Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Memoriam-- Brian Gawlik

photo by Thatcher Friant.

" All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."
Gandalf the Grey, Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Brian Gawlik, a teacher, colleague, friend and a member of our family here at BBA passed away today, Tuesday at 3pm after a lengthy battle with cancer.

I first met Brian about 8 years ago now. Tales on a State technology listserv and word of mouth spoke of an innovative high school television news and independent film program at Burr and Burton Academy. I had to see it all for myself so I packed up a few teachers, a few techies and headed out to give the program a look. Brian and I hit it off immediately on that visit. We spoke at length that day as we walked around about the students and the learning process, of the power in creative projects, ones where you had the flexibility to experiment and explore boundaries. It was tough to leave that day as I recall.

Some years later as fate would have it I came to work at Burr and Burton in 2005. Brian and I seemed to pick up where we left off. As I looked to settle into BBA and to Southern Vermont I don't think Brian could have been more accommodating. I thanked him for his help one day and he simply said "I'm not going to give you my Bud Light." He gave that familiar quirky grin and chuckle so many of us have come to appreciate over the years. I often remember him looking this way as he was holding court behind his desk.

The next two years passed pretty quickly. Through it all, Brian and I had many chats in his office after school on creativity, how technology is shaping the world and the direction we would steer programs here at BBA. We spoke on the alternative environment in our department, how we'd turn tides toward more student centric services with technology use on campus, how it would become more personalized. We chatted on philosophy, life, movies... you name it. Time disappeared during those conversations and our 'quick chats' often went on past 6, 7, even 8 or 9pm on occasion. We'd start on a topic, start redesigning something, tinkering on some equipment or the like and the time would just fly.

One day stands out to me now of them all as I write this. I remember I tossed my coat on at about 5pm and headed over to Brian's office say goodnight. I stood in the doorway and we started bantering. Before I knew it, we were both sitting around a table and we were drafting cross curricular projects, project teams, a new facility, a revolutionary construct that threaded together many of the stated goals and needs of the school. Every piece we discussed that night just snapped in place. We sat for a bit after, amazed at what we just drafted up and both decided that it was probably well past time to get home. We came back in the next morning and swapped stories about how neither of us could sleep, how we mulled over details of the program, and how in Brian's summary the whole project "just felt right."

We continued to toss ideas around on the project over the next months. Then Brian's health spiraled and before we knew it he was off to the hospital. I did get to chat with him a few times about how we'd get back to planning, how we'd write it up in a formal proposal to pass on. The day never formally came to be. We chatted over it again recently in his brief return to teaching and he urged me not to let the idea go. "It just feels right" he said again. I told him how much I agreed, how I'd flushed out more details in the Lab with students with the intent to pass it on. I don't think Brian could have seemed more pleased when I told him we'd continue. "Keep at it" he said. "That's one hell of a program."

I get rather choked up when I think of the day we drafted it all up. There were a good many days I had like that working with Brian.

As I came to know Brian over the those few quick years I learned a bit about his many health struggles, how he conserved energy day to day and how he worked his mind and body through his deep array of medication: His "bag of tricks" he called it. He spoke on just one occasion to me about how he missed his old physique, "the one I used to hike with" he said. Brian kept his health trials quiet and constantly focused on innovation and mentoring students... and an endless drive to help people. As I came to know him over these years he decided, much like the quote at the top of this post states, that he was going to make the best of it all.

In a short time here I came to know that Brian was the driving force behind television news, independent film, the Riley Power and Light group, audio productions, audio and filming at graduation, play lighting and artistic design, the VPR suite, artwork for press releases and slide shows and countless hours of tech support for so many individuals here. He was an advisor to countless folks and a good friend to many.

A few days ago we'd received word that Brian's health had taken a major turn for the worse. On Saturday the 5th, Dan Short, Michael Grossfeld, Logan Spencer and I took a drive up to see him. Brian held court, seemingly behind his desk again and told stories of how he was fascinated and grateful he was with his doctors and nurses, how lucky he was to have them on his case. He described his whole illness as magical and how lucky he was to be alive at this time to see it all unfold. About then he told us "how amazing it was that we had accomplished so many things as a civilization. We drove a remote control rover on mars. We have incredible things like iPhones and e-books now. Go figure we still cant make medication that tastes better than this stuff" he said as he held up a half cup of something that looked like Wite-Out. We all had a great laugh. He went on again and again at length about the whirlwind of activity in the Facebook group that Nikki Grossfeld set up for him. Brian said he was "amazed that so many people would take the time to send on best wishes." Then he had a good, deep belly laugh and said "hey, maybe this will finally be the thing that opens discussions on social networking in education!" "Look," I said, "there were easier ways than all this to prove a point." We all had a good laugh. Deb Ehler-Hansen, Freddie Templeton, Neil Freeburn and Kevin Morrison joined us later on that day. We all felt lucky to be able to see him again, had a good many laughs and tossed back thoughts as the conversation rolled on that it was the last time we'd all hold court with him again.

I was able to see him again Monday night the 7th. I arrived and Wendy Gawlik was reading sentiments from the Facebook group. Brian was again reminiscing about people, projects and deeply grateful that so many folks chimed in. One story rolled into the next. It was easy to see that Brian was getting tired. His family came back in just then and it was time for me to head back. The last time I saw Brian I shook his hand and said simply that "next time around I hope it won't take so long to find each other." We both got a bit choked up and I told him I'd be up Wednesday night if things worked out. As usual he thanked me for coming and said "night, Adam. Have a safe trip back. Take care."

My father told me this once: "Surround yourself with good people and good things happen." I came to know Brian Gawlik as an eternal optimist. I'm very grateful for our time together, for the inertia of our chats and his boundless generosity. Brian set many people and initiatives in motion here... the very threads of hope and inspiration. Brian enjoyed his craft thoroughly. He made the most of the time that was given to him and inspired so many of us to do the same.


Monday, December 7, 2009


Many folks have asked me why we play music and movies during project work in Lab classes. There are detailed answers certainly. Some reference how promoting a relaxed atmosphere aides a wider variety of learning styles, how it creates a relaxed learning environment much like we'd have at a home, how the 'informal' atmosphere actually promotes individuals to collaborate with others and small groups are a few typical replies. Most often my reply though is simply "why not?" After a few days in here most feel it's odd not to have something playing in the background.

An old PowerPC G4 iMac with 512 megs of ram, that great model with the cone shaped base has been our music server over the last four years. New class demands in podcasting, video archiving and production work, and increased student connections dictated the need to move to a more powerful computer. In this case a refurbished a first gen Intel mac we upgraded to 2 gigs of ram fit the bill. We exported the iTunes library and swapped over the external drives.

We'll shore up the old G4 to be another audio production machine or to pass onto a student for a basic access workstation. Right tool for the right job. One of the many benefits or our recycling program here.

Engage. AP