Published in Pawtucket Times, February 7, 2014
One of Rhode Island’s “Greatest Generation,” Pawtucket native Tom Duffy, passed away on Feb. 2, leaving behind a legacy in the Ocean State’s College sports world. As a life-long educator, who now resides in Little Compton, he inspired and personally touched the lives of tens of thousands of Pawtucket students, as a teacher and educational administrator, when he worked in the Pawtucket school system.
Duffy’s , (the son of the late Thomas L. Duffy and Mary (Kennedy) Duffy), educational ties to Pawtucket began early in his life. He attended St. Joseph’s School, later graduating in 1942 from St. Raphael Academy. During high school, the young man’s leadership skills became quite visible to all when he was elected class president and became captain of the school’s 1942 Class B championship basket ball team.
Once graduating, like many of his generation, Duffy enlisted in the United States Army (from 1942 to 1946), serving as a water purification engineer in the Philippines campaign. As luck would have it, he fell into playing basketball for the U.S. Army basketball team. “. As his daughter, Barbara A. Duffy-Protentis, remembers, he would say, “I never got shot at, I got fouled a lot.”
After his honorable discharge from military service, he would attend St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire, receiving his Bachelors Degree. Later on, he completed a Masters in Education degree from Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
Duffy’s professional journey, as a teacher, basketball coach and principal in the Pawtucket School System, began in 1950, where he drew Sayles Junior High for his first teaching assignment. Leaving the City in 1956 to teach English at Warren High School, he also served at this school as assistant basketball coach for three years and head coach for one year.
In 1960, Duffy, returned to Pawtucket, serving as guidance counselor at Jenks Junior High for seven years. Then, for thirteen years (two as assistant principal and 11 as principal) he was at Slater Junior High School. At age 56. as principal he took the reins of the former Pawtucket West High School (now called Shea) for three years, where he also served as the baseball coach for two seasons. Turning fifty nine years old, he had a cerebral aneurysm, forcing him to ultimately retire two years later from teaching the public school. His love for teaching would bring him out of retirement to be the Assistant Principal at St. Teresa’s School in Pawtucket for the remainder of his career.
Later, Duffy was inducted into the Bryant University Hall of Fame and the City of Pawtucket Hall of Fame. He served as chairman of the Rhode Island Interscholastic Athletic Association and Chairman of Pawtucket’s Centennial Committee. For several years, Duffy also served as the Chairman of the Rhode Island Secondary Principal’s Association.
Inductee in Pawtucket’s Hall of Fame
Duffy’s passion for teaching and his impact on students was captured in the 2000 Pawtucket Hall of Fame program where he was inducted into this prestigious group:
“Tom’s thoughts and actions always had the basic theme. Is it good for the kids?” But, words from former students and fellow educators best describe him, notes the program: “He was principal and number one cheerleader for Slater.” “He turned a school (Slater) around from a so-called tough school to one that had a positive attitude, strong academics and a wide range of extra curricular activities.”
“Tom was known as an administrator that teachers knew they could go to for extra materials or to add a new club or to fundraise for projects. Tom’s theory was if it’s for the students then I’m for it. He truly lived the motto of Slater – loyalty, perseverance and cooperation.”
One of the Greatest Coaches
From 1962 to 1969, Duffy would take on new professional challenges while teaching in Pawtucket School System. He became head basketball coach at Bryant University. His teaching skills would translate well to the basket ball court with his basketball players breaking all records.
According to Bryant University’s athletic department, “Tom Duffy was one of the greatest coaches in the school’s history, serving as the men’s basketball coach from 1964-68, going 70-22 during that time period for a .760 winning percentage that still stands as the best in the school history.
The University’s athletic department noted that among Duffy’s many sports achievements was a 1966-67 team that went undefeated in the regular season and set the school record for wins in a season with 22. This winning streak earned the squad a place in the Bryant Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007. Duffy’s team was considered to be one of the best small university basketball ball teams nationally, even capturing the Naismith Conference Championship and advanced to the NAIA District 32 National Tournament.
Furthermore, in addition to the induction of the team itself, four members of the unit would see themselves inducted as individuals, including all-time scoring leader Tom Smile, Don Gray, Tony DeQuattro and even Duffy himself.
“Tom was a great coach, a great mentor to numerous Bryant basketball players, had a great sense of humor and, above all, was a great family man, stated Mike Fisher, Bryant University Chairman of the Board and a member of the Hall of Fame 1966-67 team. “He was a very important part of building the foundation for Bryant’s many years of successful men’s basketball.
In 1967, the Rhode Island Association of Sportswriters and Sportscasters, named Duffy the “coach of the year.” This marked the first time a Bryant coach had received this prestigious honor. One year later, he chose to step down as the University’s head basketball coach, choosing to continue to teach in Pawtucket’s public schools rather than taking on a full-time position as Athletic Director and basketball coach.
Barbara A. Duffy-Protentis, 55, remembers her father as being “the most godly human I knew.” While he put his family first, he never forgot others. “He spent his entire professional life doing things for people,” said the resident of Easton, Massachusetts.
After Duffy’s death, Protentis noted that she found a letter in her father’s personal papers that he had saved for 36 years. The young student, living in a bad home environment, wrote to thank him for constantly checking in every day to “see how she was doing.” She also noted his prediction was correct, that she ultimately became the only person in her family to make it. “You will never know the impact you had on me. I went to College and because of you I became a teacher,” she said.
“The best thing he instilled in his children was “we are put on this earth to help others,” adds Protentis. This philosophy ultimately drove her younger sister, Mary, into the teaching profession and Protentis entered a field to assist at risk 14 to 22 year olds.
Mary Tetzner, 54, (married to Ed Tetzner, an official of the Doyle Administration) recalls how her father and mother took in young students from bad home situations, to live with them. In one instance, Duffy bought a young girl a prom dress because her family was unable to purchase one. No one knew except the Duffy’s and the girl, says the Greenville resident.
Even in his final days, Duffy remained a teacher. At the Rhode Island Veterans Home, he tutored employees, helping them get through their GED courses. “Even though he was not in a class room he was always a teacher,” notes Tetzner.
Duffy was married to his wife, Barbara (Molloy) Duffy, a former school nurse, for over 59 years. After three weeks of dating, he proposed to her and later married. He leaves two daughters (Protentis and Tetzner) and grandchildren, Elizabeth (Tetzner) Shactel, Thomas Tetzner, Sam Duffy-Protentis, Alexis Duffy-Protentis, Nicole Duffy-Protentis, Jack Duffy-Protentis and his great-grandson, Benjamin Shactel.
Duffy’s funeral is scheduled for tomorrow, Feb. 8, 2014 at 9:00 am, at the MANNING-HEFFERN FUNERAL HOME, 68 Broadway, Pawtucket. There will be a Mass of Christian Burial in St. Teresa’s Church, 358 Newport Avenue, Pawtucket at 10:00 am. His calling hours will be Friday from 4-8 pm in the funeral home.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, medical and health care issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.