remembering a very special person…the kind you don’t find anymore


1 Response to “remembering a very special person…the kind you don’t find anymore”

  1. February 2, 2010 at 4:18 PM

    Feb. 1–Everyone’s life has a story. In “Lives,” we tell some of the stories about North Shore people who have died recently. “Lives” runs Mondays in The Salem News.

    PEABODY — It’s not easy to manage an icon. Just ask Dick Walker.

    He was a callow 22-year-old straight out of college when he was hired as Peabody’s first parks and recreation director in 1969. The first employee he was introduced to was Lou Surman.

    Walker was a bit intimidated.

    “He was a legend in Peabody, as I soon found out,” Walker said. “They didn’t call it ‘street cred’ then, but that’s what it was. When he walked onto a playground, you knew he was something special.”

    He wondered how he could possibly supervise someone of that stature, who was also twice his age. Surman put him at ease immediately, Walker said, telling him he was there to assist in any way he could. And he did, for more than 30 years.

    “He was helpful, friendly and supportive,” Walker said. “He helped me through a lot of very hard times.”

    Walker’s not alone. Leave out the odd elected official and you might be hard-pressed to find anyone in nearly a century who had more influence in the city of Peabody than Louis J. Surman, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Tuesday at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Hospital in Bedford. He was 85.

    This is the kind of regard people in town had for Surman, even before he became teacher, coach, fan and friend to hundreds of Peabody kids: He and his future wife, then Phyllis Kohut, had taken a shine to each other after Surman got back from a stint in the Navy during the war.

    Phyllis used to drive her father’s car over to watch Surman’s summer-league baseball games, then take the two of them for an ice cream or soda. This was a big no-no.

    “The one thing my father told me was never, never, ever have a man in the car,” Phyllis said.

    Ah, but when Mr. Kohut found out the guy in the passenger seat was the former three-sport Peabody High Class of ’41 athlete and later Georgetown University football star Lou Surman, well, that was a different story.

    “I could have given him the car,” Phyllis said, laughing.

    Back in those days the Red Sox held open tryouts for local athletes and Surman was good enough to give it a go. Then came a life-altering moment when a good family friend asked Surman to think about going to college instead, if he could get him a full scholarship.

    His decision was Red Sox Nation’s loss and Peabody’s gain.

    He got his first job in the school system when a substitute math teacher was needed. Surman was an English teacher.

    “As my sister said,” Phyllis said, “she knew more about math than he did.” After a two-month tour as a substitute, he got a job teaching English at the Farnsworth School, then Samuel Brown, where he eventually became the longtime principal.

    While he was at Georgetown, he’d sent home to his mother nearly all the money he got under the G.I. Bill.

    Victoria Surman raised four kids on the paycheck she earned working in a leather factory after the death of Surman’s father, John. She knew how to stretch a dollar.

    She saved every bit of Surman’s money and, when Lou and Phyllis got married on Oct. 31, 1953, her wedding gift was $5,000 for a down payment on a house. That would be about $40,000 today.

    And Phyllis’s parents gave them land on Winnegance Avenue in South Peabody to build the house where Surman would live all but the last few years of his life.

    To the chagrin of untold numbers of Peabody kids — including his own — Surman was famous for his devotion to the diagramming of sentences, a foreign skill these days to anyone under the age of 50 or so.

    “At pretty much every meal, the chalk board would come out for English lessons,” daughter MaryAnn Wanelik said.

    If it had ended there, if his sole contribution had been as a gifted and dedicated educator for 42 years, it would have been legacy enough. But the day school let out every year, Surman hit the playgrounds, eventually supervising all 18 parks and other play areas in the city.

    His devotion wasn’t limited to youthful athletes. He’d load up his car with arts and crafts materials every morning and spread them out around town in the days before parks had things like program directors.

    “I don’t think he ever got paid more than $75 a week,” Walker said.

    “He would have done that job for free,” Surman’s son Greg said.

    Surman would no doubt be horrified by some youth sports activities today, when every week seems to bring news of parents duking it out on the sidelines or hurling obscenities at opposing teams or the officials.

    No one who ever knew the man they called “The Pope” during his coaching days can remember Surman ever uttering so much as a mild cuss.

    A constant fan, Surman was at a junior-varsity game a few years ago when he heard a coach using inappropriate language with a player.

    He marched over — during the game — and took the coach aside for a word or two.

    You have to believe the guy got the message.

    Surman’s family is dealing with his passing the way many do whose loved ones were truly taken from them long before their bodies gave out.

    It’s a sadness born first of small moments that alone don’t provoke much more than whispered concerns, but by accumulation become deafening.

    Phyllis can’t talk about it without breaking down, that day a few years ago when the family knew Surman could no longer live in his home, where he couldn’t even find his own bed.

    It was the day a friend told her, “You lost him a long time before that.”

    It’s too bad it was his memory that betrayed him, for it was one of those threads that holds the fabric of a community together. Walker said Surman always knew every kid on the Peabody playgrounds.

    “Not just their first names, but where they went to school and who their parents were and where they went to school.”

    A lot of those kids, now adults, showed up for the wake “He was my father,” “He was my dad,” they said.

    “He had an uncanny sense that every child was special,” MaryAnn said.

    Staff writer Steve Landwehr can be reached at 978-338-2660 or by e-mail at slandwehr@salemnews.com

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