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Waterford gym needs a name ... how about Sweeney?

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published December 27. 2012 4:00AM

Fittingly, there was a sporting event at Waterford High School that night, a basketball game. And that meant a late-arriving gathering, with so many of the townsfolk spending more than an hour freezing their ascots off in a line that snaked around Neilan & Sons Funeral Home on Ocean Avenue.

Many of them, the students, players, coaches, colleagues and friends whose lives Francis X. Sweeney touched, drove to the basketball game after the wake. Down Ocean, up Bank to 20 Rope Ferry Road, a line of cars that ran like a current from the passion pit of people honoring Sweeney's memory to the very building he created for them.

They went into the place known only as The Fieldhouse to watch the game. The Fieldhouse. Too vanilla, considering Sweeney's contributions to the school and community were perpetually more flavorful. That was F.X. Sweeney. Part of the holy trinity of Waterford sports with Dick Cipriani and Gerry Rousseau.

Francis X: Always with a smile, a wisecrack. A gentle, happy soul.

Dick Cipriani: "Cip." You say that one, three-letter word and scores and scores of his former players could tell stories that flow like Bud in the bleachers.

Rousseau: Thick, professorial glasses and puckish sense of humor. Never forget in the days he coached infielder J.R. Chiappone. It would always prompt the inevitable, "let's get this dog and Chiappone show on the road."

You know who they were? They were the men who gave Waterford a backbone. A village green with its own memories and not just a bunch of transplanted New Londoners reliving the old days. That current between the funeral home and the gym last week? It's the same lifeline Sweeney, Cipriani and Rousseau provided so many former players who say "I played at Waterford" with a sense of dignity.

And this is why the town must reconsider its policy of not allowing landmarks to be named in honor of anyone. It's never been explained beyond a dismissive, "we don't do that here."

This just in: They need to do that there.

It's no more complicated than this:

The newly turfed lawn: Dick Cipriani Field.

The gym: The Francis X. Sweeney Fieldhouse.

The baseball domain: Gerry Rousseau Field.

Don't worry. Nobody's left out. Cipriani, Sweeney and Rousseau occupy their own airspace in the history of the town.

Not that anybody spends much time in thought anymore - not with so many opportunities to text and tweet - but has anybody stopped to consider how communities endure? Like this: People hang around them for a long time and accomplish extraordinary things through earnestness, loyalty and diligence. And their accomplishments create memories and talking points that cross generations.

Imagine had a kid in the Fieldhouse the other night asked, "Dad, who was Francis X. Sweeney?"

The answer would be a history lesson.

Kids need to know these things.

They are important.

Example: The best part of last season's boys' basketball state championship, the first in the school's 55 years, came a few days later during an impromptu, net-cutting ceremony in the gym. The words of senior Cory Murallo:

"The name I really want to mention is Mr. Sweeney," Murallo said. "Playing here has been very important to my family."

That's an 18-year-old kid knowing enough about his town to salute its then-85-year-old patriarch. This is how traditions endure and communities grow.

Surely, the Waterford Board of Education has enough reasonable souls - I have great respect for Jody Nazarchyk, among others - to entertain discussion about naming fields and gyms in honor of people who have served the town well. If there are legitimate reasons to leave landmarks unnamed, let's hear them. If this is posturing, it needs to stop.

Waterford shouldn't ignore three men whose lives were devoted to the town and who made the town something beyond a designation for flight from New London. Waterford is more than the place with big box stores and a power plant. It is a shoreline hamlet that boasts an estimable athletic tradition because of three patriarchs. Let's do the right thing for them.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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