A Tribute to Steve Sawyer
Dave Wood

A Tribute to Steve Sawyer

After close to 40 (!) years of dedicated service to Sidwell Friends, Steve Sawyer is finally retiring. It will not be the same at the school without his dedication, many talents, constant calm and patience, and Quaker understanding.

Since July, 1981, Steve worked in the Buildings and Grounds Department and was the department manager when he retired.  Those of us who panic every time something becomes amiss with our appliances, homes, or cars are often envious of the B&G crew who seem to know how to handle every exigency, from carpentry to building maintenance, from landscaping to car repair.  How did they learn to do so many things?  And how often have we seen them out there in the heat taking care of the grounds?  How frequently have we seen them setting up and taking down chairs or clearing snow and ice in the early morning hours so the rest of us could have a Quaker meeting or get to work (in the pre-pandemic days when we could actually go to work)?  And always with a smile, a greeting, and some cheerful repartee.  Meeting those guys on campus was always a bright moment in the day.  Of course, regardless of the task, Steve was always in the thick of it, setting up chairs and shoveling snow with the rest of the crew.

I can’t speak to how Steve managed the department day-to-day as I was busy chasing kids around (or principals were chasing me), but I can testify to his unstinting support of the school’s educational mission.  He supported us so many times with the middle school science program: arranging for us to use a dark room in the basement so we could carry out light demonstrations; working it out so we could conduct a real-life archaeological excavation of Zartman Garden with Washington D.C.’s City Archaeologist; discussing clean cookstove designs with students and suggesting how they could improve their models; even figuring out how to move a herbarium that weighed a ton from the Smithsonian into the science room.  Never any justified grumbling that we have interrupted his day, and always glad to help with his unique expertise.

And, who can forget his performance as Dan Quayle during the Middle School Faculty Follies?  A soul-stirring event if there ever was one.  For a self-professed introvert like Steve, that was nothing short of heroic.  This is where the phrase “beyond the call of duty” comes in.

Steve is also deeply committed to sound environmental stewardship, and his contributions to the school’s efforts in this area have been vital.  In particular, in countless committee meetings and one-on-one encounters, Steve stood out as the voice of reason.  Let’s just say that it is rumored some teachers, at times, have ideas that might be termed, while well-intentioned, perhaps a touch impractical.  Things could be dire if some of those inspirations saw the light of day.  Fortunately for the school, Steve always was able to forestall disaster with his truly unique knowledge of both environmental principles and practical reality.  Under his careful eye, the school was able to move ahead with care of its piece of the planet.

And then there is the green middle school.  From the beginning, Steve understood why it was essential that the school go the extra mile and demonstrate to the Sidwell community and beyond the importance of sustainable living.  He joined Mike Saxenian, Bruce Stewart, Lane Heard, Jon McBride and others to be forceful and eloquent advocates for its construction.  Since Steve had unparalleled knowledge of the realities of construction and maintenance of this building, his testimony was an essential and unique contribution to the discussion of what to include in the building and what to leave out.  Much of the building would be new and untried, and Steve knew there would be unforeseen problems, a large percentage of which would fall on his and the crew’s shoulders to somehow fix and adjust.  But that didn’t stop him for pushing for the building’s construction, even though it would certainly end up complicating his life.  Once the building was finally built, no one through the years gained as much knowledge of the building as Steve did, and even in recent years, you could often find him leading graduate students and architects through the building.

Steve brought a unique combination of technical knowhow, Quaker understanding (he is a graduate of Westtown), unequaled knowledge of Sidwell’s history, and eagerness to support and learn about new ways of doing things on campus.  Steve’s commitment to sound and ethical environmental practices was ever-present, along with his gentle good humor and endless patience dealing with occasionally flaky teachers (no one I know).  Plus, he had that cool motorcycle. 

He left a legacy that will be seen on the campus for decades to come and that I would bet will be unlikely to be replicated.  And, speaking of legacies, his and Monica’s daughter, Luisa, Sidwell class of 2008, is currently a science teacher at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware.  Now that’s what I call a legacy!