BRATTLEBORO -- Elmer J. Barrett III didn't know what to say.
He was already so happy a dozen or so of his friends were throwing him a going-away party in the Early Education Services Fatherhood Center and he wanted to tell them how much they meant to him. But he was speechless when he was told the very room he was standing in will now bear his name.
Fatherhood Services Coordinator Don Tretler, of the EES program Dedicated Dads Making a Difference, thanked everyone for coming and mentioned how important Barrett has been to the program. Barrett, his voice raspy with illness, said no one should worry -- because he will be back once every two months to visit everybody at 122 Birge St.
"Well from now on, when people enter the fatherhood center, they're going to get to see this," Tretler said, removing a taped piece of white paper on the door to reveal a brass plaque that reads, "ELMER BARRETT FATHERHOOD CENTER," putting a big smile on the face of the guest of honor.
Barrett suffers from stage IV lung cancer and has reached the end of his treatment. He will leave Brattleboro on Sunday to go to Schuyler Falls, N.Y., where he will stay with his brother before moving into his own place. But he is quick to tell anyone he speaks with that he's not going to New York to die -- he's going there to live.
The man of the hour spoke to his friends and thanked them for their support. And he wasn't shy about making fun of himself to get some laughs from the crowd.
"Humor has been a big part of my recovery. It sucked, but the other side of the fence is, there's more (life) coming. Yeah, I'm a little scared of it -- apprehensive," he said, quickly correcting himself, "I'm apprehensive. I ain't scared of nothing. I say, ‘Bring it on.' The idea is that I can look forward to tomorrow. I don't have control over tomorrow but I'm ready for it."
Tretler said Dedicated Dads is a program of EES that helps fathers of all ages improve their parenting skills in a nonjudgmental fashion. Barrett, who has five children, said each father learns from and teaches the others how to become the best dads possible. He said when he first visited the program seven years ago, he didn't know anything -- or as he put it, "diddly-squat."
Tretler was the first to speak. He said Barrett has been a driving force of Dedicated Dads and called him the father of the fatherhood group. He admits he has only known Barrett since he took the job in August but said he has grown very fond of him and has much admiration and respect for him. He said the center was renamed to carry on the legacy Barrett established.
"You're the kind of person I want to be," he told Barrett before EES Executive Director Debra Gass called Barrett the group's champion.
The floor was then turned over to someone who wasn't even in the room.
Tretler's predecessor, Josh Miller, is a dormitory parent at The American School in Switzerland and addressed everyone via Skype on a laptop, hooked up to a projector, positioned on a table. Miller echoed Tretler's sentiment and said he had taken a few days to think about what to say to Barrett.
He said Barrett tells it like it is and doesn't hold anything back. He said he reaches out to the community and has touched the lives of a lot of people.
"You're just one of the most outstanding people I've ever met in my life," Miller said. "I love you, man, and I'm so grateful that you're in my life, even if we're miles apart."
When it came time for Barrett to cut the cake, he got everyone to laugh by carving a hunk out of the middle and teasing Miller with it over the webcam.
Barrett kept everyone in high spirits during what could have been a somber occasion by telling them stories of his life and what he has done with Dedicated Dads. But he wasn't the only participating father who had something to say.
Young dad Milo Gardilcic addressed Barrett and said he has learned a lot from him, including not to judge people based on their looks or appearance. He said he now gets to know everyone he meets and doesn't buy into first impressions.
Gardilcic then approached Barrett and gave him a handshake and a hug before leaving.
As the door closed behind Gardilcic, Barrett mentioned how the program rubs off on people and how every man involved loves his children more than anything. He elaborated by saying Gardilcic had previously told him he would have to leave the party early -- because he had to go pick up his son.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.