Daniel Gaynor Obituary

Daniel J. Gaynor
Daniel J. Gaynor

September 18, 1946 - January 4, 2021
Born in New London, CT
Resided in East Lyme, Connecticut


When Dan Gaynor was a toddler, he slipped the fence of his Italian grandmother’s yard and began wandering the streets of New London. The local police found him and returned Dan to Archer Court and the care of Nana Dellaporta and his parents. That independent streak lived with him all of his 74 years, until a short bout with cancer took him home to God in the early hours of January 4th. At the end, he was blessed to spend peaceful time with family, close friends, and his favorite movie - The Quiet Man.
Dan was sewn into the fabric of New London, where he was born to a family that combined the best of its Irish and Italian heritage. He inherited a work ethic that led him to hold a teacher’s and a laborer’s union card simultaneously, and then later to work both as a High School history teacher by day and the Adult Education Administrator in the evenings (always after a nap and a tall glass of milk in between). He inherited a drive to succeed that led him to star in basketball and track while attending New London High School, and later compelled him to become the first college graduate in his family, ultimately ending with a Master’s Degree from Connecticut College. He inherited compassion that drove him to travel to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, and later saw him donate his own shirt and tie to a needy, but similarly-sized, Adult Education graduate so he could deliver a speech. Lastly, he inherited a deep stubbornness the led him to refuse to give up on countless young people, and also obliged him to battle for decades with the garden-invading woodchucks of Crystal Avenue.
Daniel James Gaynor was his given name, but he went by several nicknames, each representing different aspects of his life.
To his siblings, he was Danny, the basketball adversary of older brother Gerard (Rod) and protector of little sister Marianna. Rod and Dan spent countless hours playing pick-up on the Nameaug School courts. Danny and Marianna shared a birthday, September 18, and thus were forced to split one birthday cake each year. Despite this injustice, Danny was Marianna's protector - from hunting down a neighborhood tyke who stole her candy to, much later, providing life advice, a shoulder to lean on, and a source of support for her children and grandchildren. Danny embraced large family gatherings at 310 Montauk, picnics with their parents on the land in Waterford, and he enjoyed his siblings’ successes - including swearing in Rod as Mayor of New London. Danny was very close to his uncle, Stephen Dellaporta, a bachelor and WWII veteran, who lived nearby and taught him how to make proper spaghetti and meatballs.
To Harriet Tatman, he became her life, and she his, upon a chance meeting in the stairwell of B.P. Learned House in 1968. By 1970 they were engaged, via a $1 ring purchased at Woolworth’s. Their mothers conspired to advance the wedding quickly, however, after a car accident on the snowy highway between Hap’s Boston apartment and New London barely left them unscathed. Hap and Dan worked as house fellows in the first co-ed dorms at Conn. College, while Dan finished his degree. After a few years, they put down roots in the red house at 278 Crystal Avenue, just up the hill from Mr. G’s, where they lived for 41 years.
To Megan and Cate, he was just Dad. He supported them fully in all their endeavors, though it is mostly the quiet, every day moments that stick in their memories. Playing “quarters” while waiting for pizza at Sally’s in New Haven; Megan sitting in his chair and watching M*A*S*H while scratching “the itchy spot” on his back; using Cate’s bed to let his bread rise during his Julia Child phase; teaching Megan to drive a stick shift up Crystal Avenue; and crabbing at night with lifelong friend Victor Stepski. He loved getting grinders (never “hoagies”) from Terrace Bakery, always with extra lettuce and crunchy bread. Later, each of their successes in school and in their professions brought him immense pride. In them, he realized a father-of-daughters’ true wish - to see his and Hap’s work manifest in smart, strong, successful women with loving families of their own.
To countless young people in New London, he was Mr. Gaynor, the respected and imposing teacher. While he physically dwarfed most students (though it is still unconfirmed if he dangled a junior high school miscreant by his collar from a coat hook), that respect emanated in larger part from his compassion and commitment to finding the best in everyone. His specialty was transforming kids by believing in them more than they started out believing in themselves. He pushed many to apply for scholarships when they weren’t thinking about college. He taught classes of unruly teenagers a meditation technique, in the dark, that some are still teaching to this day to their own students. He even convinced NLHS to award a graduation-required last credit to a student for a cooking “class” he designed - namely cooking pizzas at home for one of Cate’s birthday parties. At New London Adult Education, Mr. Gaynor won numerous grants securing new funds to initiate multiple programs that thrive to this day: English-language learning lab, Family Literacy, Adult Virtual High School, and support for Sound Community Services. In the final chapter of his career, he served as an Expulsion Hearing Officer, where he learned the law and meted out final chances.
To his cadre of friends, he was the Big Bopper. He spent many Sunday afternoons with fellow teachers Fran DePeter, Rex Records, and Greg Lutzen, cheering on the New York Giants and consuming copious amounts of food (the Bopper specialized in sausage-and-beans). He spent many other memorable evenings feasting with Rene Racette, Jack Lesniowski, John Matthews, and Tony Sabilia, where the Giants of the Meadowlands were replaced by the giants of history, politics and French wine. To each, Dan was a “foxhole guy” who truly lived an old-fashioned creed about loyalty and willingness to do anything for a friend in need.
To many others, particularly Megan and Cate’s generation, he was Big Dan, more of a quirky teddy bear than a grizzly. He loaned out one of his many nightshirts to Clare DePeter for use as a Peter Pan costume. He reminded everyone for years that “wet leaves are like ice” - which was not a metaphor…he really didn’t want people to slip. Well into his 60s, he hiked Gorham Mountain in Acadia National Park with Cate and Ben, though not before backing his car into a ditch at Seal Cove - where “Poppy’s Rock” remains to this day to mark the incident. Ben and Brian always laughed at Big Dan’s coterie of locals (“I know a guy!”) who would fix his cars, sell him odd stuff, or perform small jobs around the house.
Starting in 2009, he became Poppy to Emery, Nora, Lydia, and Sam. He was the tender grandfather in the giant chair, and he felt blessed to see them grow into strong children. Nora and Sam took special pride in making sure Poppy had his favorite bread from Seven Stars Bakery on each visit to Rhode Island, and he thoroughly enjoyed watching them play outside - in particular on recently gifted scooters. Poppy always took Emery and Lydia for ice cream when they visited New London, and he saved all of the grandkids’ homemade birthday cards. In his last few days, he was able to watch a recording of Emery and Lydia in their annual performance of the Nutcracker ballet.
Though Dan was “constantly working,” he did embark on a few trips that resonated with him throughout his life. The first was in 1968 to the west coast of Ireland, where he experienced the rudimentary rural life of his ancestors while hitchhiking and staying with a farmer named Michael Reynolds in the small County Clare town of Ennistimon. The second was in the 1990s when he was chosen to participate in a Fulbright cultural exchange program in Prague. There, Dan lived with a host family and learned first-hand how the Czech society was then emerging from life under Communism. A third journey was one of a different sort, but no less impactful: to AA. Over his last twenty years, he was proud of his sobriety and embraced the program’s meetings, comradeships, and spirituality.
The Quiet Man may have starred John Wayne, but New London’s Quiet Man was Dan Gaynor - the man who, without a whit of fanfare or self-promotion, devoted his life’s work to seeing the best in people, giving them second chances when they needed them, and pushing everyone toward bigger dreams.
Dan is survived by his wife Happy Gaynor; daughter Megan Gaynor Charette, son-in-law Brian Charette, and grandchildren Nora and Sam Charette of Barrington, RI; daughter Catherine Gaynor, son-in-law Benjamin Grant, and grandchildren Emery and Lydia Gaynor Grant of Portland, ME; brother Gerard Gaynor Jr., and sister-in-law, Carole Gaynor, of Waterford; sister Marianna McGuirk of Waterford; several nieces and nephews; and his “plus one daughter” Kellie Rubin of Bedford, NH. He was predeceased by his parents Gerard Joseph Gaynor, Sr. and Gemma Louise Gaynor, and his brother-in-law Brendan McGuirk.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to a scholarship that Dan’s friends and family have created to be awarded to an Adult Education student. Donations can be made by mailing checks to New London Adult Education, Three Shaw’s Cove, Suite 100, New London, CT, 06320. Please note Dan Gaynor in the memo line. The family will hold a private burial, and will announce a time and place for celebration of life event once it is safe to do so.
To Danny, Big Dan, Mr. Gaynor, the Big Bopper, Poppy: Your loving family sends you off into the palm of God’s hand. May the rain fall softly on your fields, until we meet again.




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