Good evening to Nicholas Taska’s daughter Francine Burden, the rest of the Taska family in attendance today, members of the Pawling Fire Department, Pawling community members, Trinity-Pawling family, classmates of 1971, and friends.
The evolution of Nicholas Taska for a 15-year-old boy.
February 5, 1969.
My name is Gregg Sanik and, on that day, I was that 15-year-old, first-year student at Trinity-Pawling School — unsure of why I was away from home for the first time in my life, and far less mature than my age might lead one to believe. Our coach of the third hockey team paused practice to inform us that there were reports of smoke in Cluett Hall and that the fire department was on the scene, but nobody would be allowed into the building, so we continued with our practice. Walking up the driveway afterward, it became abundantly clear that it was much more than “reports of smoke” — there were flames storming from numerous windows of the south wing of Cluett (including my room on the second floor), huge flumes of thick white smoke billowed from the roof, and a wall of hundreds of flashing red lights covered the foreground, adding an eerie hue to the orange flames against the black outline of the building. This was serious.
After being escorted to relative safety, I was later informed that I had lost everything I own. My father arrived after making the three-hour drive from Oneonta, New York to pick me up and take me home. Looking up from Route 22 as we drove away, it was still a very active fire scene — I was naively fixated upon the fact that all that I owned were the clothes that I was wearing. It was not until three days later, when I returned to campus, that I began to understand that “lost things can be replaced,” when I learned that a firefighter had heroically perished trying to quell the blaze and save the rest of Cluett Hall. After all, there was no such thing as “instant information,” CNN, or cell phones in 1969. I can clearly remember losing my breath, stunned when hearing the news that a man had died.
My classmates of Cluett South were all relocated to various locations. Some tripled up with other students throughout campus, one fellow second-floor resident and lifelong friend Richard Henderson, who has served as our Class Agent with distinction for 35 years and has been the driving force for this dedication today, moved into the Headmaster’s home. I was truly fortunate to be the recipient of the generosity of Mrs. Virginia Scott on Circle Drive in town, the mother of my good friend at T-P, Billy Scott, who I would grow to consider my brother. Much like losing all of our possessions, the inconvenience of relocation paled in comparison to the fact that a man had lost his life.
Trying to come to grips with a death for the first time, I inquired as to his name hoping to make some sense of it all — Nicholas Taska. It seemed that the best that I could do was to compartmentalize it in some way and recognize the fact that tragedy is a risk that heroes face whether they are firefighters, police officers, or members of the armed forces. The ability to compartmentalize ultimately helped me later in life, during each of my son’s five deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat helicopter pilot. The growth of the immature 15-year-old boy had begun as the passing of a human being, Mr. Taska, far outweighed the loss of all of my belongings —“things” can be replaced, a human life cannot be — especially to the family of Nicholas Taska.
Thus began the incremental evolution of Nicholas Taska in my life, and today is, quite simply, just the latest of a long chain of events — full circle, if you will — to the location of where it all began. When my father passed, I found myself grieving through the lens of the Taska family, affording me yet another layer of understanding as to the magnitude of the loss of Mr. Taska, through the eyes of one who looked up to a great man.
From then on, with classmates at reunions and casual get-togethers off campus, whenever the topic of “the fire” came up, it was no longer “a firefighter” or “a fireman” — it was “Mr. Taska.”
Since then, I have lost others; given many eulogies at funerals; and counseled numerous people through grieving during their time of loss. Almost always, I utilized skills and the understanding, which I gleaned through the passing of Nicholas Taska, and my subsequent growth and wisdom, which evolved.
Throughout my professional career as a teacher, athletic coach, guidance counselor, principal, and school superintendent, I found myself both reflecting upon and sharing the lessons that I both learned and evolved to understand about the events of February 5, 1969. Most often, taking time to share Mr. Taska’s commitment, loyalty, sense of “giving to others,” and the ultimate sacrifice which he gave — all teachable moments — sometimes sharing the lesson I learned about “things can be replaced,” other times challenging young adults to emulate the values of “the man.”
In closing, I stand here before you today, along with close to twenty fellow members of the Class of 1971, as the latest version of that immature 15-year-old boy, having learned, grown, and most of all “passed forward” for 50 years, the lessons learned from the loss of Nicholas Taska on February 5, 1969. By enlightening the next generation, I am confident that they will, in turn, pass those lessons on to generations to come, thereby insuring that the loss, and life, of Mr. Taska will have purpose forever and ever.
Thank you, and from the Class of 1971 of Trinity-Pawling School, thank you:
Daughter Francine Burden
Grandchildren and their spouses Nicole Burden White, Ricardo White, Heather Burden Covell, and Michael Covell
Great grandchildren Zachary Boone, Isabella Covell, Francesca Covell, Michael Covell Jr., and Gianna Covell
Thank you all — for Nicholas Taska.
by Gregg Sanik ’71