Noble Pinto, a fifth grader at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School, pointed his pinky finger in the air.
He smiled as he made a pinky promise.
“I promise to get out and play,” Pinto said.
Pinto, along with dozens of other McNeal Elementary students, made the promise to Katy McKibben, the sister of McNeal’s physical education teacher Justin Darr, 39, who died in January.
McNeal Elementary School hosted a dedication March 30 for Justin Darr, who taught at the school for 15 years. In honor of the physical education teacher’s saying, “Get out and play,” students and staff members played basketball, kickball, disc golf and other sports as well as raced on scooters, played on the playground and more.
“My hope was that this would give the staff, students and their families, and his family, closure and just good memories,” said Sheila Waid, the principal at McNeal Elementary. “Coach Darr would want us all to go forward. He would want us to get out and play.”
The school also unveiled two memorials in memory of Justin Darr. In tribute to his love for disc golf, the school put frisbees and a Sarasota Sky Pilots shirt along with his photo on the wall next to the doors leading to the physical education area outdoors. A family also donated disc golf baskets. The other memorial is a plaque above an outside water fountain because Justin Darr always reminded his students to stay hydrated.
The dedication was a time for students, families, teachers, staff and Justin Darr’s family to share their memories with him and how he impacted the school community.
“If you ask students and colleagues about Coach Darr, you will hear about his passion for sports, physical activity and fun, but more importantly, for forming relationships with children,” Waid said. “He had an ability to make genuine connections with his students, to see their perspective and to be sensitive to the emotional needs of all students. The students loved going to P.E. because Coach Darr was able to inspire a love of sports in his students as well as a welcoming environment in which every student felt respected and valued while they were in his class.”
Noble Pinto spent every morning of the first quarter of the school year standing by a gate outside McNeal Elementary chatting with Darr.
Pinto said he had become known to Darr as the student with cool shoes, which made him feel special. He loved showing off his neon rainbow colored shoes.
“It made me feel like a sneakerhead,” Pinto said.
Every morning, Pinto talked to Darr about the different golf courses he should play or the different homes in the area that were available for sale.
“That was probably the only quarter that I was on time every day for safety patrol so I could talk to him,” Pinto said. “I looked forward to it every day.”
Waid and Assistant Principal Ashley Terry said Justin Darr was a natural teacher. Terry said when observing teachers, she always tries to give at least one piece of feedback to help the teacher improve, but for Justin Darr, she had trouble finding anything to offer.
“He was such a good teacher,” Terry said. “He was a great role model in front of the students. He always referred to me as Mrs. Terry. Let’s say we were switching classes, some people say hi or wave. He always stopped. He made eye contact, he turned his body toward you and said, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Terry, how are you?’ He was just respectful in that manner and students saw that.”
Janine Taylor, Justin Darr’s mother, said he was a coach his whole life. As a child, he would teach other children in the neighborhood how to ride a bike or play sports.
“He was always out organizing games,” Taylor said. “He was a natural from the beginning.”
Mike Darr, Justin Darr’s father, said when his son played sports it was 50% skill and 50% passion for the sport. As much as he loved playing, he never wanted to watch sports, Mike Darr said.
“He thought, ‘Why watch it when I can go outside and play it,’” Mike Darr said.
Waid and Terry said what made him stand out as a teacher was his ability to always develop a relationship with a student, even those who had behavioral issues or had trouble connecting with others.
“He would try to make a relationship with every student,” Terry said. “He asked the students about their personal sports or personal goals. He knew who played football, who played baseball and who played gymnastics.”
Teachers and staff members said Justin Darr always had a smile on his face, never complained and tried to help others as much as he could.
Greg Lloyd, a physical education teacher who worked with Justin Darr for 10 years at McNeal, said he initially thought he would be teaching Justin Darr as a new teacher, but over the years, it was Justin Darr teaching him.
“My first impression of him was how easily he just jumped in and started doing things,” Lloyd said. “It seemed like he’d been teaching forever. … We were like brothers, and it was a great relationship. I could always count on him and he could count on me. Old teachers like me, we kind of get stuck in our ways. He would bring in fresh ideas, try different things and they almost always worked out.”
McKibben, Taylor and Mike Darr always looked forward to hearing the stories Justin Darr had to share about working with his students.
Mike Darr remembered a story his son told him about a student finding out the first name of a teacher at McNeal Elementary. Mike Darr said Justin Darr reenacted the student’s excitement about finding out this “secret” information. The student asked Justin Darr what his first name was, which Justin Darr, who was known as Coach Darr on campus, said his first name was Coach. The student asked him for his real first name.
“He told the student, ‘My first name is Coach; my parents knew I was going to grow up to be a coach so they named me Coach,’” Mike Darr said with a laugh. “The student ran to the playground to tell everybody he knew his first name. I don’t think any of the students ever knew his first name until later.”
The only time Justin Darr’s family was able to get a glimpse into his work life was through the stories he shared with them.
“We never had the opportunity to see him in action,” Mike Darr said. “He would tell us all the time how much he loved his job and that he had the best job.”
The dedication at McNeal Elementary was an opportunity to see what his life was like at the school. They were able to see students running around and playing different sports. They could hear the students talking and laughing with each other. They spoke to students, parents and teachers about Justin Darr and the impact he had on the school community.
McKibben carried around her brother’s baseball hat. When a student spoke to her, she asked the student to put the hat on and “charge it” with love for Justin Darr so she could always have it close to her.
“To have an impact on so many young kids who are trying to figure this world out is a privilege,” McKibben said. “He always knew that, but now that I see how many kids he impacted, I see it really is a privilege.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.