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Waterford's Sweeney remembered as coach, mentor and friend

By Chuck Banning

Publication: The Day

Published December 18. 2012 4:00AM

He was "coach" when they were young, "a mentor" when they became adults, and "the voice" they turned to whenever career advice was needed.

But Dave Sousa and Jim Cavalieri, who were fortunate enough to forge lifelong relationships with Fran Sweeney, had the ultimate reward of being able to call him "friend."

Francis Xavier Sweeney, who served as the first athletic director in Waterford High School history, died on Friday. He was 86.

"He was my main guy in high school and has been a friend forever," said Sousa, a 1974 Waterford graduate who returned to become the school's athletic director seven years ago. "He was a remarkable man. He's touched so many lives it is incredible.

"It always amazed me how he knew everyone in town ... he just had this way about him. Not only did he know you, he knew something about you."

Cavalieri, who graduated a year earlier than Sousa and is now the principal at Lyme Consolidated School, said simply, "Fran was Waterford."

"It was really a great time to grow up when you have a guy like that in your life," Cavalieri said. "He was a terrific person from a high school kid's perspective. He was always so approachable ... I think every kid that went through those halls had a similar perspective to who he was.

"He had this magnetism that was pretty powerful. He was always an advocate for the athletes and the kids that needed athletics, and really did his best to promote that."

Sousa agreed, but said even non-athletes enjoyed being in Sweeney's company.

"(Fran) told me this story once about a day he had a flat tire," Sousa said. "Some kid pulls over ... who didn't play sports ... changes Fran's tire and says, 'Don't worry Mr. Sweeney. I've got you covered.'

"To Fran, it didn't matter if you were an athlete or not. It was truly about people. He always took a general interest in people."

Sousa and Cavalieri were fortunate to be part of a wonderful era of Waterford athletics when they played for three legendary coaches - Sweeney (basketball), Dick Cipriani (football) and Gerry Rousseau (baseball).

"The school athletic programs were on such solid ground," Cavalieri said. "It seemed like such a family. We did everything together back then. The kids supported each other, went to each other's games, and that was due to Fran's personality. He was the ringleader of that group."

Cavalieri and Sousa actually became business partners with Cipriani from 1980-86, opening Nautilus Fitness Centers in Niantic, Groton and Norwich.

And guess who was a regular member?

Sweeney, who retired from Waterford in 1978 to pursue another dream - he graduated from the University of Bridgeport School of Nursing in 1985, thus earning the nickname of "Doc" - could always be found working out or offering medical advice.

"He was a real advocate for fitness," Cavalieri said. "He worked out all the time ... he was skiing and swimming into his 80s."

Cavalieri said his only regret is that the Waterford Board of Education has no policy in place to honor some of the school's major contributors. Cavalieri, and others, have tried three different times over a 30-year period to have the field house named in Sweeney's honor.

"Back in the late '70s we went to the board to try to get the facilities named after Mr. Sweeney, Gerry Rousseau and Cip (Cipriani)." Cavalieri said. "It got shot down pretty convincingly. We went back in the mid '90s and it was shot down again. We went back within the last four or five years and they said 'thanks for the nomination and you thoughts,' but we don't do that.

"There isn't a town that I know of that hasn't honored a founding father in that way. One of the reasons we started it earlier was because we wanted to honor them while they were still alive. Now all three are dead, nothing has been done and I know a lot of people, myself included, who struggle with that. Fran Sweeney should have something named after him. No one has done more for Waterford High School than him."

c.banning@theday.com

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