A dad not only to Casey, but Casey's high school friend Susan Pryhocki, who lost a parent in high school while the other was ill. Doc opened his home to her. Susan has been part of the family since.

"Doc came to me when they were dating," Casey said. "The handful of other guys my mom had dated always tried to win me over. He came to me and said, "Listen. I know you have a father and I'm not trying to be that. Whatever relationship you want to have with me, I would love it. But I need to be clear with you. I'm in this because I love your mother.' Those were the magic words.

"Susan comes in to the house as a freshman. Doc says, 'Stay as long as you need.' Jason Appleby. Brian Santangelo. Jon Mikula all lived with us at various times. He didn't say boo. Every sports team I played on ate at our table. Here's this guy, the superintendent, balancing that and being a stepfather. He fought for the kids all day, comes home and throws on his caftan (he actually wore a one-piece robe-looking kind of thing in the house) swears at the TV watching the Red Sox and lets everyone in."

Racette's Willimantic roots belie his love for the green and gold. You know nothing of our kids until you've walked in their shoes, he would say.

"Rene started a Young Parents Club, mostly for kids who were pregnant and still in high school," former Board of Education member and City Councilor Reid Burdick said. "One night, an administrator from the burbs comes in and asks if we would take two of their kids. 'We don't have a program but we don't have these problems either,' he says.

"Rene tilts back in his chair, glasses down on his nose," Burdick said, "and goes, 'ah, of course we will take good care of them. But you do realize they got pregnant the same way our kids did, right?' The guy looked like a possum in the road frozen by headlights."

Racette's generosity even went beyond city lines, all the way to Waterford High, where he donated $30,000 of musical equipment to the band and director Tim Fioravanti. Completely donated. Just because he wanted the kids to use them, Kathy Racette said.

Kathy told that story the other night over dinner at Filomena's. The family seated directly next to Kathy and the Racette party: The Fioravantis. A happenstance meeting? To some, perhaps. Or maybe just the Universe doing its thing. Hey, Einstein always said coincidence is God's way of staying anonymous.

In later years, Doc became a grandfather, Papa Doc, to Susan's children, Hayden and Ainsley, and Casey and Michele's son, A.J.

Racette taught A.J. French and German words and entertained him from the other room by yelling at the Red Sox (which A.J. could hear through his video game headphones). Maybe it's through A.J. that Papa Doc will live on the most.

"To this day, every time A.J. is ready to go up to play in his room, he says. 'I'm goin' up.'" Casey said. "When we lived on Pequot Ave., we'd eat dinner as a family and start kibitzing. Doc would say, 'OK, I'm goin' up' into the early version of the man cave. When A.J. has dinner with us now, he says, 'all right I'm goin up.'"

The Doc is goin' up. He's already there. He's wearing his caftan, perhaps one God has already monogrammed with the logos of UConn, the Connecticut Sun, the Red Sox and the Whalers. Next to him are glasses of Perrier, French Burgundy and a bottle (not a can) of Schaefer beer.

They will celebrate him at the high school Saturday at 10 a.m. Come one, come all. Dress comfortably, the family requests. Doc would have it no other way.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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