Remembering Sean Dolan

 In Stories

Sean DolanSean Dolan died at 50, leaving a wife, Lisa, and three children on the cusp of adulthood,  parents, a mother and father in-laws, a brother and sister, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins. In Sean Dolan’s obituary, all were named.

And then there were the unnamed.  In the obituary they were categorized in this succinct clause: “And many friends, students, and colleagues who will miss him very much.”

Many. It’s a word that is easily skipped over. Many. It doesn’t quite tell the story.

In Sean Dolan’s case, it doesn’t come close to number of people’s lives he touched, or the magnitude of how he touched them. Because in addition to being a husband, father, brother, sister and all the other familial roles assigned to him, Sean Dolan was a teacher, a principal, a, coach, a poet, a writer.

Here in New Jersey, Sean Dolan was a common prototype. His father was Irish and his mother was Italian.  That’s how it is. Italians are the largest ethnic group in New Jersey. Irish are second. Combined, there are nearly 3 million people of Italian or Irish decent, making up a full-one third of the state’s population. Elbow to elbow in the neighborhoods of Jersey City, Newark, and the other industrial centers back in the day, they intermarried and moved to the suburbs to get more elbow room.

The mix often leads to combustible formula, in which the first ingredient is passion – extreme passion for everything you become passionate about.  And I know of no better way to describe my friend Sean Dolan. There was nothing stoic or reserved about the guy.  He attacked life. He threw himself at it. There’s an expression that says a person “never did anything half-way.” Sean Dolan never did anything “99 percent.” It was 100 percent only.

He was an outstanding wrestler and his passion for the sports led him to start varsity programs at Wood-Ridge and Mountain Lakes. On the sidelines, he would rise and fall with the success of every kid he coached, match by match, minute by minute.  But I never saw him tear down a kid, no matter how bonehead their move was.

I saw him as a teacher and school administrator for years and he was the same.  I trusted him around my kids. I can’t pay someone a higher compliment. I knew he understood them and wanted what was best for them. I knew that when he became animated it might come across anger, or disappointment. Just like me. It’s an Italian Irish thing. I loved the fact that he didn’t coddle kids and enforced the kind of values that make a community of any kind work, starting with the idea that,  no matter what their parents thought, the world did not revolve around them.

In the classroom, and on the playing fields, he had a visceral connection with kids. Visceral is a fancy work for deep. It comes from the word viscera, which relates the internal organs in the main body cavity, especially the gut.

The gut is where Sean Dolan lived. And what ever he felt down there, showed on his face. Mostly I remember him happy, and his jokes came as quickly and frequently, right up to the end of the two-year battle with a cancer as relentless as it was baffling. Esophageal cancer usually hits the pack-a-day smoker, usually after decades of drawing in the burning toxins. Sean Dolan was an athlete. He kept in shape.

For many people in Mountain Lakes, where Sean Dolan touched many, many lives, his death was tragically reminiscent of Marco Cera, a much beloved middle school principal, who died seven years ago at age 39 of mesothelioma, the disease of retired asbestos workers.

The cancer never knocked the smile off Sean Dolan’s face, nor did it dampen his passion for life. Of course, I wasn’t there in the intimate moments with his family, but I suspect they would agree.

In fact, the cancer ignited another long passion of Sean Dolan’s. In 2017 he published a children’s book called “The Boy with a Sketchbook,” followed by a book of poetry “Sleeping with Lions” which was designed and illustrated by his artist daughter, Cameron. He went to elementary schools and read to children, bringing them joy, even as chemotherapy and cancer hollowed him out.

Two years ago, we had lunch in Bernardsville and he wanted to know how he could bring “Boy with a Sketchbook” to a wider audience. I offered to put him in touch with my agent for my new novel “Gods of Wood & Stone.”  Publishing is a bottom-line business like any other, so I suggested Sean mention his famous sons, the “Dolan Twins” in any proposal he sent out. Ethan and Grayson have an astounding number of followers on social media, and as in multiple millions, a footprint that would get the attention of multiple publishers. I saw a bidding war. He saw something else.

“No, I don’t want to do that,” he said. “That’s their thing.”

Add integrity to all the character traits listed above.

Sean Dolan was truly all those things, and he will be missed. By many, and many more.

(Follow Mark Di Ionno’s columns through a free newsletter at www.markdiionno.com)

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