By Ivan Pereira
Third in a Series
For more than two decades, Mitchell Wiener was known as the heart and soul of IS 238 in Hollis until he became the city’s first casualty in last year’s swine flu epidemic that struck hard at the borough’s school system.
The assistant principal died from the disease May 17 at age 55. Students, faculty and alumni at the middle school, known commonly as the Susan B. Anthony Academy, at 88-15 182nd St., all came out to mourn and remember their longtime administrator.
But the person most affected by his death at the school was his wife, Bonnie, who also teaches at IS 238 and is the mother of his three young adult sons.
Today Bonnie Wiener said Mitchell Wiener’s death still saddens her, but every so often she said she will hear his voice and vow, like the school, to continue to move on and have a stronger spirit.
“He loved to help people. He loved the kids. He loved the school,” the Flushing resident said.
The administrator’s lasting presence has been memorialized with two artistic works that can be seen as one enters the middle school.
In December, the school installed a bronze plaque that bears Wiener’s smiling face and the words “Mr. Wiener is forever the heart and soul of Susan B. Anthony Academy.” Principal Joseph Gates said he went to the best to make sure the plaque was top notch and shined as bright as Wiener’s spirit.
Gates became emotional when reminiscing about Wiener because he had worked hard alongside him to make the school the top campus in the school district and they were able to achieve that goal just months after he died.
“I know he’s looking down and happy that we did it,” he said.
A second memorial that hangs feet away does not have the glamor of the bronze plaque but was made with the same labor of love and attention. Noemi Charlemagne, 25, the school’s art teacher, said 25 of her students spent one month drawing the large pencil sketch of a smiling Mitchell Wiener in front of the school.
Although it was emotionally difficult for her and the kids, Charlemagne, who was hired by the assistant principal in 2004, said they had fun with the project because he encouraged everyone to enjoy learning.
“He wouldn’t want things to stop, he would want things to work like clockwork,” she said.
Bonnie Wiener said the bond her husband had with the staff and students during his 21-year career at the school was strong and that sense of closeness is what has kept her going in the months since his death.
Hundreds of former students gathered outside the school a day after Mitchell Wiener’s death for a candlelight vigil and many more sent their condolences to the widow and her three sons. Bonnie Wiener said she was appreciative of the support, which has enabled her to continue living her life.
“We realized how much he made an impact on other people,” she said. “It made us realize we weren’t alone,” she said.
The widow said that from time to time she does become sorrowful thinking about what happened to her husband, especially during his Yahrtzeit ceremony, the traditional Jewish custom of unveiling a person’s gravestone a year after his or her death. But it was during that time that his inspiration came to her the strongest, according to Bonnie Wiener.
“During the anniversary of this death, I worried if I should come [to school], but I heard his voice and heard him say, ‘You better.’”
IS 238 was one of 29 public schools in the borough that shut its doors between the end of April and June last year after a large number of students and teachers came down with flu-like symptoms. The affected campuses were spread out throughout the borough and included IS 5 in Elmhurst, PS 19 in Flushing, PS 203 in Oakland Gardens and PS 177, which is just blocks from St. Francis Prep High School, where the outbreak first hit in Queens.
The city Department of Health could not give exact figures on how many of those school members were diagnosed with swine flu, but at IS 238 Wiener and four students did have confirmed cases of the virus. Even though almost all of the students and staff affected went on to make full recoveries, elected officials and parent groups say the city did a lackluster job of handling the outbreak.
City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), then a state assemblyman for the area that included Prep, said at the time the city Department of Education was closing schools sporadically when it could have shut all the schools down as a precaution. Not only was the outbreak close to Memorial Day, but many students were staying home for fear of catching the virus, according to the councilman.
Since then, Weprin said the city has improved its handling of emergency situations, especially after the state Legislature passed a law last year that requires schools to send messages to parents during any emergency.
“I think DOE has been alert to the fact that things like this can spread and they have to alert parents faster and better,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the agency said since last year’s outbreak it has worked closely with the Department of Health to make sure that teachers and students are informed about health risks.
During this year’s flu season the DOE did not close any schools in the fall, helped distribute the vaccine to students and did not face any H1N1 cases.
For her part, Bonnie Wiener last summer filed a $40 million negligence lawsuit against the city for causing her husband’s death. She could not comment on the lawsuit or her thoughts on the DOE’s handling of the outbreak at the other schools, but she said she was happy H1N1 did not make a comeback.
“I’m just glad that the vaccine kept the illness at bay,” she said.
Despite her family’s loss, Bonnie Wiener said she and her staff have continued to put education first and keep their focus on helping the more than 1,600 adolescents at the school. Although she said students miss hearing his soft voice on the PA system during the start of the day, they know he is proud of their achievements.
Bonnie Wiener, in return, said she is working to preserve that legacy for more generations to come.
“He’d always say something like, ‘This is not a hard job,’” she said.
Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.