MUHS mourning loss of educators

MIDDLEBURY — It was indeed a tough, emotional day at Middlebury Union High School on Monday, as teachers, students and administrators grieved for two longtime members of their community who died over the weekend.
Longtime physics and math teacher and former football coach Carl Ciemniewski, 55, died of an apparent heart attack on Saturday while attending a boys’ varsity lacrosse home game. Then on Sunday came news that veteran para-educator Terry Gibbs had succumbed to illness at the age of 57.
High school officials and students spent this week honoring and recalling the two educators. Many wrote their recollections on murals paying homage to Ciemniewski and Gibbs. The school also offered counseling and reflection time for anyone at school overwhelmed by the tragic losses. William Lawson, principal of MUHS, said the school convened its “crisis team” to put in place the various supports for people grieving.
Ciemniewski’s passing has had a profound impact on colleagues and students, most notably on this year’s senior class.
Lawson and others recalled Ciemniewski as a kind, low-key person who shunned the limelight and instead showed his affection and appreciation for people in quiet ways. Lawson called “Mr. C” or “Z” — nicknames that the school community gave him because his last name was so tough to pronounce — an “excellent teacher” who forged positive relationships with the many students he taught and coached through the years.
While he had stopped coaching more than a decade ago, Ciemniewski was omnipresent in the stands supporting his beloved Tigers — right up until the day he died.
“He died supporting his students,” Lawson said.
Cindy Atkins is an MUHS chemistry teacher who shared an office with Ciemniewski for 25 years. They attended MUHS together as students. He graduated in 1977, the year before Atkins. Both returned to their alma mater during the mid-1980s to teach. Ciemniewski had been a faculty member since 1984, and Atkins joined him in 1987.
Needless to say, the two teachers became good friends as well as colleagues throughout the years. She recalled Ciemniewski as being a top-notch educator and someone who loved to give to others without a desire for recognition. When Atkins coached the MUHS girls’ varsity basketball team to the Vermont Division I title in 2004, Ciemniewski wanted to make sure she knew how proud he was of her. So he left the Barre Auditorium after the final whistle and orchestrated a festive decoration of Atkins’ office space.
“My room was plastered around all four walls with all sorts of positive support,” she said. “That was great. As a friend, you could count on him to give you sincere input and to be there to support you.”
The two would also compare notes about teaching — how to do it effectively and how to measure student performance, among other things.
“As a colleague and a friend, he was rock-solid, someone you always hope to have in your life,” she said. “He will be missed.”
Ciemniewski loved sports, and mentored hundreds of MUHS athletes as a football and baseball coach at MUHS. He actually began his football coaching relationship with MUHS at the junior-varsity level during the late 1970s — when he was still a student at the University of Vermont. Ciemniewski had played for the Tigers as a student, and wanted to continue his involvement with the program.
“He’s one of the reasons the football program is a strong as it is,” said former MUHS Varsity football Coach Peter Brakeley, who is now a leader of the JV program.
Ciemniewski and Brakeley were a coaching team for around 20 years, first at the JV level. When Brakeley took the helm of the varsity squad in 1993, Ciemniewski joined his staff as offensive coordinator.
“We were a great complementary team,” Brakeley recalled, saying each brought his own strengths to the job.
The Tiger football team was almost always in the title hunt during Ciemniewski’s association with the varsity program. The Tigers won Division I state titles in 1993 and 1995. Coach Z, as he was sometimes called, stepped down from the coaching staff around a dozen years ago amid some health concerns, but continued to assist as a scout, consultant and of course avid supporter of the program.
Brakeley, also a longtime Middlebury Union Middle School social studies teacher, noted that many current JV and varsity coaches at MUHS either played under Ciemniewski or coached with him.
Brakeley conservatively estimated Ciemniewski helped coach around 2,000 young men within the Addison Central Supervisory Union during his tenure.
“It’s going to be a sad group out there,” he said.
“‘Z’ never married or had any kids, but he has about 2,000 children,” Brakeley said of his former players.
But Ciemniewski was more than about football, Brakeley stressed. He had a well-rounded base of knowledge.
“He was a very bright, broad-based man,” Brakeley said. “He could talk to you about (professional wrestling) or NASCAR. He liked opera and literature. And he was trained as an engineer.”
Ciemniewski was close friends with the Brakeley family, and he was regarded by the Brakeley children as a “thoughtful uncle.”
“He always gave of himself,” Brakeley said of his former colleague. “He went out of his way to be nice to people, and was very thoughtful. He always saw the big picture.”
Ciemniewski’s brother, Eric, echoed the complimentary comments about “Mr. C’s” good character and inquisitiveness. When he wasn’t teaching or immersed in sports, Eric said, his brother “read a ton” and liked to serve as “grill master” at family and friends’ backyard cook-outs.
“He had a circuit,” Eric Ciemniewski said with a smile, as he recalled his brother’s culinary expeditions. “He’d buy all the meat — three proteins — and the sides were on you.”
Carl Ciemniewski also loved theme parks, particularly Disney. He’d hoped to visit them again with the youngest generation of his family.
“He was always impressed with how well they were run and how clean they were,” Eric said. “He was interested in the math and science of what makes (the theme parks) fun.”
Ciemniewski’s affection for the students was certainly reciprocated.
Julia Rosenberg, an MUHS junior, was among dozens of students to write tributes on a mural to Mr. C. She fittingly wrote her tribute at a time on Tuesday when Mr. C. would have been teaching her in physics/calculus class. The course material is tough, Rosenberg said, but noted Mr. C was able to make it understandable.
“I miss him a lot,” she said as she put down the magic marker with which she wrote her tribute outside the MUHS cafeteria.
Other tributes, some signed and some anonymous, spoke glowingly of Ciemniewski.
“I never had a class with you, but from the many times I talked to you, I came to know you as one of the kindest, most charismatic individuals I have ever met,” read one of the tributes. “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You won’t be forgotten. Rest in peace.”
Jerry Niemo, a sophomore, had never taken a class with Ciemniewski, but remembered him as a former neighbor.
“We had a really loud family and he never complained,” Niemo said. “He was really nice.”
Liam Smith, another sophomore, wrote the following tribute:
“You were a great coach and a great man; thank you.”
Terry Gibbs was also fondly recalled by senior members of the student body. Gibbs, a U.S. Army veteran, joined the school in 1992 as a para-educator. She often supervised students who were placed in “time out” for disciplinary reasons.
“She had an interesting personality,” Lawson said. “She had a heart of gold. She was vested in helping (students) make healthy choices.”
“Although we only communicated after school while you were on bus duty, you still helped a lot of people and were there to give the discipline needed,” read one of the tributes to Gibbs. “That may be looked at as a bad thing to some, but someone must do it, right? Thank you for all you have given to this school. You will be remembered and missed.”
Gibbs left MUHS on medical leave in December of 2012. Her employment there ended in June of 2013. Per her request, a brief “toast” in her honor will take place on Wednesday, May 14, at 4:30 p.m. at the Evergreen Cemetery on Route 74 in Cornwall.
A service for Carl Ciemniewski will be held on Thursday, May 15, at Middlebury American Legion Post 27 on Boardman Street. A family ceremony will go from 5 to 6 p.m., followed by a public celebration of his life from 6 to 8 p.m.
The MUHS Music Department will present a Spring Concert on Tuesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. in the school auditorium that will be dedicated to Ciemniewski. The concert is free and open to all.
Obituaries for Carl Ciemniewski and Terry Gibbs appear on Page 6A of the print edition and in the online edition here.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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