Tom Dunegan

FEATURE ARTICLE from The Morning Journal, 10-31-04, By TARA YORK ELLIS, Morning Journal Writer

``AVON -- The kids at Holy Trinity School showed how much they appreciate Avon Police Officer Tom Dunegan with what turned out to be an emotional and very touching ceremony last week.

Known to the student body as Officer Dunegan, he teaches D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs to kindergartners all the way up to eighth graders at Holy Trinity and public schools in Avon.

As a way to say thanks, the Holy Trinity student council organized the event. At the end of the school day, classes filed in and took their seats in the wooden pews as stained glass saints looked on.

Sister Mary Sean Groh, the principal, stood before her school on the altar, playing a guitar and asking them to pray for souls in purgatory while everyone waited for Officer Dunegan. Though Dunegan knew an event was planned he had no idea he was the guest of honor.

Dressed in his familiar black police uniform, Dunegan, 55, stepped onto the altar from the vestibule. The children in the audience cheered and rose to their feet.

''We've heard many stories about the soldiers who have gone to battle for us,'' Groh began. ''Some of them had to die to get the Purple Heart. Very often, we forget to thank those who protect us right here in our house.''

Groh called Dunegan, a veteran of the Vietnam War, ''a good Catholic, a good husband, a good dad and a super officer.''

Dunegan received a gift basket from the school and listened as students sang his praise from the pulpit.

''He is our teacher, our mentor and our friend,'' said Sarah Jane Webster, 13. ''We would like to thank him for all he has done for all of us here at Holy Trinity.'' ...

The student council officers who organized the event, Albert Tomechko, 14, Webster, 13, Connor Drellishak, 12, and Kathleen Marinsic, 11, all said that Dunegan is an adult who watches out for them.

''I remember him always having lunch with us and playing with us on the playground,'' Marinsic said.

After the ceremony, Dunegan reflected on his 12 years as a D.A.R.E. officer and 28 years as an Avon police officer. He told a story he often tells his classes as a cautionary tale.

''One incident, many years ago, a young man was using an inhalant. He only used it when his dad was out of town. We got a call that he punched his mother and sister in the face,'' Dunegan said. ''He locked himself in his bedroom, and with the mother's permission, we kicked in the door.''

When Dunegan saw the drug-addled teen, he noticed his hands under a pillow, he said. Eventually, the cops were able to handcuff the boy, he said. What chilled him to the bone was the giant knife they found under the pillow.

Holy Trinity teacher Cynthia Webster said she is glad to have Dunegan around to answer her first-grade class's tough questions.

''The kids wanted to ask him, 'What are drugs?''' Webster said. ''I was so glad he was coming in. He told them, ÔThese are not the kind of drugs you buy at Drug Mart, or your doctor gives you.' He knows how to deal with that. He's really good.''

It's important to talk to kids about the dangers of the world at an early age, something Dunegan accomplishes, Webster said.

''Usually, the first thing he tells the kids about is strangers,'' she said. ''The definition of a stranger, and who to tell if someone touches you the wrong way.''

''He doesn't sugar-coat anything,'' said fifth-grade teacher Lesley Hochevar.

A few years ago, Dunegan said, one of his former students avoided an abduction attempt in Elyria. Later, the girl said she learned what to do from Dunegan.

''Of all the things I've done -- I've saved a couple of people with CPR and the Heimlich -- when that girl got away from that guy trying to take her, just knowing one kid isn't with that type of person because of me,'' Dunegan said.

Dunegan is a father himself. He and his wife of 32 years, Annette, have seven children. The support of family helps Dunegan do his job, and other volunteer work he's involved with, like Project Open Heart, a program where local police and fire agencies take kids in foster child program on outings concluding with a cookout at Mill Hollow Reservation each year.

The ceremony was a way for the Holy Trinity School community to thank Dunegan for all the little things he does at the school, Webster said.

''He works hard here,'' she said. ''He's just a real nice guy. He's one of those guys who, everyone in the community just knows him.''''

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